Spotlight on UK Production
These are boom times for the UK film industry. Inward investment for film production reached an all-time peak of $1.7bn (£1.35bn) in 2016, with high-end TV drama worth a record $592m (£478m). And the schedule is already filling up for 2017 and beyond.
“Without doubt, they [US studios] love the UK,” enthuses Peter Armstrong, a partner at law firm Harbottle & Lewis, who works closely with Hollywood clients. “It’s the language, the crews, the hotels, the restaurants, the ambience that they can’t get enough of.”
The list of recent films to come to the UK certainly supports this. Transformers: The Last Knight has been shooting at various UK locations, from London and Stonehenge to North Yorkshire and Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. The Jurassic World sequel has come to the UK, and the latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, has also filmed here. They are joined by a huge list of productions including Kenneth Branagh’s updated Murder On The Orient Express, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns, Lasse Hallstrom’s The Nutcracker And The Four Realms, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter and Paul King’s Paddington 2.
It helps, of course, that the main US studios regularly base their tentpole pictures at Pinewood, Shepperton, Warner Bros Studios Leavesden and the UK’s other key studios.
“We’ve reached a certain maturity in terms of our offer,” suggests Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission and Film London. “We have this incredible wealth of creative talent, both behind and in front of the camera.”
Success, he points out, begets success. With the examples last year of high-end TV dramas such as The Crown, Outlander, Game Of Thrones and The Night Manager, it is little wonder there is so much demand for shooting in the UK. There are returning series of several of these dramas, including the London-set Stan Lee’s Lucky Man and The Royals, and first-time projects including Len Deighton adaptation SS-GB.
Underpinning the ongoing UK production bonanza is the crucial foundation of the film tax relief, introduced in 2007 and subsequently extended to high-end television, animation and videogames. This entitles production companies to claim back up to 25% of qualifying expenditure for projects that qualify as British. The relief is available on 80% of the budget, and beyond that there are no caps.
The UK is not unique in offering tax credits, but what particularly appeals to international producers is the stability and user-friendly nature of the UK system. “It’s consistent, it’s intelligible and well run, it doesn’t have a sunset date on it,” Wootton notes of the film tax relief system, which has been in place for more than a decade.
Of course, it is not the tax credit alone that draws such large-scale production to the UK. The talent pool, the locations, the filmmaking infrastructure and the much-vaunted skills of British technicians are important factors as well. And as more film and TV is made in the UK, the post-production and VFX houses are growing. “[VFX] has been growing exponentially over the last 20 years,” says Adam Gascoyne, co-founder of Soho-based Union Visual Effects. The company, launched in 2008, has credits ranging from T2 Trainspotting and Everest to Florence Foster Jenkins and The Theory Of Everything.
Gascoyne cites the visual-effects Oscar won by The Mill for its work on Gladiator in 2001 as a crucial moment in the rise of the UK’s VFX houses. This was followed by 10 years of Harry Potter films, which was an enormous fillip to the industry.
“There’s a very good, close-knit community in Soho, very different from anywhere else in the world,” notes Gascoyne. “Everything is very close. You’ve got your grading facilities and editing suites within the same square mile and so it is very easy to get around.”
It helps, too, that there are strong bonds not just between the principals of the various VFX houses but with filmmakers as well. Union, for example, has good creative relationships with directors such as Danny Boyle, Stephen Frears, Roger Michell and James Marsh. “We get involved at script stage and we help them solve some of their conundrums,” Gascoyne says.
All of this contributes to the fact that, year after year, the visual-effects Oscars end up in London. It happened again in 2017, with the award going to Disney’s The Jungle Book, for which much of the work was done at MPC London, using software from Foundry. Indeed, VFX may be a huge industry but there is still a community feel in the sector, with rival houses working together on the bigger projects.
The Brexit effect
In the short term, the UK film industry has actually benefited from the outcome of the Brexit vote, whatever turbulence the referendum has caused elsewhere. In the early spring of 2017, a pound sterling was worth $1.25, compared to the $1.39 it was worth in early 2016. From the vantage point of international producers looking to work in the UK, there are savings to be made.
“Brexit obviously presents challenges for our sector,” says Wootton. “We have particular concerns around access to European VFX and animation talent, for example.” The ultimate aim, Wootton says, is to ensure “that our leading companies continue to have access to leading talent from across Europe so as to remain competitive and cutting-edge. However, we’re engaging at senior levels with the UK government and politicians across the spectrum — and they are listening.”
Matt Hancock, minister of state for digital and culture, acknowledges the importance the UK film and high-end television industries will continue to play. “The UK’s creative industries are one of our biggest success stories, and we want to make sure the UK continues to be a world leader in film as we leave the European Union,” he says. “This government has been clear that we want to continue to attract the brightest and best talent to Britain after we leave the EU, and we are committed to making sure the UK remains an attractive destination for investors from overseas. Our thriving film sector is a great advert for ‘global Britain’ — an outward- looking, globally minded country that is open for business.”
Ask senior industry representatives whether production levels in the UK can keep on rising and many suggest they can. Not only is additional studio space opening up, but there has been an increased focus on training and the government continues to support an industry that generates so many jobs and so much income.
“In terms of what we can control, we’re doing everything we can to make sure we can meet the demand,” says Wootton. “There seems to be an insatiable appetite for content, which doesn’t look like abating anytime soon.”
