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The stage is set

EXCLUSIVE: Warner Bros Studios Leavesden is set to become both a major production centre and a huge tourist attraction when it opens for business this year. Screen editor Mike Goodridge took an exclusive tour of the site and spoke to studio managing director Dan Dark and Warner Bros UK chief Josh Berger about the transformation of Leavesden into a world-class production facility for hire.

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A five-minute drive from Watford Junction station, 20 minutes from central London, the massive Warner Bros Studios Leavesden (WBSL) site is bustling with construction activity. Covering 170 acres, the site will house a wide portfolio — nine soundstages, offices, workshops, mill, production-rentals outfit and extensive backlot when it opens this summer. Before that, on March 31, two soundstages will open to the public as the Warner Bros Studio Tour London — The Making Of Harry Potter, a permanent showcase of the sets, props and secrets behind the movie franchise that shot at Leavesden for a decade.

This massive development marks the first time a US studio has set up a permanent production base in the UK, but Warner Bros has no plans to operate Leavesden as a facility exclusively for its own productions. WBSL SVP and managing director Dan Dark is already courting and fielding interest from other companies and producers. With the Potter franchise now complete, the redeveloped Leavesden is set to become the UK’s next major go-to production facility alongside Pinewood, Shepperton and Elstree. In fact, had the land been abandoned or sold after Potter, the country could have lost 35% of its production capacity — a potential disaster at a time when the UK has never attracted more US production.

Dark has been involved with the site since 1994 when he oversaw the conversion of the disused Rolls Royce factory at Leavesden Aerodrome into a soundstage for Eon Productions’ GoldenEye. Eon leased the buildings from Rolls Royce and the site was subsequently bought by Malaysian consortium Millennium which had plans to expand it into a working studio, theme park and studio tour. While these plans languished, Dark accommodated several productions, notably Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace, Sleepy Hollow and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Eventually Millennium sold to UK-based property development company MEPC in 1999.

Around the time of the sale, Roy Button, EVP and managing director of Warner Bros Productions, approached Dark about using Leavesden to house a potential multiple-film series. “Roy could really see the value in having a dedicated facility for Harry Potter,” he recalls, “especially when you’re dealing with kids and animals, which he was faced with on this show. It was very much Roy’s idea to find an environment where we were in control and didn’t have to worry about another film coming in.” Warner Bros hired Dark, and MEPC and the studio agreed on a potential long-term lease for Potter — should the first film spawn a second or third.

The rest, of course, is history. As Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone soared into the record books and JK Rowling’s follow-up books flew off the shelves, it became clear Warner Bros would be renting Leavesden for some years to come. And then, when the series ended in 2010, the studio decided to buy the site entirely and redevelop it from scratch at a cost of some $200m.

“The completely ironic thing about this is that we rented it for the whole duration of Potter and then bought it when it was over,” explains Josh Berger, president and managing director of Warner Bros UK, Ireland and Spain. “We had conversations over time about buying the facility as well but it was like renting a house — you’re always talking to the owner about buying the house because you know you love it, but you just keep renting.” All the time Potter was shooting, Warner Bros Pictures was also using the other UK studios for its movies — and there were many from The Dark Knight to Clash Of The Titans to Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Last year, while Leavesden was being redeveloped, Warner shot six tentpole pictures in the UK at other studios and on location: Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows (at Shepperton and Elstree), The Dark Knight Rises (Cardington), Dark Shadows (Pinewood), Jack The Giant Killer (Longcross and Elstree), Wrath Of The Titans (Shepperton) and Gravity (Shepperton).

Despite that volume and the fact it shows no sign of slowing down, the decision to take on the Leavesden site was not, says Berger, an easy one.
“It was as much a strategic decision as it was a financial one,” he says.

“It was about putting down a flag in a country outside the US, which would be the first time we’ve done that, and actually own the land and develop it and keep it busy.” Warner Bros, after all, is not traditionally in the real-estate business and it only operates studios in the safety of its Burbank lot. “The broader message for us is that we are by far the biggest investor in British cinema in terms of production activity and spend,” says Berger, “in addition to our TV production and video-games business here. We will continue to build on that and Leavesden is a critical part of that.”

Though it appears ideal for future Warner Bros shoots, Berger and Dark are adamant the facility will not just be a Warner production stronghold. “I went out to the US in November to see all the majors, and of course that was the first question,” says Dark. “The answer is yes, we are going to be open to productions other than Warner’s. The studio operates as a commercial entity in its own right and we would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we were to treat any other production differently than Warner. The way I view it is that Warner Bros will probably be our biggest client but they will be a client like everyone else.”

“That said,” adds Dark, “Leavesden is here to meet production demands and we wouldn’t be doing this if the demand wasn’t there from the other majors as well.” Indeed, looking at the last few years, the levels of studio production in the UK are unprecedented. In addition to the recent Warner films, a few billion dollars have been spent in the UK by big-budget shoots such as Hugo, War Horse, Prometheus, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, X-Men: First Class, 47 Ronin, Snow White And The Huntsman and Skyfall.

