The UK is busier than ever with international film and high-end TV production, due to both a backlog of rescheduled shoots and plenty of new projects looking for studio space.
Film and TV productions have been coming to the UK in huge numbers for many years — with good reason. The territory boasts competitive, reliable and transparent film and high-end tax reliefs, an expanding supply of top-notch studios, a strong crew base, a booming post-production and VFX industry, a wide array of locations and the language.
During spring 2020, UK industry bodies had been quick to help production resume in spite of the ongoing pandemic. By early June, Covid-19 codes of practice for film and TV production had been put in place. By early autumn, the arrangements for the government-backed $705m (£500m) production restart insurance scheme had been firmed up — and an estimated 200 productions have benefited from the scheme since then.
Thanks to such public support, the UK has continued to attract international productions in the face of Covid restrictions. A new job emerged during the pandemic, that of production Covid supervisor. The Production Guild of Great Britain together with the British Film Commission has rushed to launch a high-level training scheme for the position.
Assistance is available for incoming productions on everything from location scouting to sourcing crew, from finding studio space to obtaining permission from police, local authorities and landlords for road closures, night-time shoots and access to historical sites.
Every part of the UK has strong national and regional agencies — Wales Screen, Screen Scotland and Northern Ireland Screen among them — which not only facilitate filming and TV production but often have funds to invest in projects.
The government is aiming to create 30,000 new jobs in the screen industries over the next five years — but will only be able to do so if the production boom continues.
Film and high-end TV production spend in the UK was at $4bn (£2.8bn) in 2020, 21% down on the previous year but still a sizeable number given the devastation wrought by the pandemic in the early part of the year. As the British Film Institute’s annual statistics round-up revealed, the final quarter of 2020 saw a huge $1.7bn (£1.2bn) spend for film and high-end TV, the second highest three-month spend on record — and the investment and activity from both the US studios and the streamers has continued.
Among the many titles shooting in summer 2021 are Disney’s Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness at Longcross Film Studios in Surrey; Paramount’s Mission: Impossible 7 at Leavesden, Hertfordshire and on location in Yorkshire and Derbyshire; and Apple TV+’s comedy Ted Lasso and spy thriller Slow Horses on location in London, with the latter also at the city’s 3 Mills Studios. Season two of Netflix’s The Witcher has made its home at Arborfield Studios, 40 miles west of central London, while Stephen Merchant’s The Offenders is filming at Bristol’s The Bottle Yard Studios. Series six of Peaky Blinders is at Space Studios in Manchester.
The sixth season of Starz’s Outlander is housed at Wardpark Film & Television Studios in Scotland, while Disney’s fantasy series Willow and season three of the BBC’s His Dark Materials are in Wales, at Dragon Studios and Wolf Studios respectively.
Paramount and eOne’s Dungeons & Dragons is housed at Titanic Studios, Belfast; Netflix’s The School For Good And Evil at Belfast Harbour Studios; Amblin’s untitled Indiana Jones film at Pinewood Studios; Altitude Television’s The Ipcress File in Liverpool; Disney’s The Little Mermaid at Pinewood; Netflix’s Neil Gaiman adaptation The Sandman at Shepperton Studios, Disney’s Stars Wars: Andor at Pinewood Studios, and the Russo brothers’ Amazon Prime espionage series
Citadel has shot on location in Oxford.
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.
First person to contact
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.
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.”
One of the attractions of the UK for international production is the country’s strong transport infrastructure. Production hubs in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are all within easy reach of London.
When the delayed Crossrail service is finally opened (now likely to happen in 2022), it will be possible to travel quickly, directly and inexpensively from Pinewood Studios, just to the west of London, to Eastbrook Studios in Essex, east of London. Crew working at these sites will not need to use cars in the same way as previously. Soho, home of the booming post-production industry, is also served by Crossrail.
Meanwhile, High Speed 2 (HS2) will provide fast rail links between London, Birmingham, the West Midlands, Leeds and Manchester.