|01 June 2011
The world of TV and film studios has seen a major spate of investments, relaunches and takeovers in recent months. Tim Dams takes a closer look at a sector in flux
TV and film studios are used to a process of never ending change, as sets go up and are torn down by an ongoing procession of productions.
This process of upheaval, however, seems to have spread to the studio sector itself, which is currently experiencing a period of major structural change. Recently there has been an unprecedented wave of investment, new launches, takeovers and planned sell-offs in the sector.
All this activity, meanwhile, is taking place against a background of an improving, but highly competitive film and television climate. Many TV studios say they are incredibly busy, boosted by the ongoing popularity for shiny floor shows such as The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, Got to Dance, Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing on Ice.
Film studios are also buoyant as Hollywood shoots like Wrath of the Titans, Keanu Reeves starrer 47 Ronin and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus continue to flock to the UK, taking advantage of our favourable exchange rate, tax credit, talent and craft skills. The UK’s local film industry is also relatively strong, firmed up by the Oscar success of The King’s Speech.
At the forefront of much of the change in the studio sector is property developer Peel Group, run by John Whittaker, the UK’s 28th richest man according to the Sunday Times Rich List.
Peel Group made its name redeveloping ports, airports and shopping centres in the North West, and has just completed MediaCity in Salford Quays, the brand new home of the BBC and ITV in the region. At the heart of MediaCity is a brand new, state of the art studio complex which boasts one of the largest single TV studios in the country.
“It’s phenomenal. Nothing like it has been built in the last twenty years,” says director of BBC North Peter Salmon. BBC shows such as Mastermind and Question of Sport are now shooting there, and it will be home to a raft of childrens, sports and factual series.
Owned by Peel and managed by SIS, the studios are open to programmes from all broadcasters and indies. “We want to see ITV in here as much as the BBC,” says head of studios Andy Waters, who adds that the studios will compete on quality of infrastructure, people and price. “We can be a lot more competitive than companies in the South.”
The opening of MediaCity means that ITV can now proceed with what’s likely to be a lucrative sale of its Quay Street studios in central Manchester. “We haven’t finalised the moving schedule yet,” says Paul Bennett, managing director of resources for ITV Studios, who says it is business as usual for much of the 700 hours of ITV network programming made in Manchester.
Many of the shows will move over to MediaCity in the next two years.
ITV is also soon to embark on the £20m move of its Coronation Street set to Trafford Wharf, just a few hundred yards from MediaCity, which should be ready in the next 18 months. ITV has also just completed a £5m revamp of its Leeds Studios, home to Emmerdale.
Meanwhile, Peel Group is in the process of taking over the UK’s most iconic studio group, Pinewood Shepperton, in which it is already a 29% shareholder. The takeover underlines how Peel is increasingly becoming a media infrastructure company. Many, however, view the deal primarily as a residential property play, with Peel keen on the opportunity to build new homes on Pinewood’s land, which forms part of the studio’s controversial Project Pinewood expansion plan.
But many in the industry believe Peel will find it tough to gain planning permission in a greenbelt area that is home to plenty of stockbrokers and barristers. “Look at the profile of the people who live there,” says one exec. “I imagine it is going to be the mother of all battles.”
The deal comes at a good time for Pinewood Shepperton. Its most recent results show it’s attracting plenty of films in a competitive international market. TV is also doing well, although group director of corporate affairs Andrew Smith acknowledges that the television market is softer. “Everybody is looking at TV budgets. It is still tough out there,” he says.
Pinewood is not the only big film studio changing hands. Last November, Warner Bros finalised its purchase of Leavesden Studios, the home of The Harry Potter franchise. Warners has pledged to invest £100m in the studios, making Leavesden its base in the UK and the home to a permanent Harry Potter exhibition.
Meanwhile, there’s great uncertainty about the future of the studios at BBC Television Centre. The sale of the iconic 50-year-old building is a key part of the corporation’s overall property strategy, which involves moving thousands of staff to MediaCity and the recently redeveloped Broadcasting House in central London.
The BBC has already announced that it is expecting to exit the site between 2013 and 2015. It’s then possible that it will be redeveloped as a “creative quarter” for independent TV production firms and media companies.
But it’s still unclear what will happen to the 10 studios at TV Centre that are used by the BBC and independent productions, including Zeppotron’s 10 0’Clock Live for Channel 4 and Avalon’s Harry Hill’s TV Burp for ITV.
“The sale of Television Centre does not automatically mean the studios will be closing,” says Mark Thomas, CEO of BBC Studios and Post Production. “This is still being explored. BBC Studios and Post Production has been reinvented over the last three years and is commercially viable and could continue in a new location if Television Centre were sold. Therefore it is business as usual – we are continuing to invest in products and services to support our customers.”
Following the sale of Television Centre, it’s likely that the BBC will maintain studios within central London – either on the current site or in a new location – as it needs a site that is easily accessible to stars and guests for its shows.
Certainly demand for studio space in London is strong. Fountain Studios, home of The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and The Cube says the continuing appetite for ever bigger shiny floor shows has led to good business over the past year.
In fact, Fountain is so busy it is having to turn people away: “We have always been busy with big shows, but the fact that commissioners are looking for big shows at big studios plays to our USP. It is who books with us first. We are having to turn people away unfortunately,” says Fountain md Mariana Spater.
Smaller studios, such as The Hospital in Covent Garden, have also had a positive start to the year. Offering a central location and the facilities of the Hospital Club, it’s benefited from an increasing diversity of work including a string of TV pilots as well as a Fremantle produced show for Facebook called Screenpop’s Scoreboard and an online series for Monocle.com.
“It’s been a good start to the year, but it’s been tough – budgets are squeezed and we’re doing more work,” notes sales manager Anne Marie Phelan.
ITV’s flagship The London Studios is also “busy as hell” says ITV Studios’ Bennett. By way of example, he says that 14 different shows went out from the studios on one day in April, including Daybreak, Lorraine, This Morning, Loose Women, Have I Got News for You?, QI and The Graham Norton Show. Such is the turnaround, some of TLS’s studios are home to two or three shows a day.
How come things are so busy? Bennett says it’s because there’s increasing demand for ‘proper’ TV studios. “There are lots of four wallers with standing sets and that’s ok. But, if you really want to get production levels cranked up and you want efficiencies, you can’t beat a proper TV studio.”
Yet there still seems to be strong demand for four wallers such as the Pie Factory, which is on a site right next to MediaCity, 3 Mills Studios (home to The Million Pound Drop) and Wimbledon Studios, former home of The Bill.
Wimbledon Studios has just had a £5m refurbishment, which includes 50 purpose-built sets such as a train, a prison, police station, hospital and court rooms. “We’ve been absolutely thrilled with the level of demand out there,” says its managing director Piers Read. “I sense that last year the industry stabilised and there’s massive confidence flowing back into the production sector.”