UK

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World of Locations Screen International

Overview

International projects come to the UK for tried and tested reasons: the studios, the crews, the tax breaks, the locations, the language, the infrastructure, the service companies and the post-production sector.

A snapshot of a few of the films being made at the time of the Covid lockdown, when at least $540m (£426m) worth of productions were postponed or suspended, shows the range of projects attracted to the UK. Disney’s live-action version of The Little Mermaid was at Pinewood. Matt Reeves’ The Batman had been shooting at Warner Bros’ Leavesden Studios. Netflix series The Witcher was shooting its second season in London and Scotland as well as in Eastern Europe; Cohen Media’s wartime thriller Operation Mincemeat had been shooting in London, while Roger Michell’s comedy-drama The Duke, backed by 20th Century Studios, had been filming in Yorkshire and London.

In Northern Ireland, New Regency’s Viking saga The Northman, starring Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard, was just getting underway. In Scotland, season six of Sony/Starz’s Outlander had been gearing up to shoot; and in Wales, Bad Wolf was completing the second season of Sky’s hit TV drama A Discovery Of Witches.

There are now major studio facilities in every corner of the UK, be it in Edinburgh at the new First Stage Studios run by Bob Last and Jason Connery; at Wolf Studios Wales; in Northern Ireland, where Titanic Studios hosted Game Of Thrones and where Belfast Harbour is developing six new purpose-built film and television studios, and across the regions. “We see this [First Stage Studios] as being a huge part of bringing Scotland out of the Covid scenario,” says Brodie Pringle, head of Screen Commission within Screen Scotland. 

Most major cities in the UK have filmmaking hubs geared toward hosting international as well as local projects. Peaky Blinders creator Stephen Knight, for example, is creating Mercia Studios, a ‘media village’ that will include new film and TV facilities in Birmingham. There are also increasing numbers of alternative spaces, often converted factories, which are being used for production.

Ongoing improvements to studio and transport infrastructure has continued, despite the pandemic. VFX houses are thriving: the UK’s post-production and VFX sectors expect to turn over more than $2.5bn (£2bn) per year and employ more than 17,000 people. Work continued during the lockdown, with technicians using remotely connected equipment from home and observing social distancing measures when it was necessary to visit their main premises.

The film sector benefits from strong public support, both through the film and high-end television tax reliefs and the practical help and troubleshooting advice offered by the British Film Commission (BFC) and local agencies. This support is being enhanced further as the UK adjusts to a post-coronavirus landscape in which competition to attract international production will intensify yet further. 

Success provides its own challenges. With leviathans such as Warner Bros at Leavesden, Netflix and Disney taking up more prime studio space, and employing so many local technicians, the burning issue is capacity. Does the UK have the facilities to service the increasing levels of demand? Is there space for local production? Are there enough technicians? “What US clients ask about is space and skills,” acknowledges Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission. On both questions, the answers are as much in hand as they can be — the industry as a whole is investing in the Future Film Skills plan and is doing everything it can to expand available space. Shepperton is adding 16 new sound stages — some of which will be operational by 2021. The idea is to ensure producers of major non-Disney and non-Netflix projects do not think the UK now has a big ‘no vacancy’ sign outside the gates of its best-known film factories.

One key change is that the industry is no longer exclusively concentrated in the south east — films and high-end TV dramas are being made all over the UK. “We are not full. Apart from the existing studios, lots of alternative spaces are opening up,” said Wooton. “It’s a dynamic situation. We are busier than ever, but the capacity is going up.”

The trend in recent years of converting warehouses and industrial spaces for filmmaking is continuing all over the UK. Back-to-back series of Outlander have been shooting at Wardpark Studios, the site of a former circuit-board factory in Cumbernauld, Scotland, while His Dark Materials was made at Wolf Studios Wales. Meanwhile, most of the established studios have been expanding and new studios are planned across the UK, from Essex to Edinburgh, and Yorkshire to Liverpool.

Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight has visionary plans for Mercian Studios in Birmingham, where filmmaking will be combined with education and housing initiatives. If and when high-speed rail links between London and Birmingham are established, the new facility will be within very easy reach of the south east.

In Northern Ireland, Belfast Harbour Studios is adding further stages, Game Of Thrones spin-offs are expected to continue shooting at the Titanic Studios, the Britvic facility is being expanded and the Michelin Ballymena tyre factory is being considered for filmmaking.

