Tax relief boosts creative industry golden age in the UK

Film and High-End TV production are seeing record investment due to the British incentive scheme

He aimed to replicate the Pacman success, but the gloomy environment surrounding aspiring video game designer Stefan Butler in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, serves as an omen of the future of his venture amid the eighties’ video game golden age. Viewers of the interactive Netflix episode shouldn’t be too surprised when, after a few seconds of accepting the sponsorship of a videogame company, they watch critics condemn the lack of resources allocated to an -otherwise- good idea.

Stefan Butler receives an offer to develop the Bandersnatch videogame at Tuckersoft company, in the successful Netflix production Black Mirror.

A more colourful picture could be painted if Butler had the alternative to apply to the creative industry tax relief. A scheme that has benefited Black Mirror itself among other successful productions such as The crown or Academy Awards nominees The Favourite and The Queen.

As expectations rise over who will win this year’s Oscars, the film industry is not only bringing prestige to the UK but also a major input to the economy, says a report by the British Film Institute.

Production spend on film, high-end television, animation and video games has reached £3.1bn in 2018 so far. The number is expected to rise as production companies continue to report their investment for the past year through the following months. However, a similar amount of spending in 2016 created total revenue of roughly £8bn, a fourth of which was collected by the British government through taxes.

Source: BFI

The tax relief is a major incentive for investors that can “very smoothly” retrieve money through the scheme, said Tina McFarling, media advisor at the BFI, “but it is just one of a number of factors that have enabled the UK to become competitive in the global stage”.

The film incentive has “matured” since it was implemented in 2007, said Mrs. MaFarling, promoting the surge of an industry that offers “world-class technicians, world-class facilities and the capacity to process a large volume of productions”.

The flourishing environment continues to attract investment from industry giants such as Netflix, that recently announced its intentions to set a permanent production base in the UK and has invested in over 40 British productions in the past year.

“There is a high demand for studio space,” said Lucy Jenkins, the spokeswoman at the international studio provider Pinewood group. The UK is “currently missing out on a significant number of international films because of a shortage of sound stages,” she said.

The group is waiting for The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government’s approval to expand its facilities at Shepperton studios in southwest London, a space that has already hosted successful productions such as the James Bond and Star Wars franchises.

But it is not only the large studios that are enjoying the feast. Smaller facilities in the UK are also being served a slice of the cake as busy studios have forced commercial producers and smaller productions to look for alternative spaces where to shoot.

“Some studios in central London are just warehouses with few professional elements to them and they are having full-time bookings”, says Daniel Cañas, studio manager at Centrestage Studios in Islington. The venue used to be located at Euston but the company was forced to move in 2007 as real estate was more profitable than film production.

Centrestage studios are based in Islington and are booked on regular basis to shoot
commercials and other screen productions

Nowadays, the warehouse has two medium-size soundproof studios that are regularly booked to shoot commercials and video clips. They have also hosted productions that sprout from the film and broadcasting industries such as promotional interviews with the cast of Frozen 2 or David Attenborough’s display of his adventures in the wild.

The creative sector tax relief aims to encourage multimillion investment alone. Only those feature films intended for theatrical release and HETV productions that spend over £1m per episode can apply to benefit from the scheme.

Standing out in such a competitive industry can sometimes prove difficult, especially because high demand inflates production costs and it is hard to attract investment as an independent producer.

“There is not much money on the independent sector”, said producer Rachelle Constant of Constant productions, one of the recipients of the annual Vision Awards granted by the BFI as a way to complement the tax relief scheme by encouraging emergent talents. She said the prize served her as “a bit of a salary”. Without that money, she would have struggled to make ends meet like many other new professionals in the screen sector.

The usual way to build a portfolio is through short films that can be costly and have little or no revenue. In such circumstances, it is difficult to find professionals to work in exchange for low profit.

“Talents don’t want to do things for free anymore,” said Ms Constant, “having all these big productions around, their agents tell them to go with the producers with money. To come up with a good product, talent is the key.”

Constant produced the award-winning short film “Two dosas”, which has been her launchpad to obtain a BFI Vision Award in 2016

The pressure to do “good work” rises among emergent professionals as they only have a few shots to prove their talent before taking the big leap from short to feature films or perish in the attempt.

The golden age of the British film industry may not be casting an equal light for everyone after all. Emergent talents in the current environment experience a similar pressure to the one that dims the Bandersnatch designer’s universe.

Stefan Butler is, at least, lucky: he did have the opportunity to meet the owner of the videogame company and managed to impress him enough to have him invest in his idea. With thousands of other professionals fighting to stand out in a highly competitive environment, it will take aspiring film-makers more than just ringing the bell to make the industry open its golden doors.

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