Even by pre-pandemic standards, the statistics released by the British Film Institute in early 2022 were eye-watering. Film and high-end television production spend for 2021 in the UK was more than $7.3bn (£5.64bn), a record level that had been achieved in spite of Covid-19 restrictions still in place. The question had ceased to be, why do international film and TV productions come to the UK? Rather it was now, why would they go anywhere else? Outside North America, the UK is currently “the number-one territory for inward investment production in the world”, according to Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission and Film London.
The major development over the last 18 months has been the sustained investment in new infrastructure. Established studios have been expanding while several new facilities have opened. There are now close to 40 dedicated studios across the UK (not including alternative spaces such as old factories that are sometimes customised for filmmaking). Moreover, the work is no longer concentrated, as it once was, in London and the southeast. The UK now has seven different production hubs: London and the southeast, the southwest, the northwest, Yorkshire, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. All regions report they are, in the words of Northern Ireland Screen’s head of production Andrew Reid, “exceptionally busy on large-scale work”.
In 2021, Warner Bros and HBO Max’s Batgirl became the first major US studio feature to be based entirely in Scotland, with Gotham City recreated in Glasgow. Scotland has now grown from a destination for location-based filming to a competitive option for international productions looking for somewhere to base their entire shoot.
Among the many other films and TV dramas to have shot in the UK are Paramount’s Mission: Impossible 7 and Mission: Impossible 8; Paul King’s Wonka (a prequel to Charlie And The Chocolate Factory being made by Heyday Films for Warner Bros); Amazon Studios TV series Citadel; the Netflix film adaptation of BBC drama Luther starring Idris Elba; A24’s Alex Garland horror Men starring Jessie Buckley; Hulu’s series Conversations With Friends adapted from Sally Rooney’s novel; Paul Feig’s young-adult fantasy film The School For Good And Evil for Netflix; the new Disney+ version of Willow; Marvel’s Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania; Paramount’s Dungeons & Dragons; series seven of Starz’s Outlander; Gareth Evans’ Netflix feature Havoc starring Tom Hardy, and Amazon’s Anansi Boys, The Rig and Good Omens.
Executives at the British Film Commission film agency compare themselves to “traffic controllers when trying to accommodate these projects, moving things around to help productions land and get the personnel they need in order to deliver the product”. Film tax relief, introduced in 2007 and subsequently extended to high-end TV drama, animation and video games, is one of the prime attractions for international production. All qualifying films at any budget level can claim a rebate of up to 25% on UK qualifying expenditure. According to a BFI Screen Business report published in December 2021, every $1.30 (£1) of UK film tax relief generates $10.90 (£8.30) back to the UK economy. Other international territories may now offer higher incentives, but the UK tax credit is regarded as dependable and user-friendly. “It’s still a massively important and significant lever for why people are coming here,” says one well-placed observer.
Regional funding is also available. Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and some of the English regions (among them Screen Yorkshire and Liverpool) are all able to invest in production. New filmmaking spaces continue to emerge. In August 2021, US investment group Blackstone and Hudson Pacific Properties announced they would be investing $975m in a film and TV studio in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. This year is expected to see the opening of the Digbeth Loc. studios in Birmingham — a development championed by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. Scotland’s new Kelvin Hall studios will shortly host its first drama productions while the new FirstStage Studios is already hosting big‑budget Amazon shows such as The Rig and Anansi Boys.
Meanwhile, the UK is benefiting from massively increased production investment from major streamers. Apple, Amazon, HBO, Paramount+, Disney+ and Netflix have been active in the UK alongside the traditional studios. Many have put down roots and secured their own studio facilities. Inward investment spend on high-end TV drama being made in the UK increased 180% in a single year (2021, compared to the previous year), according to the British Film Commission. “They didn’t just want to come in [to the UK] and go out again because so much of their production is high-end episodic, which requires a much longer base to it,” Wootton explains of why streamers are making long-term commitments to the UK. “That shifts the paradigm dramatically from what it has been before.”
