Your next boxset obsession is as likely to be made in Hertfordshire as Hollywood.
This week, Sky (now owned by US media giant Comcast) announced plans to build a massive new television and film studio complex on a 32-acre site less than a mile from the famous Elstree Studios, near Borehamwood. “Right now, it’s just an empty paddock but it’s going to be gorgeous when it’s done,” says Sky Studios chief executive Gary Davey.
The broadcaster is the latest to invest big money in producing content in the UK, following Netflix’s recent ten-year deal to set up a 14-stage production hub at Shepperton and Disney’s decade-long deal to take over Pinewood Studios. But what’s fuelling the scrap for studio space, and why are so many entertainment companies turning to Britain?
There is a “production frenzy” at the moment, Davey says, driven by the battle for streaming supremacy between Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple, Disney and others. “I’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years, and I’ve seen the sun rise and the sun set on UK film studios so many times, but the sun is definitely shining at the moment.”
A number of big international television hits in the last decade were produced in the UK, he points out, including His Dark Materials, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Chernobyl. “What’s interesting is the global audience, including the American audience, has embraced European accents, locations and themes like no TV shows in history,” he says.
Having a common language with America certainly helps, according to Victor Glynn, who’s produced films for the likes of Mike Leigh and Mike Newell. Talent is another key factor. “We have a vastly experienced craft background in terms of our crews and technicians, both in terms of shooting and post-production,” Glynn says, citing Oscar-winning special effects production houses Framestore and the Moving Picture Company.
“The UK feels like it’s flying in terms of film industry talent at the moment,” Briony Hanson, director of film at the British Film Council. She says the UK has always had a good reputation for whats known in the business as ‘below-the-line’ services: special effects, production companies, logistics. What’s changing is a new range of diverse creative talent ‘above the line’ – actors, directors, scriptwriters. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in diverse, vibrant voices doing different things and finding new UK and international audiences as they do it,” Hanson says – amid the turmoil, the UK is quietly having a cultural moment, akin to punk or Britpop.
The original drama content creation boom isn’t confined to the south east, it’s rippling out across the whole of the UK – boosting existing smaller, independent studios including Bottle Yard in Bristol, where Poldark is filmed, and Highfield Grange near York.
But the race to create more high-quality original productions for content-hungry streaming channels has highlighted a chronic shortage of studio space that could put the handbrake on the UK’s cinematic ambitions. According to commercial property agents Lambert Smith Hampton, an extra 1.9 million sq ft of studio space is needed by 2032.
That’s sparked a scramble to build new film and television studios across the UK, which is resplendent with disused airfields and former industrial sites crying out for a new purpose. As well as Sky’s site near Elstree, there are number of other projects in the work. Last year, independent production company rebellion spent £78m on a disused printworks in South Oxfordshire, which it will transform into a 220,000 sq ft film and TV studio complex.
At the other end of Oxfordshire, Heyford Park a former Cold War airbase near Bicester is gradually being transformed into a 459,000 sq ft studio hub – the site has previously been used to film World War Z and Wonder Woman. In Ashford, a derelict railway station is being transformed into seven studios with the aim catching the eye of Netflix or Amazon.
Of course, the welcome knock-on effect of all this activity is the creation of thousands of jobs, including electricians, carpenters, set designers and builders, lighting managers, truck drivers, catering staff and digital post-production. Kumar says film franchises such as Bond, Harry Potter and Star Wars and global TV brands Doctor Who, Games of Thrones and Sherlock, means UK production capacity has grown massively. “More people are working more regularly, which boosts the development of specialist skills. It also means the best people in the world want to come and work here in areas including VFX and animation,” she says.
It’s a far cry from the early 1990s, when Elstree Studios faced closure due to a lack of business. Now, a new multi-million pound complex will rise alongside the old buildings – a visible symbol of the seismic changes shaking the entertainment industry. “We didn’t plan being a neighbour of Elstree but it’s a fantastic coincidence,” says Davey. “All the guys at the old Elstree are excited, because we’re going to make this whole area a magnet for the world’s creative community.”
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