Spotlight on Stage Space
The UK’s film studios have rarely been busier. The combination of world-class technicians and facilities with tax relief for film and high-end TV drama has fired a production boom that shows no sign of abating.
Recent projects made in the UK include Marvel’s Doctor Strange, based at Longcross/Shepperton; Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman, which has been in residence at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden; Star Wars: Episode VIII (Disney/Lucasfilm), back at Pinewood Studios, as well as other high-profile projects such as Justice League: Part One (Warner Bros.), Kingsman 2 (20th Century Fox/Marv Films) and The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Millennium Films).
While established studios such as Pinewood, Shepperton, Elstree and Leavesden remain sought after by local and international productions, one recent trend has been the use of the UK’s plentiful new, alternative, expanded and non-traditional studio spaces.
Adrian Wootton, Chief Executive of the British Film Commission and Film London, points to the “huge demand” for UK creative talent both in front of and behind the camera. This is matched by the demand for British VFX and post-production services, and by the clamour to use UK studio space.
In response to this demand, there has been expansion in studio facilities across the UK, with Pinewood, Shepperton and Leavesden all enhancing facilities or adding studio space. High-end TV dramas, says Wootton, do not “necessarily want space” that is as technically sophisticated as the top studios – their producers need sites they can control and customise. “Two types of development seem to be happening,” adds Wootton. “One is to take an old industrial space, and also people are looking at warehouse space.” This movement, in turn, has guaranteed that filmmaking is taking place across every region of the UK.
As evidenced by these examples, all the UK’s regions offer a diverse and ever-growing range of production facilities, with new and alternative shooting spaces continually being made available. The British Film Commission is always on hand to provide information about the countless filming opportunities available across the UK.
London and South East
In the south east, the competition for studio space remains intense. Big US movies and high-end TV dramas do not just have to rely on traditional sites, however, with other options now including the popular Longcross Film Studios in Surrey, the old Gillette building in Brentford, west London, and West London Film Studios in Hillingdon.
The Gillette building has hosted major productions such as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and 24: Live Another Day, and Locate Productions’ Eddie Standish cites the building’s exclusivity as one of its key attractions. “[The producers] have control,” he says, “as there is no other production in the site at the same time. It is not a studio; it is more of a location that can be used as a film space and a production space.”
While the 10-acre Gillette site may not offer the facilities found at the likes of Pinewood Shepperton, productions can control everything at the site, from the phone lines to the cleaning. “That makes it much more cost effective,” says Standish.
Nearby, West London Film Studios is also attracting more productions. The site has been given a makeover since coming under new management in 2014. “A lot of investment has gone into making what was a fairly unimpressive site into a much more functional studio,” says Charlie Fremantle, General Manager of the fast-growing studios, which is owned by businessman Frank Khalid.
As a result, high-profile films including The Imitation Game, Burnt and Bridget Jones’s Baby have used the site, as have many TV dramas and comedies (in early 2016 it was home to the shoot for ITV drama The Halcyon). And, like the Gillette building, the studio benefits from its location within the M25 motorway and striking distance from central London.
Fiona Francombe, Site Director and a driving force behind The Bottle Yard Studios, worked for many years as a location manager based in Bristol. She recalls a constant struggle to find warehouse space where sets could be built and productions could be based – expensive and frustrating work.
Francombe had been asked to look at The Bottle Yard to see if it could serve as a viable space for shooting BBC show Casualty. During her first visit it was still an operating winery and bottling plant, complete with forklift trucks and HGVs. When she walked into one of the Tank Houses, however, she realised immediately that it could be the perfect place for filmmaking. “These were big buildings with height, no natural light and individual spaces; it was an absolute gift,” Francombe says. Indeed, the seven-acre site ticked every box, offering space for offices, storage and construction as well as for shooting.
Six years on and The Bottle Yard, owned by Bristol City Council, is thriving, hosting prestigious TV dramas such as Sherlock, Wolf Hall, Poldark and Galavant.
“In these cash-straitened times, [The Bottle Yard] is covering its costs. It is cost neutral for the council and the ripple effect is huge,” Francombe notes of the employment and investment the site is driving into Bristol.
There are currently eight stages, including a green-screen studio, and the space is being further refi ned. At present, the emphasis is on TV production but Francombe makes it clear The Bottle Yard would welcome feature films of all sizes.
Sue Woodward, founder of The Space Project and Sharp Project, has helped revitalise the creative industries in Manchester. Sharp Project was set up in 2010 as a centre for the creative and digital sector in the city, housing creative companies, tech start-ups and drama companies in the same building.
Soon, TV dramas including Fresh Meat and Sky 1’s Mount Pleasant were shooting in the city. It became apparent that more facilities were needed as production volume increased. This led to the creation of The Space Project, a “production stage complex for the north of England”, as it bills itself. Fully operational since late 2014, it has hosted productions including Dragon’s Den, Cradle to Grave, No Offence and Houdini & Doyle.
The purpose-built Manchester facility boasts soundproofing and super-fast internet. There has been huge public investment – close to $57m (£40m) – in the scheme as part of the government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative, and Woodward is in the process of securing an additional $23m (£16m) for further site expansion.
Having opened for business in summer 2015, The Yorkshire Studios is already attracting attention. Mammoth Screen, producers of Poldark, has been filming its historical TV series Victoria at the facility.
“What they offer is a scale,” says Richard Knight, Head of Production at Screen Yorkshire. The new studios are based in former RAF hangars in Church Fenton, now owned by Makin Enterprises. Two of the hangars are 34,500 sq ft by 35ft height; one is at 27,000 sq ft by 28ft height.
