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01 May 2010

Hollywood invests big in Britain

From Potter and Pixar through to Pirates of the Caribbean, a slew of Hollywood films are shooting in the UK this year. Tim Dams finds out how the UK has turned itself into a movie making machine for US film studios

Next month, a major chapter in British film history will come to an end. The very last scenes of the final Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, are set to shoot in June, bringing to an end a decade long cycle of filmmaking that has transformed the fortunes of the British film industry.

The success of the Harry Potter franchise has had all sorts of knock on effects for the British film industry, not least in helping establish the UK as the premiere production destination for Hollywood blockbusters. In particular, Potter helped build and make the reputation of the UK’s film visual effects industry. “Harry Potter made London,” says William Sargent, chief executive of vfx house Framestore which has worked on most of the Potter films.

Alex Hope, md of vfx outfit Double Negative adds: “Given that we have all been working on Potter films for nigh on 10 years, it has provided a backbone of growth for the whole industry.” It’s an industry, he adds, that originally made its name working on high profile, big budget commercials during the 1980s and 1990s. Then Potter came along, providing the impetus – and consistency of work – needed to make the leap into film. Just as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy transformed New Zealand’s film industry, so too Potter has worked its magic in the UK.

The legacy of Potter is clearly visible when you take a look at the raft of Hollywood-backed films now shooting in the UK. US studio backed films spent an impressive £728.5m in the UK in 2009, the highest level since 2003. One of them, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which shot at Pinewood and locations in Surrey and South Wales, opens this month’s Cannes Film Festival.

All the indications suggest that the studios will spend a similar amount in 2010. “The gut feeling is that it [inward investment from US studios] will be the same this year,” says British film commissioner Colin Brown, who is responsible for helping to attract foreign shoots to the UK. Pinewood Studios Group director of corporate affairs Andrew Smith concurs: “There is a good level of visibility for 2010 with a number of film productions attracted to use the facilities.”

Shooting has already begun on some very big budget, high profile studio films in the UK. Pixar’s first ever live action film, John Carter of Mars, filmed between late January and April at three studios: Shepperton, Longcross and Greenford. It was directed by Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton. Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, backed by Disney, has just started production at 3 Mills Studios. And Aardman has gone into production with two Sony backed features, Pirates!, directed by Peter Lord, and Arthur Christmas, directed by Sarah Smith and Barry Cook.

Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese’s first British shot film, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is in pre-production at Shepperton and starts filming in June. The fourth instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is expected to film at Pinewood and on location in August, directed by Rob Marshall.

Several films are completing post production, having shot in the UK. Among them are Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is in post production at Framestore, Cinesite and Double Negative. Universal Pictures’ Your Highness is in post at Framestore, Warner Bros’ Inception at Double Negative, The Weinstein Company’s The King’s Speech at Molinare and Fox Searchlight’s Never Let Me Go at Ascent 142.

Other films that could shoot in the UK in 2010 include four Warner Bros films: Gravity, Dark Shadows, a Sherlock Holmes sequel and a new Batman project. The only cloud hanging over the British industry in 2010 is that the 23rd instalment of James Bond, due to shoot this autumn, has been post-poned because of uncertainty surrounding the future of MGM and the failure to sell the studio.

Film commissioner Colin Brown says there are three key reasons why the UK is a popular venue for studio films: the exchange rate; the UK film tax break; and British filmmaking talent and facilities.

Firstly, the weak pound means that the exchange rate works very much in favour of US studios looking to shoot in the UK. Big budget films can save millions thanks to the bigger bang for their buck that they get in the UK. Secondly, the UK’s 20% tax break for films over £20m is regarded as attractive, solid and safe by the studios. And thirdly, the UK has the above and below the line talent as well as the facilities and locations to accommodate around six to eight major movies at any one time.

UK studios, notably Pinewood, are considered world class and Warners has just acquired Leavesden Studios. The top four film vfx houses in the UK – Cinesite, Double Negative, Framestore and MPC – are likewise viewed as among the best in the world. Crucially, the UK also has acclaimed picture and sound editors, renowned physical effects specialists and stunt co-ordinators as well as highly rated chippies and plasterers to build the sets.

The UK is now managing to attract many US features on the strength of the reputation of the UK’s vfx houses alone. Often, these films do not qualify for the film tax break (because their UK qualifying spend is too low). Currently, Marvel’s Iron Man 2 and Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are carrying out post work at Double Negative, Fox’s Marmaduke and Columbia’s Battle: Los Angeles at Cinesite, Columbia’s Salt at Framestore and Fox’s Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief at MPC.

Says Brown: “If you think about the strategy of the US studios, they basically make six to eight tent pole movies a year. They are going to spend a lot of money on them as they are packed full of visual effects. Now, budgets are tighter so the pre-production period is cut down a little. The post production period is also quite short. So the studios are putting a huge amount of money on the table and they are working against a release date that is probably 18 months to two years out. And they cannot miss that release date. So they have to look at a place where there’s a really good bunch of crafts people to get the show done.” And that place, reckons Brown, is currently the UK.


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