|01 February 2017
From Alien to The Mummy and Justice League, many of 2017’s biggest films are being made in the UK. But can this production boom be sustained in the era of Trump and Brexit? And is it crowding out British indie films? Tim Dams reports
For a medium that is over 100 years old, cinema is in surprisingly fine form. Movie-going remains a hugely popular past time, despite growing competition from small screen drama, the proliferation of social media, and threats from online piracy.
2016 was a record year for the box office in North America, with earnings at £9bn ($11.4bn). Box office receipts in the UK stood at £1.2bn, the second highest figure on record. Globally, the 2016 box office is likely to just fall short of 2015’s record-breaking haul of £30.8bn ($38.9bn) amid a slight slowdown in China. But the slowdown needs to be put into perspective, coming as it does after years of explosive growth in the Middle Kingdom; in 2015 as many as 22 cinemas were opening in China every day.
As the box office has boomed, Hollywood studios have alighted on a compelling formula for success: play it safe, play it big and play it global. Eight out of the top ten US films last year were sequels, prequels or adaptations.
Looking ahead, there is optimism for 2017’s slate of movies, with many fitting the familiar formula such as new Star Wars and Transformers sequels, superhero tales Justice League and Wonder Woman, and reboots of Alien, Bladerunner, The Mummy, Mary Poppins and Murder on the Orient Express.
There’s something else familiar about these movies too: they are all made in the UK.
Made in the UK
Over the past ten years, the UK has established itself as the pre-eminent global hub for Hollywood filmmaking. It has been dubbed a ‘golden decade’ for the industry.
The UK’s top four biggest box office films of 2016 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Bridget Jones’s Baby and The Jungle Book – were all made in Britain. Spend on film production in the UK reached £1.6bn in 2016, the highest figure since BFI records began 20 years ago. The bulk of this figure was made up of 48 big budget inward investment films which spent £1.15bn, up 18% year on year.
High profile features such as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, Lasse Halstrom’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and Paddington 2 all started shooting in 2016.
“It’s a remarkable time,” says Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission, the organisation responsible for helping to attract inward investment films to the UK. Wootton says the number of enquiries the agency receives from filmmakers wanting to shoot in the UK, particularly from North America, has been “phenomenal.”
The reason for the high number of US shoots in the UK is well documented: a strong talent base, a generous tax relief, good locations and world class facilities.
This UK offer to US studios has only improved in recent years. The film tax credit was enhanced in 2015, increasing the rate of relief to 25% for all qualifying productions.
“The policy is working well,” says Andrew Smith, director of strategy and communications at Pinewood Group. “The UK remains an attractive place for film and high end TV.”
Wootton adds that the new government has ‘gone out of its way’ to reassure the US studios that the tax credits will remain a key part of UK industrial strategy. He notes that Culture Minister Matt Hancock visited Hollywood a few weeks ago to say as much, while the Chancellor Philip Hammond recently confirmed to US studios working in the UK that the government wanted to continue to support the tax regime.
The crew base has also enlarged. London is the third busiest city for film production in the world after Los Angeles and New York. But expertise has spread out from this heartland to the likes of Belfast, Bristol and Wales, which have hosted a string of big budget films and TV shows in recent years.
Amid strong demand, film facilities have also expanded – creating more space for Hollywood shoots. Pinewood is in the process of doubling in size; it added five new stages last July and is planning another five. Warner Bros-owned Leavesden Studios, meanwhile, plans to extend facilities at the 200-acre site by a quarter. North London’s Elstree Studios, home to Star Wars, is also building more stages and technical facilities. Belfast’s Titantic Quarter, home to Game of Thrones, has invested £14m to develop two more film studios. Screen Yorkshire has converted a former RAF base into the Church Fenton studio facility.
Meanwhile, the Mayor of London has announced a feasibility study for the largest new film studios in London, to be situated on 17-acres in Dagenham East.
And the UK’s talent base remains just as strong. This month’s Oscars will see British actors Dev Patel, Andrew Garfield and Naomie Harris up for Academy Awards. So too is musician Mica Levi, nominated for her score for Jackie; producer Iain Canning and the team at See-Saw for Lion, which is up for best picture; and production designers Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock for their work on Fantastic Beasts. Jake Roberts competes for the editing prize with Hell or High Water, Joanna Johnston for costume design for Allied, and Sting is in the running for best song in Jim: The James Foley Story.
