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Why London is facing a TV studio crisis

The former managing director of Wimbledon Studios takes a frank look at the studios business in London against a background of rising land values

It was with great sadness that I departed Wimbledon Studios at the start of this week. Much has been written about my departure over the past week, but I have nothing further to add to my statement of 28 July. I wish all parties the very best for the future.

What I will say though, is the hardest part was accepting that such a great opportunity has gone to waste. Our expansion and development plans were ambitious, but entirely realistic given our growing client base and the fact that increased demand for TV studios in London was set to play to our advantage. This was the catalyst for growth, alongside investment.

The fact is that producers today face a sudden and all time low of available TV studios in the capital. Just where will production companies go now?

Besides Wimbledon, Teddington is scheduled to close this year and no-one seems to know how long exactly Riverside can continue. So the realistic options open to the production community are studio destinations that are outside of the M25.

That is unless you count the London Studios - but you should count yourself lucky if you can book there, given most of ITV’s subsidiaries expect first dibs in what is rightly regarded as still being THE leading studio facility in central London.

My personal hunch is that the tower the ITV Studios sits within could make for a great residential property on the river in the not too distant future. The location of any studio complex is key, because without swift access to or from central London, the chances of success reduce dramatically. That's why so many producers liked Wimbledon, with such easy rail access to and from Leicester Square tube or Waterloo station.

The reason? Talent. Ask yourself the question; will Rihanna accept being in the sticks when she usually records a show on the South Bank and be back at her hotel within half an hour? Ditto any star who is accustomed to the convenience and trappings of the West End.

The repercussions ccould be a disaster for producers, who have been used to having a number of choices. They might find that the “worm turns” financially too. For too long, producers have struggled having their budgets cut by broadcasters and the facilities sector is usually the first to feel that pinch, but as demand grows, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the studio prices increase in line.

This is a natural consequence of supply and demand. It’s worrying for producers and is a situation that the remaining studios must handle delicately. They must be careful not to be seen to take advantage of their client’s predicament. Ultimately, the relationship between customer and its supplier is based on trust.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are still outstanding studio facilities not too far from London, such as Pinewood TV and Elstree Studios. Both have their TV divisions that can be relied on. My attitude is that as one door closes, others open.

My belief is the studio landscape in London will undergo a significant shift over the next five years, with investors finally understanding there is a winning formula that can work for everyone.

That's my focus now. Finding a new venture that will show how it can and should be done both now and into the future.

Piers Read was managing director of Wimbledon Studios from 2010-2014

Posted 31 July 2014 by Piers Read

Studios and tax breaks: master stroke or false dawn?

The introduction of the tax break was an absolute master stroke by the government – a platform that offered large scale studios in the UK an opportunity for growth. Sadly, the reality for most is this brilliant piece of legislation is now widely considered as one of the industry’s greatest false dawns.

There are several reasons why this may be, but I have long held a belief you cannot rely on ‘it’ coming to you. You must go to....’it’. In other words, studios have to be more proactive. I get a sense that some studios mistakenly expected the floodgates to simply open - just because the UK tax break was introduced.

If being more proactive means travelling, flying to LA to see the British Film Commission’s office in Hollywood or arranging to directly meet top producers out there then that’s what should be done. The mistake made by many was to rely on the goodwill and limited resources at the likes of Film London, the Production Guild and the British Film Commission.

All of these organisations can only  do so much. 

I know of several production companies, co-producing long running dramas, who have decided to “build” their own studios in warehouses to save paying standard tariffs associated with hiring world class film studios.

If a production sees an obvious way to save hundreds of thousands of pounds it’s their prerogative to go down this road. However, this is not in the spirit of the tax break, which is designed to benefit the wider industry.

Luckily Wimbledon TV Studios has never relied on attracting large scale feature films or dramas from abroad. Instead, we are focused on becoming London’s leading TV studio and have been for some time. That’s our model. 

Having said that, if our studio was more heavily reliant on the advantages of the tax break, I would be proactive, doing some of the things I have mentioned above.

As the old saying goes, you can only ever rely on yourself, so to deflect blame, or cast jealous eyes at other studios, such as Pinewood, is merely fudging the issue.

I have been perplexed by what appears to be an overriding bitterness towards Pinewood Studios from some, and a general feeling that Pinewood has taken the influx of work borne from the tax break.

My honest feeling is if the tax break can’t help Pinewood, then what would be the point of introducing the break in the first place? Pinewood has to benefit, as the leading studio of its kind in the UK, if not the world. That is just a fact of business and the whole point of introducing the tax break.

At Wimbledon TV Studios we are set to enjoy Episodes returning to us for a third successive time.

That is despite the fact that, every year the shows’ writers are seduced at the prospect of filming at Pinewood. I think the creators David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik genuinely enjoy the personalised service we offer, but their minds inevitably wander to the thought of shooting at Pinewood. It’s not hard to see why really.

Brand Pinewood, with its wonderful history, is a powerful sales tool to be reckoned with. That said, there are a number of other large film and TV studios, far more accessible and closer to Central London that should get more recognition internationally. I think some have relied too heavily on the tax break legislation do to all the hard work on that front.

Despite what people say, you can win business from the big boys, if you can get yourself in front of the right people, at the right time.

We’ve proven that over the past three years at Wimbledon TV Studios. Ultimately, producers book studios if they like and trust the people running them. So it all always comes down to building relationships - that’s the key to success. Those now bemoaning the system, have in my opinion, probably just been a little too complacent.

Piers Read is managing director of Wimbledon TV Studios

Posted 28 May 2014 by Piers Read
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