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Film 40, 2013 Back to Reports & survey Listing

The UK’s film studios are experiencing a serious purple patch right now. But with demand rising for ever bigger spaces for ever bigger movies, lack of capacity could soon be a problem. Leon Forde reports

With its stable film tax relief, respected crews and range of studios, the UK is well established as a global production hub, able to host some of the largest and most challenging feature shoots.

Total production in the UK was worth a record £1.3bn in 2011. And while production dropped in 2012 to £927m (though Skyfall was counted in 2011 figures, despite largely shooting in 2012) the studios sector has reason to be confident about the future.

In addition to continued demand from features new UK tax credits for high-end TV budgeted at over £1m per hour came into effect in April. A report from Wiggin and RSM Tenon estimated the TV credit would generate additional production spend of at least £350m per year.

“You’ve seen record levels of inward investment, you’ve got a good film tax relief, good crews, good talent, the exchange rate is in the right place but demand is outstripping supply, it’s as simple as that,” says Andrew M Smith, director of strategy and communications at Pinewood Shepperton. “And we need to invest now in additional facilities in order to capitalise on the new incentives for high-end TV.”

In addition to an expected upturn in TV, the top-end feature market is also requiring more capacity as Hollywood studios focus on big-budget tentpoles.

According to a market review commissioned by Pinewood, there are around 25 films budgeted at over $100m made annually, and of the 60 films that shot at Pinewood between 2008 and October 2012 almost 50% had production budgets of at least $100m.

Bigger tentpoles mean bigger shoots, leading to a rising demand for larger stages, as well as supplementary space to build sets as well as workshops, offices, etc. “Everything is getting physically bigger and being built bigger,” says Pinewood’s Smith. “That is a trend.”

Last year Pinewood opened its new Richard Attenborough Stage and is also currently building a new 30,000 sq ft stage. In order to meet demand, the Pinewood Group has submitted a proposal for a £200m expansion on its site and adjacent green belt land to build 12 new stages, workshops, offices, backlots and so on. The proposal, which would allow Pinewood to service four major shoots at once instead of two currently, will be considered by the planning authorities in mid May.

The UK’s largest studio operator, the Pinewood Group also owns Shepperton and Teddington. Recent years have also seen Pinewood diversifying, investing in new studios in Toronto and Berlin, with sites in Malaysia and the Dominican Republic to open this year.

Most recently Pinewood announced a joint venture deal with Chinese media group Seven Stars as well as a joint venture project in Atlanta, USA. It has also expanded into content, investing in British independent films like Last Passenger through Pinewood Productions, and managing the Isle of Man’s Media Development Fund through Pinewood Pictures.

Another major development in the UK has been Warner Bros Studios Leavesden. The site was used for all of the Harry Potter films, and when the franchise ended Warner Bros bought the site and revamped at a cost of over £100m. It opened last year to all productions.

Elstree Studios is also looking to expand: in September it will start work clearing a four-acre lot on the studio site, which will give it space for additional facilities or backlot.

Expansion in the sector is seen as essential. “We will definitely have a stage capacity problem if nothing changes,” says Iain Smith, chair of the British Film Commission and a producer whose credits include Children Of Men, The A Team and the forthcoming Mad Max: Fury Road. “This is particularly so in the nations and regions where stages, or covered shooting spaces at least, are in relatively short supply.”

As a result, Smith says, production pressure tends to bear down on the south east, “when we should be trying to achieve a greater distribution of production around the UK as a whole”. He points to parts of the UK that have seen the emergence of studio space – such as Titanic Studios in Belfast, the Bottle Yard in Bristol and Roath Lock in Cardiff – but underlines the fact that Scotland still has no significant stage space available. 

Meanwhile, increased use of VFX means more stage work. Elstree has opened a permanent CG studio of 300 sq ft recently. “The idea is that some of the smaller films, or some of the bigger films, just literally want to do pickups with a CG background,” says Roger Morris, managing director of Elstree Studios. “Which is the most economical way sometimes for them to do pickups.”

Operators across the board also report strong interest from a range of film, TV and other projects. Derek Watts, studio executive at 3 Mills Studios says there has been an increase in enquiries from the UK and particularly the US. The studios have also hosted a range of animation, including Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. “We do feel that we’re well placed to be a home for producers who are going to the use the new tax credits,” says Watts. “So we would anticipate growth in that area.”

 “We’re really excited about the strength the different sectors seem to each be enjoying,” says Piers Read, managing director of Wimbledon Film & Television Studios of the clients coming to the studios. Previously home to The Bill and owned by FremantleMedia the site was bought by its current owners in October 2010 and opened in March 2011.

Wimbledon is opening a newly built third studio of nearly 5,000 sq ft in May. “We’ve actually got the space on site to grow the facility so we can cater to all sectors,” says Read, who adds that the company is considering further expansion with a possible second site in London.

Operating in a complex and competitive global market that can be affected by exchange rates, incentives and other factors, building for the future is a priority say those in the industry. 
“We need to find as much viable work space as possible over the next year or so,” Iain Smith says. “Every production that we have to turn away today is potentially even more future productions lost.”


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