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UK Studios: An International Success Story

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It has often been said that Hollywood is the most recognisable film industry in the world, with hundreds of movies and television series generated every year by the studios based in the region.

Despite this making the US one of the most prolific producers of films, the UK has enjoyed a resurgence within its studios sector in recent years, as more and more high-profile productions are selecting the country as its base, bringing big name stars to the UK and investment for the film and TV industry.

In this article, Broadcast Film & Video editor Jacqueline Purse looks at the current investment in UK studios and how the benefits are filtering out to skilled workers, local businesses and the wider economy.

If you were to ask someone to name a famous UK studio, you would likely hear Elstree, Pinewood or Warner Bros. Studios mentioned. There are, of course, numerous other – and equally famous – facilities located throughout the country, and this doesn't even cover the new studios being established at breakneck speed.

For example, earlier this year Belfast welcomed its newest film studio – Belfast Harbour Studios. Nicely located just around the corner from BFV's HQ, this £20 million, eight-acre project includes more than 120,000 sq ft of studio space, workshops and offices. The complex has two film studios, while the workshops will be used for set construction and separate production offices to accommodate art departments, dressing rooms and wardrobe functions. Given the demand for high quality space, the scheme has also been future-proofed to accommodate additional studio and workshop space on an adjoining two-acre site. In June, it was confirmed that work on the first production at the new facility was underway.

At the time, David Dobbin, Chairman of Belfast Harbour, said: "Welcoming our first tenant to Belfast Harbour Studios is very exciting for us. Working with Northern Ireland Screen and hosting visits from many production companies has shown there is a need for a facility like this. Supporting the regional economy is one of our strategic goals and enhancing Northern Ireland's media offering is very much part of this."

Richard Williams, CEO of Northern Ireland Screen, added that the construction of the new studios had added "tremendous value" to the region's overall proposition. The studio follows the success of Belfast Titanic Studios, which has hosted a number of productions in recent years such as City of Ember. The complex is, however, probably best known for being one of the filming hubs for hit HBO fantasy Game of Thrones. Again located just a few minutes outside of the city centre, it is a fully functioning film studio complete with lights and rigging. It boasts four 16,000 sq ft cells (each with a working height of 90 ft), with the cells set out in a square and connected by an internal road and streets.

Investment in studio space is also evident in Scotland, where production spend on film and TV increased by more than 30% last year to a record high, with total spend having reached £69.4 million – the highest since records began.

In April 2017, it was announced that plans had been approved in principle for Scotland's first purpose-built film and television studio. Earmarked for outside Edinburgh, it is hoped the Pentland Studios development will help bring more feature films and TV productions to the country. It is understood the facility will feature six large sound stages, and will be constructed on some 100 acres of land at Old Pentland Farm in the Straiton area. While the planning process for the studio has been complicated over the past two years, it is now hoped the privately-funded project will see the first facilities at the complex operational by the end of 2018.

Concerns had been raised over Pentland Studios due to the adverse effects it could have on the character of the local landscape and on the "visual amenity" of those who live, work and travel nearby. However, Scottish ministers ruled that the "significant" economic and cultural benefits of the studio outweighed the above concerns. For example, it has been said that up to 1,600 jobs could be created by the project. When completed, it is set to feature two backlots, a hotel, visitor centre, film academy, energy centre, workshops, plus a creative industries hub – all in addition to the studio.

Despite the opposition to the plans, the investment has been cited as a positive step forward for Scotland's film sector. It was thought that the lack of suitable studio space available meant the country was losing out to other parts of the UK when it came to attracting major productions, whether for film or television.

Wales also recently unveiled details for one of the largest film and TV studios to be established in the region. Situated in Cardiff by the team behind production company Bad Wolf, support from the Welsh Government will ensure that the facility meets the high demand for studio space in the country. Established in 2015, Bad Wolf is co-sited in Wales and the US and has already established strong partnerships with international broadcasters. This new studio will be based at Trident Park, Ocean Way, close to Cardiff City Centre and has been acquired by the Welsh Government. It will be leased on commercial terms and provide studio facilities for Bad Wolf's production roster as well as accommodating other major TV productions. Bad Wolf will film all of their forthcoming productions in the studio, marking a significant investment in Wales as an international television production hub.

