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The changing state of UK film and TV studios

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05 July 2016

The lack of studio space for film and TV has been a big issue for producers for a few years now.

The on-going boom in TV drama, aided by the introduction of the high-end drama tax break, has left many shows scouring far and wide for suitable spaces to film.

A continual flow of Hollywood films into the UK – like Star Wars: Episode VIII and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – has also driven up demand for studio space.

At the same time, the London area in particular has seen a steady decline in the availability of studio space. The BBC’s Television Centre and Riverside Studios are both closed for refurbishment. Others have closed altogether, most notably Teddington Studios, which was sold to a property developer. Fountain Studios, home to The X Factor, is set to close at the end of December – after a £16m sale to a property developer.

This squeeze in supply has only heightened demand for what space is left. “Stage space is at a premium,” confirms Twickenham Studios chief operating officer Maria Walker.

The Space Project concurs: “Drama and TV production in the UK is thriving…We are already taking bookings for 2018,” says general manager Colin Johnson. Pinewood describes the past year as “buoyant”. Sales director Mark Hackett says the UK is now a world leader in providing facilities and crews to the production of film, TV and games “and this shows in our high levels of occupancy.”

For many studios, this heightened level of demand has led to its own set of challenges – how to fit the work in. “While the lack of studio space across the UK, and particularly in London, is a challenge for the industry, it is an opportunity for us,” says 3 Mills Studios head of studios Tom Avison. Dock 10’s head of commercial Patrick Steel adds: “The hardest game of Tetris you’ve ever played doesn’t compare to the challenges in getting the best fit of large productions in the autumn.”

Bristol’s The Bottle Yard, for example, has hosted four big shows – at the same time: Galavant, Poldark, The Living and the Dead and Trollied.

The London Studios, says ITV Studios md of resources, Paul Bennett, remains extremely busy. “Some of our bookings extend way beyond the next 12 months.” Bennett is quick to add, however: “We might be able to do you a deal in August if you get in quick.”

However, business remains challenging for many studios – particularly for fully equipped TV studios. Budgets are under pressure for many shiny floor shows, with productions shopping round in an effort to spend less on studio hire. There has also been huge change at senior commissioner level at the BBC and ITV, meaning that decision making is delayed – leading to uncertainty or late cancellations for studios.

Many studios point to the challenge of booking in the right kind of shows to make good business sense. BBC Studioworks head of studios and post production services John O’Callaghan says: “For us, the key is having a balance of long-term shows which can be in the studios for 20 weeks producing four shows a day and also weekly, fast turnaround topical shows.”

The London Studios’ Paul Bennett adds that studios have to work faster to turn projects around: “Broadcasters’ budgets are ever more challenging and so production companies are always looking for best value – our ability to turn shows around extremely quickly maximises their ‘on-camera’ time...We can even use a single studio for three different live productions, with three different sets, in a single day.”

Many more studios are set to open in the next year or two, alleviating the problems facing producers – but adding to the competition for existing providers. This month, Pinewood opens five new large sound stages and additional facilities as part of an expansion plan approved back in 2014.

Three studios are set to reopen at the BBC former Television Centre HQ in spring 2017, with bookings being taken later this year.

The Space Project is also set to double in size, having won a £14m investment package.

Warner Bros-owned Leavesden Studios, meanwhile, plans to extend facilities at the 200 acre site by a quarter.

North London’s Elstree Studio complex is also expanding, building more stages and technical facilities.

Belfast’s Titantic Quarter, home to Game of Thrones, is investing £14m to develop two more film studios. A new £10m studio complex to rival Titanic is also in the works at North Foreshore Film Studios, an ex- landfill site at Belfast Harbour.

Screen Yorkshire is converting a former RAF base into a studio facility, and has already enticed ITV drama Victoria to shoot there.

Pending council approval, Liverpool could also be opening its first film studio. The £25m scheme is on the 4.5 acre site of a former Littlewoods warehouse.

Scotland, long without a significant studio space, could finally be about to have its own studios, with plans afoot to develop Wardpark Studios in Cumbernauld and Pentland Studios outside Edinburgh.

This rush to build studios has sparked concern about whether the expansion is sustainable over the long term. Says Pinewood’s Mark Hackett: “We all know how fast things can change so no-one is resting on their laurels…we are always striving to improve and develop new ways to support the creative industries achieve their ambitions.”

Click here for Televisual's Studios Report 2016, including an A-Z of leading UK studios



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