With film studio construction at an all-time high in the UK, it’s an ideal opportunity for a rethink. Can the design, build and operations of these facilities help to address some of the big issues facing the industry?
Katya Baker, CEO of TV and film facilities developer Quartermaster Entertainment and Jim Harding, COO of investor developer VERB, are the two driving forces behind upcoming Bedfordshire studio facility, Home of Production. In this article, they give their take.
At long last, the UK film industry is getting the attention it deserves. Roughly 800,000 square metres of studio space are currently operational or under construction across the UK, serving international filmmakers eager to exploit the financial, cultural and logistical benefits of production in this country.
This long-awaited moment also provides an opportunity for reflection. Post-pandemic demand for content, coupled with issues like crew shortages and the far-reaching impact of the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes, is putting significant additional pressure on the entertainment industry. Rapid change is all taking place within a studio real estate environment that is largely the same as it has always been.
It’s time we stepped back and considered the role of today’s studio facilities in helping to address some of these challenges. Can studio spaces meet the complex needs of today’s filmmakers, as well as the ever-increasing expectations of the wider industry?
Here’s what the next-generation of film studios could look like:
Every production minute would count.
Although there has been some improvement in recent years, more than a third of film industry professionals still put in more than 50 hours of work a week, and 78% say that the intensity of their roles has negatively affected their mental health (Looking Glass 2022). Furthermore, in the UK, where shooting hours are tightly regulated and overtime is commonplace, time literally is money.
The next generation of film studios should play a part in reducing unnecessary (and costly) production time where possible. A purpose-built studio on a large site, for example, could be designed with total workflow efficiency at its heart. Reduced travel times can be gained from adjacent sound stages, backlots, offices, outdoor filming locations, and workshops, as well as on-site amenities like hotels and restaurants. It could even go a step farther, offering a concierge service that takes care of requests and fixes that would otherwise require crew’s time.
The best talent and crew would be accessible, available and eager.
If the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes have taught us anything, it’s that the film industry has an obligation to prioritise the working conditions of its people. We know that community, connection and a sense of belonging drive up fulfilment at work by close to 500% (OC Tanner Global Culture Report, 2023), and so it only makes sense that today’s studios should go beyond simply offering a soundstage in a convenient location.
The best studios of tomorrow would rival the most inspiring and inviting corporate campuses, with an ecosystem of green spaces, cafes, restaurants, screening facilities and other spaces to work, socialise and relax. An inviting workplace is also crucial in the UK’s highly-competitive labour market, which has a projected shortfall of 20,000 skilled UK crew by 2025 (ScreenSkills 2022). Studios can play a further role in addressing this challenge by offering on-site academies. Formed in partnership with film schools and local educational facilities, these academies could even offer the street cred of a ‘branded’ accreditation for filmmakers with long leases.
The health and wellbeing of cast and crew would be a given.
Health and safety on film sets was thrown into sharp public focus by the ‘Rust’ tragedy, but it’s perhaps the more hidden epidemic of poor mental health on sets that is the greater, more enduring and pervasive threat. In an industry that only 11% of workers deem as “mentally healthy” and where 50% of workers have experienced harassment, discrimination or bullying (LookingGlass 2022), gaining greater control over workplace conditions is an imperative for filmmakers.
Work/life balance and inclusivity can be integrated into purpose-built facilities from the get-go, with amenities like on-site catering and facilities for different faiths, medical facilities, and childcare. By offering a place that doesn’t just serve production needs, but considers human needs as well, filmmakers can play their part in creating a safe, welcoming and supportive ‘home’ for people.
More ambitious ESG targets would be in reach.
When it comes to sustainability, the industry has much to answer for. Arup and BFI’s 2020 report, which noted that an average day filming equates to more than one person’s annual carbon footprint, is all the more alarming when we consider that the UK film and TV industry spent a record £5.6bn on content last year. Fortunately, driven in large part by investor and consumer demand, everyone from small production companies to global streamers are setting ambitious targets to reduce their carbon emissions.
To this end, every new studio at a minimum should be built to BREEAM ‘Excellent’ status. To address deforestation, production facilities should create a meaningful net gain in biodiversity, while integrating the natural habitat to the benefit of both local species and the people working there. Features like renewable energy sources, air-source heat pumps, and electric vehicles offer additional measures for driving down carbon emissions, whilst a long lease with a like-minded partner can accelerate the drive toward operational net carbon zero.
Changing and flexing would be simple and straightforward.
One thing that’s certain in the film industry is that nothing is certain. Next-generation film studios must be both flexible and modular in response to rapidly changing production, technology and consumer needs. A large purpose-built site can be designed to adapt quickly and efficiently and accommodate a variety of content types, and can be subdivided to keep cast and crew safe, if needed.
R&D facilities on site create a symbiotic relationship between production and technology, allowing for rapid innovation and testing, all in one place. With the inclusion of the types of academy already mentioned, fresh ideas can also spring from partnerships with local educational facilities and be implemented quickly.
While it’s thrilling to see the UK take its rightful place on the world stage, there’s also a palpable sense of anxiety. Producers and filmmakers are facing new threats and greater pressures on multiple fronts, and the ongoing constraints of finding and securing studio space isn’t helping.
Now is the time to think differently and challenge our long-held perceptions of film studio real estate. Studio spaces aren’t just a necessary evil in the otherwise magical process of filmmaking. Done differently, they have the power to help enable both incredible content, and a progressive and thriving industry.
Katya Baker is a 30-year production veteran and CEO of TV and film facilities developer Quartermaster Entertainment. Jim Harding is COO of VERB, an investor developer that specialises in creating real estate for occupiers within the entertainment sector. Together, Quartermaster and VERB have developed Home of Production (HOP) Studios, a 1.4 million sq. ft. next-generation studio facility that recently secured planning permission in Bedfordshire, UK and is slated to open in 2025.
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