As Warner Bros prepares to transform Leavesden into its permanent UK base, and with the government having pledged to keep the tax credit intact, Sarah Cooper asks how the UK can build on a year of record investment in 2010

In November 2010, Warner Bros’ Josh Berger described the studio’s decision to buy Leavesden Studios as a “significant endorsement of the creative talent in the UK at a time when investment in the UK is critical”. But the ambitious move, which will also see a $162.2m (£100m) refurbishment of the facility and the creation of a Harry Potter tour on-site, is not the only development underway within the UK studio sector.

Pinewood is forging ahead with its controversial live-in community development, Project Pinewood, as well as its international acquisitions strategy, while Ealing, Three Mills and Elstree studios are all drawing up expansion plans. Wimbledon Film and Television Studios, f(ormely known as Merton Studios which played host to ITV series The Bill), has just re-opened its doors for business, whilst other new UK facilities, including Bristol’s The Bottle Yard in western England, are hoping to snag overseas business.

Just six months ago, such vigorous activity seemed unlikely. In July 2010 the UK government revealed it was to abolish the UK Film Council, sending shockwaves through the international production community as rumours swirled that the valuable UK tax credit was at risk. At least one US studio is understood to have pulled out of a scheduled UK shoot in the feverish aftermath.

“If we didn’t have the tax credit, our production industry would disappear overnight,” says veteran producer Iain Smith. “Yes, the US studios come for the skills of the British film industry. But if the difference between here and there is $2m, they will go there.”

The sector was also facing the prospect of its first year for a decade without a Harry Potter film providing months of work for around 2,000 cast and crew, and pumping hundreds of millions of dollars at a time into the UK economy.

Add to that the ever-present threats posed by rival film hubs — in Canada, the Czech Republic and a growing list of attractive-looking US states — as well as volatile currency fluctuations, and bold expansion seemed to be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

‘Warner Bros’ UK move will make everyone else scratch their heads and think, “Hold on, why are we not there?”’

Steve Norris, Apollo Productions

So what has changed? Everything and nothing. Certainly the future of the tax credit has become clearer: the UK government has no immediate plans to tinker with a financing mechanism most people generally agree works well. From this April, it will be administered by the British Film Institute (BFI) rather than the UKFC. But just as significant is the impact of Warner Bros’ energising plans for Leavesden, which pre-date the UKFC announcement. It will mark the first time a US studio has had a permanent production base in the UK since MGM in the 1940s.

“I can’t tell you how profound this move is,” says Steve Norris, former managing director of Framestore and a former British film commissioner, who has just launched UK production services company Apollo Productions to encourage more independent international film-makers to shoot in the UK. “It’s not only a huge vote of confidence in the UK, but it will make everyone else scratch their heads and think, ‘Hold on a minute, why are we not there?’”

Inward investment in the UK hit a record $1.5bn (£928.9m) in 2010. Walt Disney Pictures’ Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, GK Films’ Hugo Cabret, DreamWorks’ War Horse and Warner Bros’ Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, all shot in the UK, as did the boy wizard’s final instalment, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part II.

“Our studios are rammed full,” says Adrian Wootton, head of Film London, cheerfully. From April, Film London will take over the inward investment activity of the UKFC under an as-yet-unannounced new name.

But record inward investment figures do not always translate into record profits. In 2009, Pinewood/Shepperton, the publicly owned parent company of the UK’s two biggest studios, posted a 6% fall in revenues to $36.8m (£22.7m). Some of this can be put down to the migration of big projects to temporary, cheaper spaces. Warner Bros kitted out a former tank-testing site at Longcross, south of London, for Clash Of The Titans in 2009, which was subsequently taken last year by Disney for John Carter Of Mars (Disney also used a former retail warehouse in Greenford for the latter, while Christopher Nolan took over the Cardington airship hangars, once Europe’s biggest buildings, to shoot much of Inception as well as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight).

These sites offer spaces on a par with the stages at Pinewood and Shepperton but for a fraction of the price. Of course, this is because they are warehouses, not sound stages, and visiting productions need to bring in all the equipment.

Pinewood/Shepperton was rattled enough to have (unsuccessfully) asked the UK government to rule ineligible for the UK tax credit the productions using these makeshift facilities.

Indeed, the high rates of UK studios compared with similar facilities abroad helped convince Iain Smith to reject a UK shoot for 20th Century Fox’s The A-Team in 2009. “Initially we did think we should make it in the UK and Europe, but when we added up the facts we went with Vancouver,” recalls Smith. He says that to hire a 15,000 sq ft stage for a four-week period at Pinewood/Shepperton would cost $118,600 (£72,800), as opposed to $38,000 (£23,355) at the Vancouver Film Studio (subject to discounts).

