Brexit could hammer British culture: Here's what it could mean for movies, music and visual art

European money for film distribution will disappear and band touring could get a lot harder now, for starters

By Scott Timberg

Published June 27, 2016 6:39PM (EDT)

Amy Winehouse       (AP/Matt Dunham)
Amy Winehouse (AP/Matt Dunham)

Many in the United Kingdom are still scratching their heads over Britain's decision to leave the European Union. Life will change in all kinds of ways there, especially for Europeans working in Britain and Northern Ireland. And many are made uncomfortable by the xenophobia that drove at least part of the vote, which could signal a once-cosmopolitan country turning in on itself. The very tone of life, the self-conception of the country, could change in unpleasant ways.

But some concerns are more tangible: What will happen to British culture, which has been on something of a roll for the last decade or two?

It’s impossible to know any of this for sure, but it’s possible to speculate that it will not, on the whole, be good for British artists or for audiences interested in their work.

Some of the complaining about the EU from the Leave crowd came from the money the UK paid Europe. But the EU funded all kinds of things for Brits. A number of important films, for instance, benefited from EU money.

”Amy,” for instance, the grim and powerful documentary on soul singer Amy Winehouse, received money for distribution from Europe. “The King’s Speech,” the movie in which Colin Firth portrayed King George VI overcoming his stutter, received almost $1 million toward distribution from the EU. “Shaun the Sheep,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, all received help with either distribution or production from the EU.

And it wasn’t just famous movies. All in all, the EU’s MEDIA program shifted about $180 million to British films between 2007 and 2015. By the standards of a Hollywood superhero movie, that’s not much. But since these tend to be smaller, artier films, that’s real money. And the relationships that allow Britain to be a player in European cinema have just gotten a lot complicated, according to Michael Ryan, who heads the Independent Film & Television Alliance. This comes from his statement:

"The decision to exit the European Union is a major blow to the U.K. film and TV industry. This decision has just blown up our foundation — as of today, we no longer know how our relationships with co-producers, financiers and distributors will work, whether new taxes will be dropped on our activities in the rest of Europe or how production financing is going to be raised without any input from European funding agencies. The U.K. creative sector has been a strong and vibrant contributor to the economy — this is likely to be devastating for us."

With the exception of a few chapters like its Angry Young Man and its kitchen-sink realist periods, Britain doesn’t have the kind of deep connection to film culture that some European countries have. Much of its success with movies is more recent. But with rock music, Britain is, next to the United States, far and away the most important nation on earth, and one that’s depended on an international audience since the day of the Beatles. Many of the nation’s musicians are furious, including Damon Albarn, who announced at the Glastonbury Festival that “Democracy has failed us.”

Britain’s bands don’t need subsidies as badly as they need to be able to smoothly tour the continent – which is increasingly important in an era where bands typically make very little from their recordings.

And this is where things could get ugly. The British pound has already plunged in value, meaning that British bands performing outside the country will have to spend more to do everything – whether to fill their tour bus with gas or buy food on the road. But the logistics of touring could be even more vexing.

"I think the nature of touring is going to change massively,” Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches told the BBC News. “The summer we're looking at right now is just hopping from country to country within Europe and in order to do that when we're not part of the European Union, we would presumably need to go to a different embassy for every different country and apply for a visa for us and everybody in our crew."

Her bandmate Martin Doherty added: "We also employ mainland Europeans within our crew, and they will struggle to get work permits and continue under the employ of our band. It's all very complicated."

Arts groups that survive through European festivals and international tours -- theater companies, dance troupes -- will have similar challenges.

The situation in the visual art world is equally uncertain, as the weakened pound and a possible Brexit-fueled recession could dampen a British art market that’s been on fire in recent years. The silver lining: Americans looking to pick up a Francis Bacon may find they need fewer dollars than they used to.

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Brexit Damon Albarn Economics Movies Music Rock Music Visual Artists