UK’s award-winning Visual Effects industry to be impacted by visa proposals

Features  |  28 January 2020

UK Screen Alliance CEO Neil Hatton weighs in on the Migration Advisory Committee‘s newly released report on a points-based immigration system and salary thresholds, and how the booming VFX industry will be affected.

The UK’s award-winning Visual Effects (VFX) industry could be hard hit by the proposed new post-Brexit immigration system. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has today published its report on minimum visa salary thresholds and a points-based visa system. Whilst some of the MAC’s recommendations will help to mitigate the impact of imposing visas on EU skilled workers, 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.

The film awards season is reaching its climax with the BAFTAs this weekend and the Oscars on the following Sunday. UK-based companies will be well represented in the nominations for Best Visual Effects in both ceremonies. Four out of five of the nominated films 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.

The BFI estimates that VFX generates over £1billion of value for the UK economy with a large proportion coming from inward investment from Hollywood studios. However, one in three VFX artists in the UK are EU citizens and a further 13% are from non-EEA countries. The UK Screen Alliance, the trade body for VFX companies, estimates that there are around 500 new hires from the EU each year. Many key VFX roles have been on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) for several years and in October 2019, the SOL was expanded to include virtually all VFX roles.

Visual Effects artists are highly skilled. Over 82% have degrees and 29% have post graduate qualifications. As is common in the Creative Industries, the starting wage for well qualified emerging talent is below what one could expect in another sector such as financial services.

The current £30,000 minimum salary threshold for Tier 2 visas therefore almost totally inhibits recruitment of junior VFX workers and animators from non-EEA counties. MAC has confirmed its recommendation that once free movement ends, minimum salary restrictions would also apply to EU skilled workers, but it has also proposed a reduction in the threshold to £25,600. This will reduce the potential impact but the imposition of visa costs and restrictions onto EU skilled workers is still unwelcome, where hitherto the free movement of people has meant there have been no costs or barriers.

Neil Hatton, CEO of UK Screen Alliance estimates the impact:

“For VFX, this will reduce profitability and talent availability in a highly competitive global market. We estimate that the financial impact of visa applications and salary increases to meet the threshold for European VFX workers will be around £8million per year across our sector.”

Neil Hatton, CEO of UK Screen Alliance

Hatton also points to the Conservative manifesto proposal to increase the Immigration Health Surcharge from £400 to £625 per person per year as “unjust”, citing the fact that “VFX workers pay tax and national insurance contribution just like UK workers, so why should they have to pay for the NHS twice.” UK Screen Alliance is also calling for the Immigration Skills Charge to be scrapped as it adds significant cost to the visa application without any evidence of government using the money raised to target skills gaps.

The recommendations of the MAC report will be considered by government, who may have different ideas, particularly in relation to the Point-Based System on which MAC are decidedly lukewarm but which was a manifesto commitment by the Conservatives. UK Screen Alliance will continue to make representations on behalf of its members and calls on the government to engage in extensive and meaningful consultation with employers before publishing a new Immigration Bill.

The UK’s VFX industry is committed to increasing the supply of home-grown talent and has a range of programmes to provide opportunity for emerging UK talent. Many of these programmes pre-date the Brexit referendum such as the Next Gen Skills Academy network of Further Education colleges now delivering around 250 people a year trained in animation , games and VFX, who can move on to university or VFX apprenticeships. Industry inclusion initiative Access:VFX offer careers advice to give opportunity to minority groups to start on a pathway to jobs in the VFX and animation sectors.

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