When complete, it will be the only studio in Wales able to offer stage space with a maximum eave height of 17.5 metres (57ft), making it an attractive proposition for high end television productions and big budget feature films from around the world. Describing the investment as a "strategically important acquisition" to meet increased demand for studio space, Wales' Economy Secretary Ken Skates said: "A facility of this size will ensure Wales retains a competitive advantage with enough large scale studio space to service the productions wishing to film here. It has real potential to generate a transformational impact on the Welsh creative industries sector, creating a large scale film and TV production hub."

"A facility capable of accommodating large scale productions is crucial for Bad Wolf to deliver its pipeline of projects which will provide a £120m plus boost for the film and TV sector in Wales. It will also be a key asset for the creative sector in Wales providing facilities to other major TV productions," he added. "It will deliver long term sustainable economic benefits to Wales, strengthen the skills base and supply chain, attract inward investment and tourism. In addition it will further raise the profile of Wales TV drama production around the world and support the continued growth in TV drama production in Wales."

It is interesting to note that all of the above complexes offer more than just studio space to production companies. So, is the incentive of other services – from costume, props or lighting services – a factor that is helping the UK flourish in the sector?

Liverpool Film Studios provide office and industrial space which production companies use. For example, the film The 51st State featuring Samuel L Jackson was one of the first films produced at the centre, while more recently, accommodation was provided to the team that made the highly acclaimed television series Cilla. Discussing whether the UK is now leading the way when it comes to studio facilities, Piers Goodall from Liverpool Film Studios, noted: "Liverpool has more than its fair share of production companies (both small scale and international 'big name' companies) making use of facilities in and around the city. I think there are inherent complications – and costs – associated with filming in our capital city which are reduced when using regional locations."

"Organisations like Liverpool Film Office are able to make the necessary introductions to give production companies all the support they need when based in and around Liverpool," he added.

Another city thriving with production work is Bristol, thanks to the work of The Bottle Yard Studios. An established base for film and television production in the West of England, the studios have attracted significant UK and overseas productions over the years, including The Crystal Maze (Channel 4), Broadchurch (ITV) and Wolf Hall (BBC Two). Located just 15 minutes from Bristol city centre, the Bottle Yard Studios has eight stages available, as well as a giant green screen studio, extensive back lot, workshop areas, production offices, costume and make-up rooms, dressing-rooms, storage, private roadways and parking. On-site tenants deliver a host of services including creative, digital, technical and audio/visual expertise, grips, transport, structural, fire and safety assistance.

As the number of productions increase at the facility, The Bottle Yard Studios also proudly announced two additions to the creative hub at its base; costume hire company Bristol Costume Services, and film/TV industry healthcare specialists MRU Services. Their arrival brings the total number of companies based at the Studios to 21. And just last month, The Bottle Yard also welcomed its first on-site radio station, SoulTrain Radio DAB. The station moved into its new studio residence – located in three former edit rooms at The Bottle Yard Studios – as it prepares for its DAB launch in December.

When asked how beneficial it is to have tenants onsite, Fiona Francombe, Site Director of The Bottle Yard Studios, said: "I think having such a wide range of companies delivering specialist services on site definitely gives us an edge over other production bases. If a producer is looking to shoot somewhere and knows he/she will be able to access the highest standards of costume services, fire safety, rigging, set building, unit medical cover, even drivers that know the region, I think that will always help seal the deal. This is a competitive business and every incoming production will have weighed up their needs against what we can offer. That's why we choose our tenants so carefully, each are exceptional in their field and offer something unique."