He admits that proximity to Los Angeles also played its part. “When the studios are making these big movies, they would prefer to jump on a plane for two hours rather than 12 hours.”

Still, if Pinewood’s recently published 2010/2011 annual results are anything to go by, the studio is not struggling to attract the big projects. It reported an 8% increase in revenues on 2009 from $65m (£40.3m) to $70m (£43.4m), thanks to an influx of US studio films shooting at the studios in 2010, including Disney’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Marvel’s Captain America: The FirstAvenger.

Healthy competition

Leavesden Studios is a former Rolls Royce factory just north-west of London. MGM first moved the cameras and crews into the 1 million sq ft space for James Bond film GoldenEye in 1995. George Lucas subsequently used the property to make the three Star Wars prequels. But now Warner Bros, which shoots more in the UK than any other US studio, is transforming it into its own fully equipped space, does it mean other UK studios will suffer?

Roger Morris, managing director of Elstree Studios, is not worried. The studio, north-west of London, hosted Warner Bros’ Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows last year. It is also very popular with UK TV producers.

“If anything, it’s going to bring in more work,” Morris suggests. “I’ve never known anyone manage to line up their film portfolios so they make one after another, so Warner will probably have to use other studios anyway.”

“It is good competition,” says Nick Smith, the commercial director at Pinewood/Shepperton who is responsible for bringing productions into both facilities, along with sales director Paul Baker and head of film sales Europe, Noel Tovey. Upcoming productions include Universal’s 47 Ronin, which will shoot for 10 weeks at Shepperton from May. The first part of the shoot will take place in Budapest, attracted by the Hungarian capital’s “new sound stages, which are bigger than in the UK”, according to director Carl Rinsch.

Like Elstree’s Morris and James Spring who heads Ealing Studios in west London, Smith says the biggest problem they face is too much demand. “We just don’t have enough space,” he explains. “Also, everything needs to be more spectacular, and film production is getting bigger. We’re now being asked for stages that are up to 50,000 sq ft.” Pinewood’s biggest stage is 59,000 sq ft.

So busy are the studios that some UK producers complain about getting their own smaller projects into facilities. “Most are block-booked by the US studios,” says Damian Jones, who is producing The Iron Lady. “We did finally get into Pinewood.”. The recent announcement that Pinewood is to invest in smaller budget British films could go someway to addressing this, as the chosen projects will also be given access to shoot at Pinewood and Shepperton studios.  

“Pinewood and Shepperton tend to get the big Hollywood films and we tend to get a lot of extra work from that,” says Derek Watts, head of Three Mills Studio, which has hosted Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea and Nigel Cole’s Made In Dagenham.

“Am I aware of any film that hasn’t been able to shoot because it hasn’t got into a UK studio? No,” says Wootton, “but you’ll always get people jostling over the facilities.”

And let’s face it, there are worse problems that could face the UK studio sector.

UK studios’ expansion plans

Leavesden Studios

The new-look Warner Bros-owned facility will represent around a third of the dedicated stage space for major film production in the UK. It should be open for business by mid-2012, and will include a Harry Potter-themed tour.

Pinewood/Shepperton Group

In addition to operating studios in Toronto and Malaysia, and teaming up with Studio Hamburg in Berlin, Pinewood/Shepperton owns the UK’s two biggest studios as well as Teddington Studios west of London. It has recently announced plans to build a studio in the Dominican Republic, complete with an eight acre water-effects facility. In the face of massive local opposition, the company continues to pursue Project Pinewood, the construction of a living and working community for film, television and the creative industries, with a public inquiry scheduled for April 5, before a final decision is made by the government, most likely towards the end of 2011.

Pinewood announced last month that it planned to invest 20 % equity in up to four British films per year which have production budgets of around $3.2m (£2m) each, also giving the projects access to shoot at Pinewood and Shepperton studios.

Elstree Studios

Intends to add three 30,000 sq ft stages to its existing seven stages, as well as creating a visitor centre.

Ealing Studios

Ealing has planning permission for 100,000 sq ft of extra space which it is hoping to fill with media tenants such as film and TV companies and post facilities.

Wimbledon Film and Television Studios

Formerly known as Merton Studios, this south west London space played host to the UK TV series The Bill until last year when it was bought by Panther Securities. Fully refurbished and now open for business, the studios includes 50 purpose built “location” sets including a prison, police station, court room, pub and a specially built “House of Commons” set, which was used last month in the shooting of upcoming feature The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep.   The studio has two stages of approximately 8,000 square feet and two smaller green screen studios of approximately 2,000 square feet, one of which is due to open this summer.

The Bottle Yard

This Bristol facility opened in 2010 with the aim of luring big US productions to south-west England. It has five stages, ranging from 7,730 sq ft to 18,000 sq ft, as well as warehouse space, the biggest of which is 215,600 sq ft.