Alongside the UK film tax credit, producers coming to the UK can also source local funding from agencies including Screen Scotland, Screen Yorkshire and Northern Ireland Screen. At present, the UK’s biggest clients are US studios and VoD platforms.

Smaller independent European productions do not shoot in the UK so often. However, recent titles such as Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s Mr Jones and Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe have filmed in the UK as UK-European co-productions. Wootton argues that the expansion in the crew base and improvements in skills levels of UK technicians should go on to help independent as well as big studio productions. “Inward investment is enhancing the crew base, the talent base and the infrastructure. Independent film can benefit from that,” he says.

Veteran Amsterdam-based producer Marleen Slot of Viking Film came to London with Dirty God, directed by rising Dutch director Sacha Polak. Slot’s overall experience of filming in the UK was very positive. It helped that she was working with UK co-producer Mike Elliott from Emu Films. “He is excellent and very experienced, and he also understood there are cultural differences when it comes to working with people from Amsterdam,” says Slot. She also had a positive experience working with the BFI and BBC Films, both of which backed Dirty God. “We really liked it. The thing that was different was that [the BFI and BBC] wanted to see the film at a very early stage of the edit and I was a bit worried about that. But in the end it worked out really well.”

As Slot notes, there are still some unexpected challenges for independent productions shooting in the UK for the first time. One aspect that often takes international producers by surprise is the huge amount of legal documentation required, even on a relatively modest budget for UK-made films. Dirty God used both UK and Dutch lawyers. “The legal work is much more than any country I have ever worked with,” Slot attests.

Accessing UK film tax relief — which is available at 25% of qualifying film production expenditure, regardless of budget — proved very straightforward. Dirty God received $162,000 (£128,000) and there were no problems accessing the money.

The film was shot mainly on location in Hackney, east London. “Shooting in London and shooting in the [rest of the] UK are two very different things,” Slot observes wryly of some of the challenges of being based in the capital. “In London, things are sometimes a lot more complicated than in the rest of the UK.”

Moving around was not always easy. The Dutch crew were not used to having cast members in trailers. “In London it’s so difficult to get permits. Sometimes the trailer park was a 15-minute drive from set and so that didn’t make any sense to me,” the producer says. “It’s so difficult to move — to shoot in a different part of London because you would lose half a day by travelling there.” Importantly, Slot adds the food on set was “really good”.

Infrastructure improvements — such as the much-delayed opening of Crossrail, linking east and west London — should help the industry. The new service will make it quicker to travel across London and the south east. Getting from Soho to the big studios in the west or to Heathrow airport will become easier, quicker and cleaner. Crews will now be able to travel to all the major studios, from Pinewood to Shepperton and Elstree, on public transport.

England

Infrastructure and crews

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.

Size matters

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 samantha.perahia@britishfilmcommission.org.uk

Wales

Infrastructure and crews

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.

Size matters

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 penny.skuse@gov.wales

Scotland

Infrastructure and crews

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.

Size matters

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 brodie.pringle@creativescotland.com

Northern Ireland

Infrastructure and crews

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).

Size matters

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 andrew@northernirelandscreen.co.uk

Infrastructure and crew

There has been a huge increase in UK studio capacity in recent years. Among the studio developments being hatched in 2020 are a new site in Barking and Dagenham in east London; a new studio in Ashford, Kent; the proposed $190m (£150m) Blackhall Studios in Reading, Berkshire and a new studio that Sky UK is planning at Elstree. 

In Edinburgh, First Stage Studios has been turning the Pelamis Building into a state-of-the-art studio facility. It already offers 80,000 square feet of shooting space and fully soundproofed shooting stages are soon to come on tap. 

Meanwhile, the established studios continue to grow. Shepperton is being expanded yet further and will soon become the second biggest studio in the world. Pinewood is also expanding.

The UK has world-class crews and there are measures to ensure skills keep up with demand. The BFI is pumping $25m (£20m) into the Future Film Skills action plan and Netflix and Warner Bros have partnered with ScreenSkills on a pilot apprenticeship programme.

 of shooting space and fully soundproofed shooting stages are soon to come on tap. 

Meanwhile, the established studios continue to grow. Shepperton is being expanded yet further and will soon become the second biggest studio in the world. Pinewood is also expanding.

The UK has world-class crews and there are measures to ensure skills keep up with demand. The BFI is pumping $25m (£20m) into the Future Film Skills action plan and Netflix and Warner Bros have partnered with ScreenSkills on a pilot apprenticeship programme.

Production protocols

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.” 

 

 

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