Lessons for the post-EU British film industry from the collapse of the Soviet Union

Almost a week on from Brexit we have begun to see the ramifications of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, both financially and politically. Very little attention has been paid, however, to the effect this vote has had on the cultural industries in Britain.

Of course, any changes in the arts sector will occur gradually – yet it’s important to consider what the British government needs to do to support creativity and growth for the arts in a post-EU Britain. A comparison of the UK’s exit from the EU and the collapse of the Soviet Union is useful in demonstrating the possible impact of Brexit on the UK’s thriving film industry.

Firstly, the suggestion that there may be similarities between the EU and the Soviet Union could be considered controversial: the Soviet Union was created by annexation and colonial expansion; the EU is a partnership of nations based on peaceful and mutual integration.

The benefits of a network

Yet the cultural industries in general, and film in particular, have common elements of production and distribution. First of all, the Soviet states depended to a large extent on supranational funding from Moscow to cover production costs. British filmmakers are heavily reliant on funding from the EU’s Creative Europe/MEDIA program to develop and produce films. In 2014-2015, for example, Creative Europe invested US$31.5 million into the UK’s audiovisual sector.

On the distribution side, the Soviet satellite states created a vast cinema network with broad geographical and cultural reach. Similarly, through the EU’s Europa Cinemas Network, British filmmakers have access to over 900 cinemas across Europe, a hugely important market. In 2015, 41.5% of the export market for British films was the EU, with 6.5% in other non-EU European countries.

Soviet cinema was based on a highly integrated studio system that allowed talent from different countries to come together to work on films. The Soviet film Kidnapping, Caucasian Style (1967), for example, was a Russian-Ukrainian co-production, which used talent from Russia, Romania, Finland, Armenia and Ukraine.

Likewise, the British film that recently won the Palme D’or at Cannes, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016), demonstrates the highly transnational nature of British film production. It is a British, French and Belgian co-production, with a creative team of British and French nationals, which received over US$200,000 for development and distribution from the Creative Europe/MEDIA program.

After the collapse

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the film industries of the satellite states lost the majority of their funding. The newly independent governments privatised the film industries, because it was an expense they simply couldn’t afford to support. This meant that Eastern European filmmakers had very little access to funding.

In turn, production studios shut down and talent moved to Western countries to seek employment. In Latvia, for example, production levels dropped to record lows. Only one feature film was produced in the first year of independence, compared to the ten-plus feature films produced each year under the Soviets.

Filmmakers also lost a far-reaching distribution network, leaving them with access to only national markets. In response, films became more nationalistic in content. National markets were too small to attract investors, and private film productions shrunk or vanished. Soviet filmmakers also lost opportunities to work with creative talent from other countries.

The parallels between the film industries of the Soviet Union and the EU suggest that a similar fate may await the British film industry once Brexit actually comes into play. The British government will need to ensure that the industry is never privatised and increase the industry funding provided through the tax relief and lottery programs, to make up for the funding lost from the EU.

The biggest impact will perhaps be in distribution. Britain is at risk of losing close to 50% of revenue from film exports. Fewer opportunities for British filmmakers in the UK may lead to an exodus of creative professionals from the country. That, in turn, could lead to a decline in not only production numbers, but also production quality. Market restrictions could also lead to the development of more nationalistic content and less investment from other corners of the globe, such as Hollywood.

These scenarios may seem far-fetched, but history has demonstrated otherwise.

The major player in revitalising the post-Soviet film industries was the EU, in the form of the Creative Europe/MEDIA program and the Europa Cinema Network. British filmmakers are at risk of losing access to these support networks and their funding, distribution opportunities and talent.

If the British government is not careful to protect the film industry in Britain, supporting it financially and helping it forge new transnational partnerships, we may see a dramatic decrease in production from the UK, as we did when the post-Soviet film industries lost their supranational support systems.


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