Producers who come to The Yorkshire Studios will not just benefit from the UK tax credit, they can also apply for support from the Yorkshire Content Fund, which can invest in excess of $1.4m (£1m) in feature film or TV projects.
Mention Northern Ireland and filming space, and the conversation soon turns to Titanic Studios and Game of Thrones.
After sci-fi movie City of Ember became the first big US production to utilise the Paint Hall venue at Titanic Studios, the HBO show moved there in 2009 and has been filming there ever since, returning to shoot a sixth season in 2015.
Alongside the original Paint Hall, Titanic now has two new purpose-built sound stages (Hurst and MacQuitty) with more planned in the future. And the Titanic Quarter – as the area is known – is also booming; alongside the production space, the regenerated area has apartments, hotels, a college campus and the public records office.
Game of Thrones also uses Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge, a repurposed rural facility that is a 30-minute drive south east of Belfast. Indeed, the region has a plethora of production opportunities, with new spaces opening all the time. One such facility is the KBL Mill in Ballyclare, which has three sound stages that recently hosted TV series The Frankenstein Chronicles, starring Sean Bean.
Similarly, the Britvic facility, located a 10-minute drive from central Belfast and home to three stages, workshops and production offices, is also proving popular with incoming productions. Universal Studios used it for Dracula Untold, and Plan B and Paramount’s The Lost City of Z shot there recently.
Planning permission has also been granted for further studio space on the other bank of Belfast Lough, across from Titanic Studios. The venture is being driven by a public-private partnership between Belfast City Council and the Harbour Commission, and will see production facilities and workshops being built at Giant’s Park on the North Foreshore.
Moyra Lock, Head of Marketing at Northern Ireland Screen, emphasises the close-knit nature of Northern Ireland’s film community. “Belfast is small and very accessible,” she notes. “The whole of Northern Ireland is 80 miles north to south, 110 miles east to west.”
Another draw for filmmakers coming to the region is that Northern Ireland Screen has its own production funding that can be utilised together with the UK’s competitive tax credits.
“If we’re good enough for Game of Thrones, which is the biggest television series in the world,” says Lock, “we are good enough for anyone else.”
Work is under way to bring a world-class studio space to Scotland. In March 2016, Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop revealed the country could have a new permanent film and TV studio facility based in Cumbernauld, north east of Glasgow.
Hyslop confirmed that private investor Terry Thomson, Chairman of Wardpark Studios, is expected to submit a planning application to enhance significantly the existing production facilities at Wardpark – the home of hit TV series Outlander – to create a film and TV studio complete with six sound stages totalling 78,000 sq ft, as well as production offices, ancillary spaces and a backlot.
The development is already drawing both international and local interest. Producers shooting in Scotland can utilise both UK tax reliefs and Scottish incentives, including the $2.5m (£1.75m) Production Growth Fund and $2.9m (£2m) Tax Credit Advance Facility.
While a dedicated studio may be on the horizon, Scotland currently has several sites offering roughly 462,000 sq ft of space for film and high-end TV projects. This includes 48,000 sq ft at Wardpark and 70,000 sq ft at Dumbarton Studios’ three stages. Alternative sites include The Pyramids in Bathgate, which will play host to the eagerly anticipated Trainspotting 2. Based in central Scotland, the site’s 50,000 sq ft of production space is within easy access of both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Other facilities include Pelamis, in Leith, Edinburgh, which has 160,000 sq ft, and Borron Street, Glasgow, which has 40,000 sq ft.
“We want to encourage production of the whole nuts and bolts,” says Creative Scotland’s Brodie Pringle, Head of Screen Commission. “We want [producers] to come here and shoot a production in its entirety. We want to move away from this idea that they can come here and shoot what we call a postcard of Scotland; they take plates of our amazing scenery and drop in the occasional CGI monster!”
While it may be a small country, Wales now boasts three functioning film studios. One is Pinewood Wales, based on the site of the former Energy Centre, Wentloog, adjacent to Cardiff Bay, which has entered into a lease for a minimum of five years with the Welsh government, and also manages the government’s television and film investment fund. One early coup was to attract the pilot of US TV series The Bastard Executioner.
“We have 70,000 sq ft of shooting space in Wales,” says Andrew Smith, Director of Strategy and Communications, Pinewood Group, who describes the site as being especially well suited to high-end TV drama.
Equally as successful is Bay Studios, based in the old Ford Factory in Swansea, which came to prominence when Starz TV’s Da Vinci’s Demons started shooting there in 2011. Considered one of the biggest indoor filming spaces in the world, the site has 265,000 sq ft of studio space and another 30,000 sq ft of production offices and facilities.
Along with Da Vinci’s Demons, Bay Studios has also housed upcoming Amazon Prime show The Collection. Edward Thomas, Co-Producer on Da Vinci’s Demons and a key figure behind the site’s expansion, pays tribute to the landlord, Roy Thomas. “When I approached him to turn what was a leaky warehouse with no power and no water into a film studio, he was very supportive,” says Thomas. “He gets it. He sees what a film studio can bring to a region.”
Also supportive are Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council. “They are pulling out all the stops to help us because they can see the benefits to the region,” says Thomas. “When a big production like Da Vinci’s Demons comes in and spends $30m in a season, that has a huge impact on the local community.”
Wales’ third studio space is the revitalised Dragon Studios, long championed by the late Richard Attenborough, which has seen production on Doctor Who, The Bastard Executioner and films such as Mythic International Entertainment’s Ironclad.
Land of Opportunity, words by Geoffrey Macnab, was originally published in UK in Focus 2016 in association with Screen International.