Other British films or co-productions with nominations include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (up for both best sound mixing and visual effects), Florence Foster Jenkins, The Jungle Book, Doctor Strange, Passengers and The White Helmet.
Soho’s world-class vfx houses, many of them now part of international groups, seem to get ever busier too. MPC completed most of the work on Disney’s The Jungle Book, while Framestore played a significant role on Marvel’s Doctor Strange. All Soho’s big vfx houses provided shots on Warner’s Fantastic Beasts.
Currently, British post houses are working on vfx for 2017 releases such as Pacific Rim 2, Blade Runner 2049, Fast and Furious 8, and Dunkirk.
The film industry has also been underpinned by the rapid growth in high-end television production, which has given many service companies the confidence to invest in facilities suitable for film and TV. Spurred by the drama tax relief, introduced in 2013, the UK has hosted shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, Starz’ Outlander, Lionsgate’s The Royals and Fox’s 24: Live Another Day. The SVoD platforms have also invested heavily in the UK, with Netflix making The Crown and Amazon producing The Collection. The spend on inward investment high-end television programmes in 2016 was £478m, the highest since records began.
Can it be sustained?
However, there are concerns about whether the level of inward investment can be sustained. “We can’t afford to be complacent,” warns Wootton.
Brexit has provided an unexpected fillip to the industry by lowering the value of the pound and making the UK up to 25% cheaper for the US studios to film in.
But there is concern that exit from the EU will make immigration harder to the UK. This would hit sectors such as vfx, post production and animation which rely heavily on European skills and talent.
Here the film industry has support from The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who is backing a plan with Creative Skillset and Film London to boost film production skills in the UK.
“When you speak to people in the film industry, one of the biggest concerns they have is that the government doesn’t appear to understand how diverse our film ecosystem is,” said Khan last month. The mayor recently met the minister overseeing Brexit, David Davis, to discuss how to protect the film sector.
“The reality is our diverse ecosystem relies upon talent from across the EU. What we can’t afford to happen is those talented people not being able to come to London.”
Because there is concern that the UK production sector is overstretched already. “We haven’t lost a single film as a result of skills shortages or crew shortages. But demand on our crews is very strong,” admits Wootton. He says the UK needs to invest more money into training new entrants, particularly from more diverse backgrounds. “We need more social inclusion and diversity and young people in our industry – that is a concern and challenge for us.”
The election of Donald Trump also brings some uncertainty. Trump has been vocal in his determination for American companies to make more of their products in America, prioritising local job creation over outsourcing around the world. Could he apply the same pressure to the US film industry as he has to sectors such as car manufacturing?
“It is early days – it is very difficult to know,” says Wootton, who points out that Trump’s focus so far has been on large-scale manufacturing. “At the moment, it is fair to say that the film industry and film stars aren’t exactly Donald Trump’s favourite people. It may be that policies change, and we will have to respond and get as creative as possible.”
Indie film concern
Meanwhile, there are also concerns that the boom in inward investment films is crowding out another story – a decline in British independent filmmaking.
The BFI figures show that spend on domestic features fell in 2016 from £223.3m to £205m. The figures also revealed that the number of domestic films was down from 199 to 129.The BFI says the 2016 domestic figures will be revised upwards as there is a time lag in obtaining information about UK production.
Still, it’s clear there is something of a disconnect within the industry between the buoyant inward investment scene – dominated by just a few films – and the indie sector where it is as hard as ever to secure funding.
That said, it would be wrong to talk about a collapse of the indie film sector, a conclusion drawn by respected film blogger and statistician Stephen Follows. After analysing the latest BFI statistics, he concluded that it’s not all doom and gloom for indie filmmakers, pointing out that the decline comes from a relatively high base – specifically the micro-budget boom of that late 2000s.
“Fewer films being made is not necessarily a bad thing”, said Fellows who noted that between 1994 and 2010 UK domestic features increased nine-fold but the opportunities to release such films had not kept pace.
Indeed, the wider picture of UK film – of strong investment, busy crews and facilities, world renowned talent and successful British-made films – is justifiably the big story of the industry in 2017.