Key to this production spend is the UK tax credit which offers production companies a cash rebate of up to 25% of qualifying UK spend. Berger has been close to the UK government throughout the formulation of the tax credit which was introduced under the UK Film Council (UKFC) and is now administered by the British Film Institute (BFI). Berger sat on the board of the UKFC and is now on the board of the BFI.

“The tax credit is absolutely key to making this whole ecosystem work,” he says. “You could say it is the most important thing. If that had gone away under the Labour government, there was talk that Potter might have left the UK and, who knows, it might have done. Film production is a global service industry right now and the productions find the places that combine tax credits with skills and facilities and a location where people want to go for three months to make a movie. London has language and other huge advantages, but if the tax credit went away, there is no question that the amount of production would decrease dramatically. Even now, the UK is not the most competitive in the world, price-wise, by any stretch, but it’s enough that makes the decision an easy one for all the heads of production around the world.”

Learning from Potter

Leavesden’s capabilities grew organically through the 10 years of Potter as each film made new demands on the studio staff. Europe’s biggest underwater tank was built for the fourth film, for example. “We adapted the facility to suit the needs of the production,” says Dark, “and now we are in amulti-production facility, we clearly need to be mindful not to be overly bespoke to each production because at the end of the day, we need to return it to a clean canvas. However we have a mindset to work with each production on its needs. One of the things we learned on Potter was that we needed space and so we now have four of the largest sound-proof stages in Europe because we know these shows need big spaces.” And bearing in mind the sensitive and confidential nature of most tentpole productions, Leavesden will offer a secure, controllable environment for each production. “With the new development, we worked really hard on security,” says Dark. “We looked at it as a completely clean canvas and asked what we needed to make the production feel really comfortable. Even with small things like the fact the offices are broken down into hubs that are all security controlled, so you can seal off your own areas and don’t have intermingling of productions.”

Berger and Dark stress the facility has been designed from the ground up as a film-maker-friendly studio: 115,000 square feet of covered multi-function area sits immediately adjacent to the stages ideal for costume, props, camera, grip and support services. Fully furnished dressing rooms and make-up rooms are located within the central complex, while workshops and the mill sit just outside the main buildings. Large areas of outdoor space for transport and parking have been left to allow room to move and prevent overcrowding.

“We’ve been able to take a step back and look at what production requirements are now and what they could be in the future, and build to that,” explains Dark. “We are learning not only from the experiences we’ve had here but also from all the experience at Burbank. We have a wealth of talent that we can call upon. If it’s built by film-makers, it can be operated by film-makers.” “This is a studio built by a studio,” adds Berger. “Film-making is at the heart of Warner Bros and there is a great benefit to that.” Easily able to house two large Hollywood pictures at the same time, WBSL also hopes to accommodate all sizes of production including UK independents and TV productions.

Stage C is open for use in February, the backlot is available immediately and the whole facility aims to be up and running by June. And while Dark will not reveal details of what films might be booking in 2012-13, he says that he is already fielding offers. “We have got a number of pencils,” he says.
Berger believes that, financial considerations remaining favourable, the UK will continue to benefit from a stream of big-spending studio production.
“Taken in total, it’s a very compelling story making blockbusters here,” he says. “I think that Bond and Potter have firmly put Britain on the map of the blockbuster business, proving that you can make it from soup to nuts here and make it really, really sparkle.”

THE BACKLOT

The backlot consists of 100 acres surrounded by a three-metre berm which enables a clear horizon throughout the facility and protects the productions inside. “It also means that we are not affecting the local neighbourhood at all and you can go out and shoot whatever you want to,” says Dan Dark. “We were in Tatooine out there in Star Wars, we blew up St Petersburg on Golden Eye out there.”

HARRY POTTER AND THE WB STUDIO TOUR

When Warner Bros decided to buy the Leavesden site and redevelop it as a state-of-the-art studio facility, the question of how to protect and develop the legacy of the Harry Potter franchise again came up.

“It was a discussion which had been going on for years, really,” says Josh Berger. “What was created here was historic and there was a year of process about what to do with it. What we’ve ended up with is going to be pretty great — an impressive look for a fan into the world of the films.
It’s wall-to-wall Potter.”

The tour, located ironically on stages J and K (bearing in mind Harry Potter creator JK Rowling) is a lavish showcase of sets, props, costumes, artefacts and insight into the production and effects of the series with sets of Hogwarts’ Great Hall, Diagon Alley and Dumbledore’s study among others. Original crews were brought back to Leavesden to restore the sets, while talent from in front of and behind the camera has contributed to the immersive behind-the-scenes experience.

Beyond the insider look for fans, Dan Dark says the tour offers a showcase for UK craftsmanship.

 

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