Last night’s Academy Awards brought some good news for the UK film industry, with British actors Sir Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Kaluuya scooping up film’s most prestigious acting awards, Emerald Fennell winning a screenplay award, and plenty of other UK winners across categories including best adapted screenplay, best score and best visual effects. But with the film and screen industry having spent over a year navigating the unprecedented challenges of Covid-19, and as the UK continues to follow its roadmap out of lockdown, 2021’s abnormal Oscars ceremony is as much a moment for reflection than it is for celebration on the state of UK film and the wider creative industry.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, the Creative Industries Federation predicted a “cultural catastrophe,” forecasting that reductions in revenue and job losses could hit creative industries twice as hard as the rest of the UK economy. Filmmaking was one such area affected, with 65% of film and high-end TV production being put on hold in May 2020 due to Covid-related constraints, as well as the cost of production skyrocketing in light of the pandemic.
Nearly one year on, the British Film Institute (BFI) and British Film Commission (BFC) are keen to stress that they are now looking forward to the future “with confidence,” as the final quarter of 2020 saw the second-highest spend for film and high-end TV on record and a return to pre-Covid growth levels. This recovery is no doubt due to the industry acting quickly last summer to implement detailed guidance on film and television production, in order to ensure production is Covid-secure and able to proceed safely.
A near doubling in the use of streaming services may have also abated slightly the industry-wide impact of closures and significant losses across UK cinemas, as production companies try and target increasingly popular methods of home consumption. This is one area in which film and TV has fared better than other creative industries, with live music and performing arts having more trouble adapting to such methods with as much success.
Despite the optimism of industry bodies who are confident that growth will continue, the challenges posed by the pandemic have not simply disappeared as production resumed. Production companies still face obstacles such as soaring insurance costs for shoots, and significant uncertainty around disruption due to cast and crew illnesses. The Government’s Film and TV Production Restart Scheme aims to mitigate against these factors, and with over 350 productions having registered for this it remains to be seen how far such support will continue to extend. Crucially, it is smaller, independent productions that will continue to suffer the impacts arising from the pandemic the most.
It is important not just to focus the lens on challenges relating to the pandemic. Brexit is one other area in which the film industry has to manage significant change, and the BFI and BFC strike a similarly optimistic tune regarding this. They have welcomed the Government’s Global Screen Fund, supporting independent film and screen content from the UK with £7 million, to aid productions with overseas partnerships and distribution to global markets.
The picture, then, according to industry bodies, is somewhat bright for UK film. It certainly looks in a better place than other creative industries. Music festivals, for example, are suffering cancellations from similar insurance cost rises; the nightlife industry is still steeped in uncertainty; and the performing arts industry still awaits the safe return of live venues. As UK film arises from awards season with newfound buoyancy and positivism, this moment should be seen as an opportunity. Separate from the difficulties of the pandemic and Brexit, the entire culture industry faces other significant challenges. The provocatively titled 2020 book Culture is Bad for You, written by researchers from the Universities of Sheffield and Edinburgh, starkly presented through data and case studies an entire culture industry ravaged by unfair working practices, inequalities, and exclusion.
Therefore, UK film and other creative industries should harness any optimism and use this moment coming out of the pandemic to reflect on how best to move forward: embracing new practices and means of consumption; promoting accessibility, inclusion and innovation; and continuing to promote the ingenuity of British art and culture on the world stage.