Investment is also continuing to upkeep the condition of studios in the UK. In October 2016, for example, the studios announced that it would benefit from a £692,000 investment boost, thanks to the local council authority. It was announced that the capital investment would go towards improvements to the site, including new roofs, production offices and IT infrastructure. For example, new roofs were to be installed on three of the Studios' Tank House buildings, which house The Bottle Yard's main studio stages, while solar PV panels were also being introduced.

One thing that is interesting to note is that the investment in UK studios is having a ripple effect throughout the country; i.e. it is not just the studios that are benefitting from the various projects taking place. For example, a digital company which works on television drama Outlander is to expand its workforce as a result of a £200,000 grant.

Using the Regional Selective Assistance (RSA) funds, awarded by Scottish Enterprise, Blazing Griffin are to establish a post-production facility at their new premises in Glasgow. The company specialises in providing high quality end-to-end post production which included editing suites, 4K HDR colour grading, online and finishing services, and the latest facility will help to create 14 new permanent jobs.

Commenting on the investment, David Frew, Head of Post Production, Blazing Griffin, said: "Our aim is to establish Blazing Griffin Productions as Scotland's premier TV and Film post production facility – one which is competitive with the UK's most highly regarded facilities in London. Our state-of-the-art facility is home to Scotland's first 4K HDR grading theatre, and is already servicing some of the largest productions in Scotland. We hope to extend to projects and clients shooting in other parts of the UK and Europe. The RSA grant will not only allow us to attract the best local Scottish talent, and talent which previously went elsewhere, but also to attract highly regarded talent from other parts of the UK and the rest of the world."

David Hartley, Head of Creative Industries at Scottish Enterprise, added: "Blazing Griffin is a fantastic example of how we can work alongside creative and digital businesses to accelerate their growth through our intensive, tailored support. Large-scale globally mobile productions, such as Outlander, are good news for Scotland as they open up supply chains to Scottish companies, offering new revenue streams which companies like Blazing Griffin can capitalise on. We look forward to continuing to work with Blazing Griffin as it embarks on its next phase of expansion."

However, it is not just local councils or governments that support the sector. Other organisations that provide support to the industry include the British Film Commission. The BFC is the national agency with a remit to maximise and support the production of international feature film and television in the UK. The Commission's activities include maximising and supporting the production of international feature film and television in the UK, strengthening and promoting the UK's production infrastructure, and working to ensure film-friendly policies are in place.

The BFC also delivers guidance on British qualification and the UK's Film and TV Tax Reliefs, which could be another reason for continued success. The UK Film Tax Relief has been encouraging productions into the country since 2007. Further tax reliefs in 2013 and 2014 offered the same benefits to high-end television, animation for broadcast and video games; and in 2015, the film tax relief was broadened again to allow for children's television. The incentive enables a production company with an eligible project to claim 25% of qualifying expenditure back.

"Production levels are riding high in the UK for both TV and film, in particular the buoyancy of the market for major TV drama since the high-end TV tax credit was introduced seems to be playing a major role," said Fiona Francombe. "Space is at a premium so the studios sector has become far more competitive. Producers are willing to look around for a good deal and find the right space that suits their needs, so its no surprise that new spaces are opening up to meet the demand. I think the success of spaces like The Bottle Yard Studios is proof that if you have the space and can supply the right level of service, there's business to be done and bookings to be made."

There is no doubt that attracting these productions is positive for the economy and the film industry as a whole, but there also needs to be skilled workers also available to meet this demand. Skills training is vital and just last month, the National Film & Television School opened a groundbreaking 4K Digital Content Training Studio and Hub. The NFTS opened the Sony Gallery, located in the training studio. As part of the new state-of-the-art facilities at its Beaconsfield campus, the space will provide an unparalleled opportunity for students to learn the ropes of television production and prepare them for the world of modern broadcasting, with the ability to shoot, record, and stream live content in 4K.