On the VFX front, Industrial Light & Magic opened the largest volumetric stage in the UK at Pinewood Studios in 2021, while leading UK VFX firms Framestore, Moving Picture Company and DNEG are further developing their virtual production capabilities. Virtual production facility Studio Ulster is due to open in Northern Ireland as well.
In early 2022, Amazon committed to a long-term, 10-year lease of space at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. The streaming giant is said to have 15 shows in development in the UK, plus The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power, whose second series has moved to the territory.
“That’s a whole level of private investment in bricks and mortar, and studio space, which we’ve not seen in my lifetime,” notes Wootton. “That is hundreds of millions of pounds worth of private investment.” He talks of the “incredible talent base” in front of and behind the camera, while also arguing that the UK is still competitive on costs. One obvious challenge of the ongoing boom in production activity, though, is the increased pressure on crews. With several projects postponed during the early part of the pandemic looking to shoot, there has been intense competition for the best technicians. Responding to the skills squeeze in the summer of 2021, the British Film Institute launched a UK-wide skills review in close collaboration with industry to address potential shortages. The review is due to deliver its findings in early summer 2022.
The talk among organisations like the British Film Commission and industry-led skills body ScreenSkills has been of future-proofing the industry through enhanced training and apprenticeship schemes. Major international companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Warner Bros are all investing in UK talent development programmes. “The dial is moving, and it’s moving quite fast because everyone realises this is a golden opportunity, and it’s in our own hands to make sure we don’t lose it to our competitors,” says Wootton of the many skills-based initiatives currently being hatched. “This is a global issue, but I think the UK is grasping the nettle.”
Crews are generally considered to be of a very high standard. Studio capacity has doubled over the past five years in response to demand, while visual effects and post-production has blossomed as more international filmmakers head for the UK.
The bigger studios are based in the south-east within easy reach of London and its main airports, which have frequent direct flights from the US. Talent tends to stay in central London. The distance from London’s West End to Pinewood Studios is approximately 20 miles, a journey that should take less than an hour through the capital’s traffic. Both Pinewood and Shepperton studios are within easy reach of one another, and of Heathrow Airport. Alternative shooting spaces and smaller studios are also readily available, both in the south-east and throughout the rest of the country.
First person to contact
Samantha Perahia, head of production UK, British Film Commission email@example.com
Wolf Studios Wales is the base for Bad Wolf, the production company in Cardiff set up by Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter, and is also expected to host third-party productions. Pinewood Studios Wales is also in Cardiff. Further shooting spaces include BBC Cymru Wales drama studios Roath Lock in Cardiff Bay, Dragon Studios in Bridgend and the facility at the former car factory in Swansea where Da Vinci’s Demons was shot. There are decent crews and film agency Wales Screen will help incoming producers find the technicians they need. It can also help to find accommodation and everything from animal providers to boat hire, location catering and how best to find post-production facilities.
Most filmmaking is concentrated in south Wales. Cardiff is easily accessible by plane, train or road. It is two hours from London by rail and three hours by road. The airport has international flights to much of Europe, including Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich and Barcelona.
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Penny Skuse, south Wales office, Wales Screen firstname.lastname@example.org
Wardpark Film and Television Studios in Cumbernauld, Glasgow, is the home of Sony and Starz’s Outlander, which filmed its fifth series there earlier this year. The TV show has had a galvanising effect in Scotland similar to that of Game Of Thrones in Northern Ireland. Extra investment is being pumped into crafts-based and technical skills, with trainees emerging in fields such as plastering, painting and masonry. The UK’s National Film and Television School has recently established a new base in Scotland in an effort to demonstrate to international producers that crews are also based there.
Consultation is underway over the plans for a privately funded studio just outside Edinburgh, and it is expected that new Scottish studio in the Pelamis Building in Bath Road, Leith, which has already been used for Avengers: Infinity War, will open within months.
