Spotlight on Familiarisation Trips

That the UK has become a production destination of choice for international films and high-end television shows is no secret. Nor are its world-class facilities, dedicated infrastructure and broad range of talent that attract an increasing number of global productions. What’s perhaps less well known is the behind-the-scenes work that ensures the UK remains at the forefront of the global production landscape.

The British Film Commission (BFC) plays a central role, and one of its key initiatives is the familiarisation trips (or ‘fam’ trips) it puts together for overseas executives, the first of which was hosted by the first British film commissioner, Sydney Samuelson, in the early 1990s. These orchestrated trips allow senior decision makers from key international film and high-end TV companies (usually from North America but also, in recent years, China) to spend a week immersed in the UK industry. The itinerary allows them to explore facilities and locations throughout the country’s regions; meet crew members, VFX and post-production practitioners and key decision makers; and obtain practical information on a range of relevant subjects including tax relief, funding and legislation.

Nationwide showcase

“We are lucky enough to have a country that can accommodate TV drama and film in each of its nations, and we want to make sure our clients can see it for themselves,” says Samantha Perahia, BFC’s head of production UK. Each trip’s schedule allows for a diverse range of activities designed to highlight the UK’s unique offer, from studio visits, networking events and meetings to photo opportunities on the Game of Thrones set, dinner in a film-friendly Welsh castle and a Thames river cruise past the cinematic London skyline.

The trips do not stop there. “Beyond demonstrating the UK’s production capabilities, the fam aims to celebrate that aspect of the UK’s film and TV support industry that gives us the edge over competitors — customer service,” says Perahia. “This underpins every aspect of the trip including our guests’ international and domestic travel, accommodation, meals, facility and location visits, events and entertainment. Every event incorporates guests from every sector of the UK industry, to maximise networking and business development.”

Each trip is geared towards a specific sector of the industry, including high-end TV, studio features, independent features, post-production and VFX, and there are clear rules as to who is invited to attend. “Executives must represent companies that have a slate of fully financed projects, or access to secure finance, and must have decision-making authority,” explains Perahia. “The BFC has an economic and industrial remit. We are here to maximise and support the production of high-value feature film and TV drama in the UK.”

A lot of time and effort goes into choosing the right guests for the trips. This responsibility falls to BFC staffers on both sides of the Atlantic, with Kattie Kotok, the BFC’s executive vice president — US production, key to identifying suitable executives. Over the last 25 years, a plethora of companies have taken these trips, including Sony, Warner Bros, Fox, Universal, Paramount, Disney plus the mini majors and the leading US TV companies including HBO, Starz, CBS, Sony TV, FX and Gaumont. These have been complemented by a huge number of carefully tailored recces for individual companies; de facto mini fam trips geared towards specific projects or slates. The benefits for all are numerous, not least the opportunity for the international community to meet and network in a focused way.

“We get a chance to be up close and personal,” says Louise Hussey, VFX executive producer at London-based effects house Double Negative (DNeg) who often meets with executives attending the fam trips. “We have the opportunity to share our work, discuss it in detail and answer questions with a very specific and targeted group of people. A lot of our business is based on developing personal relationships and the trips offer networking opportunities as well as the slightly more formal showcase session that allow us to really get to understand the needs of our visitors.”

“There’s no substitute for personally putting eyes on what a facility looks like, what actual locations are going to provide you, meeting with crew members and talking to vendors that you might be engaging with,” agrees Melissa Harper, senior vice president of production at US entertainment company Starz, who toured key UK production hubs as part of the BFC’s inaugural highend TV fam trip in 2013. “[The trip] was a very comprehensive scout of the UK, as far as selling itself as a production destination. It was incredibly worthwhile.”

“There’s nothing like being on the ground, meeting the people, seeing the space and knowing what’s available,” agrees Cristen Strubbe, vice president of physical production at Universal Pictures, who enjoyed a tailor-made individual four day tour of London, the south east of England and Northern Ireland organised and hosted by the BFC. “For example I was able to meet up with the Livett family, who do waterwork on the Thames, which was very helpful because that is very production-specific stuntwork. If it wasn’t for the trip, I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to meet with them unless I had a specific request in mind.”

The fact the BFC’s fam trips are specifically designed as a broad introduction to the opportunities offered throughout the UK, and not just to highlight the more well-known locations, is a key benefit for US executives. “As outsiders to the British film community, we look to the BFC to be the experts to guide us,” says Starz’s Harper. “Obviously we might be familiar with Warner Bros Studios Leavesden and Pinewood, but we might not know about Three Mills or Titanic Studios, or certain hotels that cater very well to overseas talent. That’s the insight the fam trips were able to provide us, that gives you the extra bit of knowledge to say, ‘We can absolutely bring our show there. I’ve seen what they have to offer and it will work for us.’”

Familiarity breeds content

While the UK’s world-leading offer may be widely known, fam-trip alumni agree that firsthand experience of the infrastructure, talent and knowledge fosters a sense of confidence when embarking on such huge transatlantic business.

“There’s nothing like knowing I can pick up the phone and call someone I have met face to face,” says Strubbe. “It makes life a lot more manageable when you’re dealing with these highly complex political and financial schemes. To know a person that you can discuss any issue with directly is incredibly helpful. And everyone was very well versed in the incentives, how they apply to their piece of the business and how that could benefit us. It felt like a very tight-knit community.”

Indeed, the connections forged and knowledge gained on BFC fam trips are evident in an increasing number of incoming productions. At time of publication, Starz had just finished shooting The White Princess in Bristol, for example, while Universal has filmed The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, in various locations around London and south-east England. And DNeg has teamed with US production company Skydance on Netflix scifidrama Altered Carbon, based on Richard Morgan’s novel. “We met Jake Rose, Skydance’s head of production, when he came across for a BFC fam trip,” says DNeg’s Hussey. “As a result, we were asked to pitch for work on the show.”

And therein lies the reason for the continued success of the trips — not only do they showcase effectively the UK’s facilities, locations, incentives and infrastructure, but they bring together international decision-makers with the skilled individuals and organisations that keep the country’s industry so well-oiled.

“Having done a lot of production all over the world, I have to give high marks to the UK’s domestic support network,” says Starz’s Harper. “Not just nationally, but regionally, any production has the right point of contact, the right support and the right people to answer any questions and guide you when you’re seeking to bring an investment into the area. There’s also a world-class pool of talent both in front of and behind the camera, and a surprising breadth of diversity in locations and shooting options for a relatively small geographic area. The UK really has a lot to offer, and the BFC’s fam trips are a great opportunity to see what’s possible. I highly recommend it for any executive who has the opportunity to participate.”

The Personal Touch, words by Nikki Baughan, was originally published in UK in Focus 2017 in association with Screen International.

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