Alongside the traditional broadcasters and US studios, streaming giants led by Netflix and Amazon are also investing heavily in producing and acquiring UK film and TV drama. Production levels are soaring, and inward investment shows no signs of slowing. “We all believe that more needs to be done to sustain, protect and develop our indigenous industry,” acknowledges Wootton, “but inward investment has kept people employed in the film industry and has developed infrastructure and facilities which were never here in the same volume before.” “As an industry, what we are all attempting to do is trying to avoid over-trading, trying to keep the growth of skills up with the growth of demand,” says John Graydon, a partner at accountancy firm Saffery Champness and a key figure in advising the government on film policy. Indeed, the old adage that whenever anyone in the UK film industry is successful, they jump on a plane and head to Los Angeles no longer rings so true. Now, whether they are writers, directors, producers or heads of department, there is more than enough work to keep them on this side of the Atlantic. And this growth looks set to continue, whatever Brexit may bring.
New studio space
“Speak to Samantha,” is the advice for international filmmakers looking to come to the UK. Samantha Perahia, head of production UK at the British Film Commission, knows exactly what’s available and where. And, with a second office in Los Angeles, the BFC provides a 24-hour service to international clients. The challenge for the UK is to ensure it has the capacity to meet new levels of demand, and studios are ramping up. Pinewood has almost doubled in size while Warner Bros Studios Leavesden (WBSL) has also expanded. There are also many new traditional studios opening up in places from Belfast to Liverpool, as well as plenty of alternative spaces. And a feasibility study is being undertaken to explore the possibility of a new 17-acre studio site in Barking and Dagenham, east London.
WBSL has just launched a new 70,000 sq ft workshop and construction is also underway on a 35,000 sq ft soundstage and 50,000 sq ft workshop that will open in the first quarter of 2018.
“We have a masterplan in place to meet the demand for space, which will ensure we can offer productions the choice and flexibility they require,” says Dan Dark, SVP and managing director, WBSL. “It’s vital we remain agile in order to maintain the UK’s position in this global market.” His remarks are echoed by studio executives across the country.
Elstree Studios’ plans are already in place to build a 21,000 sq ft stage, with 26,000 sq ft of ancillary facilities, at the back of the studios’ site. Elstree is also exploring the potential for developing further stages and facilities within the existing 16-acre site. Roger Morris, managing director of Elstree Studios, says: “The industry needs more production space. Elstree Studios has re-established itself as one of the top UK studios, attracting work from across the film and television industry including many major Hollywood productions. This new development at our site will allow the studios to take advantage of an expanding market.”
Around the country
While big-budget features have traditionally needed the space offered by the big studios in the south east of England, regional facilities are becoming increasingly ambitious in what they offer.
In Northern Ireland, Belfast Harbour Studios is now open, with the site’s first clients soon to be announced. This $25m (£20m) facility offers around 124,000 sq ft of studio space, workshops and offices. This space is in addition to the nearby Titanic Studios, home to eight seasons of HBO’s Game Of Thrones.
In Liverpool, work is well underway on converting the former headquarters of mail order and sports gambling firm Littlewoods into a new studio space, which is already being dubbed ‘the Pinewood of the north’.
“There are two huge Art Deco buildings, 720 ft in length, that have an unbelievable history,” says John Moffat from developer Capital & Centric (C&C), who is overseeing the project. Two new soundstages, each 20,000 sq ft in size, will be built on land in front of these buildings, and there will also be space for offices and workshops. “The idea is to create a world-class cluster of film, TV and media companies,” Moffat adds. C&C, which is working in partnership with Liverpool City Council, is in talks with an experienced studio operator that will take over the running of the facility, and expects to have the site open, and production underway, by the first quarter of 2018.
In Manchester, the Space Project is being given a $17.3m (£14m) expansion. This will add to the five existing stages and will make the site, in the words of Adrian Bleasdale, CEO of operating company Manchester Creative Digital Assets, “the biggest purpose-built complex outside London and the south east”. Alongside the new studio space will be offices and business units. “On site, we have already lined up a number of national and international providers to the film and television industry,” says Bleasdale. The Space Project has focused on the high-end TV drama and commercial market but, as the site expands, the aim is to open up to film.
Bristol’s Bottle Yard Studios is also refining and adapting its offer. In autumn 2016, the studios, which are based on the site of a former wine production plant, received $833,000 (£672,000) in public funding to enhance its infrastructure. The aim now is to use one of the old bottling halls for filmmaking.
“It’s about 30,000 sq ft, and we are just making it into a useful, practical space,” says site manager Fiona Francombe of the improvements, which will enable productions to use the space for filming, storage, construction or whatever else they might need. “The whole idea is that we are as flexible as possible,” says Francombe. “We don’t dictate how productions use the space. If it’s available and it’s of use to them, they can use it however they want.”
In Scotland, Wardpark Studios in Cumbernauld has been granted full planning permission for significant expansion and the preparatory construction work is underway. “All the finances have been agreed with our enterprise partners and the Scottish government for financial support,” explains Brodie Pringle, head of screen commission at Creative Scotland.
Once completed, Wardpark, already home to Sony Television/Starz’s Outlander, will offer six soundstages — two of which are 50 ft high — over 78,000 sq ft, production offices, ancillary spaces and a backlot. Film and TV producers spent a record $65.3m (£52.7m) shooting in Scotland in 2015.
At the time of writing, the Scottish government had just greenlit the development of Pentland Studios, near Edinburgh. This new facility will offer up to six purpose-built stages, varying in size between 15,000 sq ft and 30,000 sq ft.
Meanwhile, improvements continue to be made at the Pelamis building in Leith. This huge premises, former home to Pelamis Wave Power, offers 160,000 sq ft of space and in parts is 100 ft high. “This isn’t your average warehouse. Much of the infrastructure needed by the film and television industry is already there,” says Pringle. “It has accessible steel gantries [and] the roof is load-bearing to the weight of 20 tons, so if you wanted to hang a helicopter there, you could. It has an extraordinary level of power and it’s in its own independent secure site.”
Open for business, words by Geoffrey Macnab, was originally published in UK in Focus 2017 in association with Screen International.