Goodbye to all that

As an American living in England for over 50 years, being neither a Brit nor a European, I’ve kept my views about the EU and the Brexit debate to myself… until now.

Despite the last-minute ‘agreement’, I still find it incredibly sad to watch the British government and Brexit supporters turning their backs on the structures, networks and opportunities that have been and are available thanks to many pan-European, EU-supported projects. This is because I spent more than six years at the heart of one such project.

I came to the UK from California with a degree in film history and having worked in an independent television production company in Los Angeles. It was a surprise to me to find that in the 1970s, in the UK and on the continent, there was no such thing as an ‘independent’ TV producer. You either worked in-house for the national broadcasters or… you didn’t work in TV. The coming of Channel Four in the early 1980s was a great occasion as for the first time we could form our own companies, propose ideas and series to a broadcaster, and, with luck, produce our own programmes. Four friends and I formed a company, 51% Productions, and the first episode of our first TV series was shown on 2 November 1982, day one of Channel Four.

I wasn’t closely involved in that company’s output, because in the early 1980s I had followed another pathway by becoming head of a new film and TV trade fair that the British were launching to compete with the existing trade fairs in Cannes. For five years I brought international TV buyers and sellers together each autumn in London, but had to accept defeat in 1986 when my company was bought out and closed down…by a British TV company. That company had previously bought out my Cannes rivals and so needed my showcase to disappear. Knifed in the back… and by a Brit.

On the largest exhibition stand at the Cannes television market, Euro Aim had a dedicated ‘buyers reception’ so that TV buyers could find out about the different production companies attending under the Euro Aim umbrella.

Luckily, a Belgian involved in promoting home-grown productions came to my office before we closed down, and suggested there were new opportunities opening up on the continent. These were being made possible by a new group, which would soon become ‘The Media Programme’. In 1988-89 I started part-time working in Brussels for one of the dozen Media Programme projects that would eventually all be half-funded by the Commission, to the tune – if I remember correctly – of 12m ecus* a year. These projects were all intended to bolster the audio-visual industries in Europe, and ranged from helping filmmakers to get their films distributed theatrically (EFDO) and animators to co-produce (CARTOON), to teaching how to write a screenplay (SCRIPT), or how to produce (EAVE).

My project was called Euro Aim, and its objectives were to educate European film and TV producers about the international marketplace, and introduce them into this market by encouraging them to participate on Euro Aim’s exhibition stands at trade fairs around Europe. By the early 1990s, we were running 10-12 such events each year, sometimes tied to existing trade fairs and sometimes creating our own, and, with two floors of space and as many as 250 producers on our stand, we were the largest exhibitor at the Cannes markets. Irony. We were able not only to assist these producers to sell completed work or pitch new projects to existing distributors and broadcasters, but also to meet up with other European producers, thus forming a number of co-production teams working across Europe.

Richard Attenborough (on left) and the then head of the British Film Institute Wilf Stevenson (centre back) welcome members of the Media Programme at a conference at the National Film Theatre in 1992. The heads of the programme, Holde Lhoest and Henri Roanne are back right, behind Karol Kulik.

I left for pastures new in 1994, returning to film education, this time in Amsterdam, but perhaps you can now understand how crucial a role the EU and the Commission played in my life, and in constructing the media landscape we all now live in. The Media Programme (part of Creative Europe) still exists and will be aiding the European audio-visual industries for many years to come… just without the participation of British filmmakers, writers, producers and directors.

The only equivalent story to make the headlines in recent days has been the impending exclusion of UK students from the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme. But there are MANY other such opportunities that will now be lost to Brits, and I only hope that some of the affected industries can campaign for (and fund) special status inclusion in at least some of those projects and programmes. This may not be possible, but it is worth the effort.

*ECU: The European Currency Unit, precursor of the euro.

Editor: It is difficult not to see Brexit as an act of wilful cultural vandalism. The creative industries make a vital contribution to the UK’s economy, status and ‘soft power’. They are also industries that employ many, many young people. The UK’s decision not to participate in Creative Europe is one more example of doors slammed in the faces of the young.

The UK has received €53.2m of MEDIA funding since Creative Europe began in 2014.

€28.7m in grants has supported 128 UK companies and 53 UK cinemas in the Europa Cinemas network.

€24.5m in investment has supported the distribution of 145 British films in other European countries.

Creative Europe’s MEDIA sub-programme supports film, television, new media and video games, offering funding, training and networking opportunities.

The British Film Institute (BFI) issued this statement back in February 2020:
Following the publication of the Government’s EU negotiation mandate today, Thursday 27 February, it has become clear that the UK will not be seeking to participate in the next Creative Europe MEDIA programme, due to start in January 2021.

Ben Roberts, BFI Chief Executive said, “Whilst this is not the outcome our industry was hoping for, there is a clear economic case for continuing to support UK independent film internationally across the ecosystem. The independent sector does so much to drive the success of our world class film culture – including the producers, sales agents, distributors and exhibitors. It creates valuable exports, ensuring our content reaches new audiences, and is the bedrock for our world-class talent. We need to build on the successes of Creative Europe MEDIA to make sure our industry has the necessary means to build strong international business relationships, that audiences worldwide are able to enjoy the full cultural diversity of UK film, and everyone in the UK has access to the widest range of world cinema. We are working with government to determine the best way to ensure we remain one of the world’s leading screen industries.”

Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK will continue to participate in the current Creative Europe programme until it ends in December 2020. UK projects are able to apply for funding up until this point, with successful applications receiving funding as normal, even where their funded activity is set to take place after December 2020.