With the UK poised to exit the European Union at the end of this week, there are many details that are still up in the air – among the most pressing for businesses is the question of recruiting EU talent. The UK Screen Alliance is arguing that the award-winning VFX industry could be particularly badly hit, costing the sector an estimated £8million per year.
The issue is that the government’s proposals of a points-based visa system run contrary to the needs and realities of a sector that the British Film Institute estimates generates £1billion of value for the UK economy.
There are three pain points in particular. The first is the current minimum salary threshold is £30,000, which will put the brakes on recruiting junior and entry-level talent, who make up a huge chunk of the talent requirement for the industry. The second is that requirements outlined in the Exceptional Talent UK visa route are both unrealistic and out of sync with how the VFX industry assesses exceptional talent. And the third is that, unlike the rest of the film and TV industry, which works off a largely freelance workforce (for which Tier 5 visas are available), VFX companies have a more long-term approach to talent, taking on more fixed term and full time employees – and they’ve traditionally invested in developing talent too.
“Of course we’re going to want to recruit people with exceptional skills. But they don’t actually fit the exceptional talent route that the government is proposing or the one that exists at the moment,” explains Neil Hatton, CEO of the UK Screen Alliance. “Essentially, to come in via the exceptional talent route, you’ve basically got to have won a VAS award on an Oscar for just about every project you’ve been on in the last six years. It’s just not feasible to do this.”
This week, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has published its report on minimum visa salary thresholds and a points-based visa system. The Screen Association are that although some of the MAC’s recommendations will help to mitigate the impact of imposing visas on EU skilled workers (such as lowering the salary threshold from £30,000 to £25,600), the fact still remains that employers will have to pay many millions extra in visa costs and increased salaries if they want to attract the best talents from the EU and elsewhere.
“A reduction in the threshold, if that goes ahead, will help. But this is against the background which is not ideal; this is damage limitation,” says Neil.
Sceptics might argue that the VFX industry should recruit more UK talent – but Neil argues that this misses the point. The sheer mass of junior- and mid-level talent major movie and TV productions require means that strong UK colleges and universities alone can’t sate the need. What’s more, the industry is investing in broadening access via apprenticeships and the Access VFX schools outreach scheme. These projects, though, are long-term and will take years to take root and bring talent through the pipeline until they are work ready.
What’s more, says Neil, the UK’s creative industries are as strong as they are thanks to the diversity of cultures and nationalities within it, and that is the case for VFX too. “Even if we could get every single person that we wanted from the UK, I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he says. “We’ve got 70 nations working in VFX in the UK and that’s a huge melting point of creative ideas, different life experiences. It all goes into the melting pot. Difference of thought is a fundamental essence of creativity and if we lose that we lose something very fundamental.”
The post-Brexit talent squeeze comes following several years of growth in the UK industry. Four out of five of the Oscar nominated films in the Best Visual Effects category feature involvement of UK-based VFX companies and two, The Lion King and Avengers: Endgame, have significant involvement. This continues the UK’s excellent track record with previous Oscar nominations and wins for VFX on First Man, The Jungle Book, Gravity, Interstellar, Ex Machina and The Golden Compass. Plus, says Neil, the most recent data on the strength of the sector does not take into account the streaming boom and influx of work from the likes of Netflix.
“Could it undo the great work? I’m sure it’s not going to help. We’ve got a strong underlying industry made up of a strong UK-born workforce supplemented by European talent that’s come in. Is this gonna inhibit our growth? Very likely that it will. It’s not good news,” says Neil.
While the UK VFX industry has been extremely prolific, it can’t afford ease up and other hubs around the world are becoming more competitive and appealing to studios. “They’re already being very competitive. In terms of very competitive tax credits for VFX in Canada, Germany, and Australia have upped their game. And in the past month France have announced a 40% tax credit for VFX, so in terms of the global competition they’re not standing still,” says Neil. “We’ve got to be very, very careful that we maintain a good, leading position in the world. I think the government needs to think about this on several fronts beyond the visa issue.”
However, Neil believes that if the British government and political class is more enlightened than ever about the impact of the creative industries on the UK economy. In the run up to the 2019 General Election, every main party mentioned the sector in the manifesto. Unfortunately, the recent election means that many ministers have moved department, setting back lobbying efforts – and there’s also an upcoming restructure of government departments on the cards.
“I do think certainly that, over the previous administration, the case for the creative industries was definitely won,” says Neil, who believes that the formation of bodies like the Creative Industries Federation and Creative Industries Council have brought a disparate group of sectors together to provide one powerful voice, hammering home to government that in total the creative industries are worth £101billion. Moreover, he hopes that the current prime minister’s personal interest in the arts will render him sympathetic to supporting the UK’s VFX powerhouse.
“Boris used to be one of my clients years ago, he used to work at the Spectator. I know he is a very cultured person. I know he appreciates art and culture. Now, I can’t imagine just because he’s prime minister he’s going to forget all that.”