For a business that is based on bricks and mortar, it’s notable how dynamic the studio sector is.
New studios are being developed in all corners of the UK – in Scotland (Pentland Studios), Wales (Wolf Studios Wales), Northern Ireland (Belfast Harbour) and England (Dagenham, Liverpool).
Meanwhile, existing studios are busy expanding. Pinewood recently applied for planning permission to build another three sound stages. This comes on top of the five it opened last July. Elstree has finance and approval for a 21,000 sq ft stage on its backlot area. It also intends to build a smaller stage of approximately 11,000 sq ft. Space Studios Manchester (formerly The Space Project) is in the midst of building a sixth stage, measuring 30,000 sq. ft., part of a £14m expansion plan. The BBC’s redevelopment of Television Centre will finish in September, with three TV studios returning to market.
However, this building boom is predominantly focused on sound stages for drama and film. Studio bosses are looking to make the most of record levels of film and drama production in the UK (which hit £2.1bn in 2016). “Business has continued to be buoyant”, says Fiona Francombe, site director of Bristol’s The Bottle Yard Studios, citing bookings such as Poldark, Trollied and Broadchurch. Twickenham Studios COO Maria Walker says: “We have hugely benefitted from the rise of high end television drama.”
By comparison, fully equipped TV studios – with galleries and shiny floors – are finding business more challenging. They may be busy, but many TV studio execs say that budgets for TV shows remain under pressure (although production aspirations are higher than ever) with studios taking a hit.
At the same time, running a TV studio is expensive; the cost of upgrading them to ever higher technical standards continues to rise. It’s a very seasonal business too, with January and August notoriously quiet months; demand reaches a peak in June and July, then October and November.
Television studios say they are having to squeeze in ever more shows and to work harder to make a decent return.
Many well known TV studios, like Fountain and Teddington, have closed after being sold to property developers – an indication that its owners think they can make more money elsewhere.The London Studios also closes next year when ITV redevelops the space.
“The closure of those studios proves how challenging it is,” says Pinewood’s head of TV Sarah McGettigan.
Pinewood’s three dedicated TV studios are consistently busy, making shows such as Would I Lie To You. But Pinewood hasn’t gained a huge amount of work as a result of the London studio closures, McGettingan adds. That’s partly due to scheduling issues – with so many shows wanting to shoot at the same, peak times of the year, it’s very difficult to fit in any more into a finite space.
Over at Elstree Studios, managing director Roger Morris agrees that the studio hasn’t seen a huge uplift as a result of the closures, adding that the studios have been busy for the past five years. Elstree partners with BBC Studioworks, which provides technical facilities and expertise for shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and Let It Shine which are made at the studio. “We provide the stages, and the BBC provides the kit and technical infrastructure,” says Morris. “It works very well.”
Elstree is also home to dramas like The Crown. Morris says the drama boom has been welcome, particularly as it has made up for a collapse in lower budget film production. But, he notes, not all TV dramas are heavy users of studios – many will be based at a studio, but will shoot on location.
BBC Studioworks plans to maintain a strong presence at its own Elstree base when Television Centre reopens in September. It has already confirmed its first booking: The Jonathan Ross Show.
Head of studios John O’Callaghan says TVC will be a turnaround facility, aiming to record as many days a week as possible by re-setting overnight. “The key is having a good balance of long-term shows which can be in the studios for many weeks and also fast turnaround topical shows.”
What’s clear, though, is that much of the growth in studios comes from drama and film. Many would concur with Adrian Bleasdale, chief executive of Space Studios Manchester: “It’s incredibly busy,” he says.
The primary competition for Space Studios Manchester is warehouses on industrial estates which have been adapted for filming. For example, a former council depot in Hartlepool is set to be converted into a film studio. Screen Yorkshire has converted a former aircraft hangar at Church Fenton into a studio, home to ITV hit Victoria. Bleasdale stresses that producers have to think ‘beyond just the box of the studio’ when selecting a studio space. He says that Space Studios Manchester offers its own ‘ecosystem’ for film and TV – from art departments to medics and camera and lighting hire. As a purpose built studio, he points out that its sound stages are “super silent air-conditioned and acoustically treated for reverberation and noise ingress.”
Over at Pinewood, corporate affairs director Andrew Smith says the company is seeing “sustained growth in film and high end TV”. He worries about new studios being built in all corners of the UK, saying that the industry should “build on existing centres of excellence” and is in danger of “spreading the jam too thin.” Looking ahead, Smith identifies skills shortages as a risk for the industry. “This needs to be addressed immediately.”
But like many of his counterparts, Smith is quietly optimistic about the year ahead. “The level of productions that are being made and coming down the line is encouraging.”
This article is taken from Televisual’s 2017 Studio Report. To see the full report, which has profiles of the UK’s top studios, visit the reports and surveys section of televisual.com.