The facility has been equipped with the latest Sony 4K technologies, including six HDC-4300 system cameras, an XVS-7000 switcher and a PWS-4500 live server system, all capable of supporting 4K, HDR & IP workflows. The HDC-4300 4K system cameras will enable students to learn on an advanced Studio Camera platform both operationally and creatively; while the HDC-4300 provides the chance to shoot in a variety of formats, from HD to 4K, HFR to HDR, making it the perfect camera for learning the practicalities of various broadcast production scenarios. Supporting the IP Live Production technology, the XVS-7000 combines the latest technology innovations and strengthens the NFTS' training facilities with a series of established Vision Mixers, which are already in use in most Live Productions, to offer students a wealth of operational learning. Flexible configuration makes the XVS-7000 adaptable to any production requirements, while the ability to up and down convert between 4K & HD provides flexibility for video input and outputs.

"Educating and inspiring the next generation of production professionals means ensuring they have access to the tools they'll encounter when they enter the world of full-time employment, and 4K has become an absolute necessity for this," said Nik Powell, Director at the National Film and Television School. "Our students will have the chance to work with the highest quality systems available, providing them with practical experience that equips them for the first steps in their career."

Further investment by the NFTS includes a new hub at BBC Scotland's studios in Glasgow and Dumbarton Studios. NFTS Scotland will significantly enhance vital skills provision arising from the expected growth in film and television production in the country. The BBC alone has committed additional investment of £40m a year in Scotland and is proposing to launch a new channel in 2018 and also produce more network output in future.

The School will specifically work to address gaps in existing provision by delivering courses other providers are not currently offering in Scotland, such as Production Accounting, Script Editing and Factual Development. Projected annual student numbers are expected to be in the region of 450 (100 full time, 50 part time and 250 on CPD courses) with over 1,500 students expected to graduate from the facility within five years.

NFTS Scotland is expected to open in January 2018 with students enrolling from April 2018. In addition to the BBC, the School has secured support from industry partners including STV, Channel 4, the British Film Institute and the producers of Outlander (David Brown), Mad Max Fury Road (Iain Smith) Sunshine on Leith and T2 Trainspotting (Andrew MacDonald).

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon supported the announcement, saying: "This is an exciting development for our screen sector which is already an area of growth for Scotland. While we have excellent university and college provision for a range of screen subjects and media skills, NFTS' plans will complement and expand the training opportunities available in Scotland. We have seen a rise in high-profile film and television productions being made in Scotland, and this government is focused on ensuring that continues. That is why we are establishing a new Screen Unit within Creative Scotland to better coordinate public sector support for screen. And as the BBC expands its operations in Scotland – specifically in Scottish news and drama productions – we must ensure people can gain and update the skills they need to capitalise on the opportunities ahead."

Amanda Nevill, CEO, BFI, also commented: "The NFTS is the best film school in the world so it's fantastic that its coming to Scotland and giving more talented young people from all backgrounds the opportunity to learn about film, and prepare them for a career in the industry. With the film and TV industries booming, we need 1000's more skilled people to join the workforce so this is great news for the Scottish creative industries and great news for the economy."

So, can the UK continue with the success of its studios and attracting productions to these shores?

"The UK currently provides an economical solution for international filmmaking, primarily due to low costs from a currency perspective,” said Piers Goodall. When coupling this with a wide range of studio facilities, fantastic locations and a great track record when it comes to filmmaking, it would suggest that the situation is sustainable."

Fiona added: "Studio success relies of course on a steady flow of TV and film productions being made in the UK, and so many things can influence that at any time. Tax breaks introduced in other countries, future impact of Brexit, changing TV and film financing models causing knock on effects down the production chain; all these factors influence decisions taken by TV commissioners and film producers every day. Right now though we're experiencing a very welcome boom, and we're showing we can deliver in the face of very high demand. I think the most important thing to do is focus on keeping our industry as competitive as possible, so that producers at home and overseas are in no doubt that the studio quality and skilled crew they're looking for can be found right here in the UK and, of course, in Bristol."

This article also features in the November edition of Broadcast Film & Video.



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