Studio-based film production tends to take place between Glasgow and Edinburgh, both of which have international airports and are within easy reach of each other. Scotland also boasts spectacular locations, some relatively far-flung. For example, Kristoffer Nyholm’s thriller The Vanishing, starring Gerard Butler and Peter Mullan, was shot in Dumfries and Galloway with support from the Production Growth Fund.
First person to contact
Brodie Pringle, head of screen commission, Creative Scotland email@example.com
The eight-acre Belfast Harbour Studios is a major development. Its first production was Superman prequel Krypton, made by Warner Horizon Scripted Television. HBO’s Game Of Thrones has had a transformative effect on the industry, not just in Northern Ireland but on the UK as a whole — its success helped usher in the high-end TV drama tax credit introduced in the UK in 2013.
Facilities in Northern Ireland have continued to improve (see above), as has the local skills base. The country is now able to host multiple films and TV dramas. There have been six series of Line Of Duty and many features including UK-Germany co-production The Keeper (formerly known as Trautmann).
Northern Ireland is a compact country that is easy to get around. After 30 years of The Troubles — during which nightlife was hazardous — the country is making up for lost time. Belfast has seen huge growth in leisure activities, with many restaurants, nightclubs and hotels opening. Outside the city, plenty of picturesque locations are within easy reach.
First person to contact
Andrew Reid, head of production, Northern Ireland Screen firstname.lastname@example.org.
There has been a squeeze on crews during the ongoing production boom, but shortages are being addressed by training and apprenticeship initiatives.
After a rapid-fire consultation with the industry, the BFC moved quickly to put highly detailed safety protocols in place to enable production to resume once the lockdown is lifted. The protocols have recommendations for everything from the quarantining of international cast and crew to security and catering, from using public buildings to crowd scenes.
The UK broadcasters published guidelines for Covid-19 TV production in mid-May while UK Screen Alliance published ‘Guidance for safe working in post-production and visual effects during the Covid 19 pandemic’ at the end of May. All this ensured there is a roadmap for production in the UK to resume by early June.
Among the services Northern Ireland Screen now offers is a guide on where to buy Covid-19 tests as well as the best suppliers of face masks and disposable gloves.
Meanwhile, ScreenSkills in partnerships with Skills For Health, is overseeing basic Covid training that crews will undertake before returning to set or location. In the coming months, the advice from the BFC is for producers to “build extra time into their production schedules”, according to chief executive Adrian Wootton.
The UK industry is generally optimistic about the future. There is a strong commitment to the UK from the US majors, with Disney striking a long-term deal in September 2019 to use Pinewood’s facilities, Netflix creating a production hub at Shepperton, Warner Bros long ensconced at Leavesden — which it owns — and both Amazon and Netflix looking to use new studio facilities in Ashford, Kent.
Studio operators across the UK say the enquiries have not stopped since the lockdown. “I am contacted three or four times a week by the studios and the streamers, asking what is available. I am also getting an awful lot of enquiries from within the UK,” says Andrew Reid, head of production at Northern Ireland Screen.
The aim now is to ensure filmmaking in the UK remains as straightforward as possible. “The long term and even the medium term is very healthy for UK PLC but we’ve got to accept it will be a slow, graduated start,” says Wootton. “Filmmaking will take more pre-preparation both on locations and in the studios. We are here to work with any filmmakers from anywhere in the UK to ensure they can access the UK.”
All this is taking place against the backdrop of Brexit. But while the UK’s separation from the European Union may impose a few logistical hurdles — for example regarding visas and the movement of capital and equipment — the inward investment industry is generally confident these will be dealt with. “It will be a bit strange and everyone will have to get used to it,” says Reid. “But the big companies, the US studios, work in non-European countries all the time.”
The UK has strong transport infrastructure.
London and the southeast are within easy reach of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as the English regions.