The studios behind the headlines, part 6: round-up
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The studios behind the headlines, part 6: round-up

Welcome to the sixth and final part of Frame 25’s series looking at large-scale studio investment in the UK.

In part one, we shone the spotlight on Twickenham Studios before Sky Studios Elstree, Elstree Studios, Eastbrook Studios and The Wharf were all highlighted, with the investments of some of the world’s biggest content producers – Netflix, Disney and Apple – also examined.

And now we wrap things up with a look at:

  • Blackhall Studios
  • Ashford International Film Studios
  • Birmingham Media Village/Mercian Studios

The UK: the world’s busiest production hub

The UK’s creative industries were already relatively healthy before Covid hit: the sector was the UK economy’s fastest-growing in 2018, creating jobs at twice the rate of the country’s average employment growth.

The government stated in 2018 that film and high-end TV revenues in the UK “could nearly double to approximately £4 billion a year” by 2025.

The spend on high-end TV and film production in the UK reached £3.62 billion in 2019, a 16% increase on 2018, and fell 21% year-on-year in 2020 – but still exceeded £2.84 billion.

And as we’ve discovered throughout this series, recent investment means the UK, with its highly skilled, talented and experienced workforce, remains the world’s busiest production hub.

Then and now

Locating studio space in the UK has long been a challenge for producers, and intense competition among the leading SVOD players, such as Netflix and Disney+, whose popularity has rocketed during the pandemic as people have been asked to stay at home, has led to a surge in demand for both content and production capacity.

This growth in demand, as well as several favourable factors, has driven huge investments in studio facilities to counter the shortage and boost supply:

Current conditions

  1. Financial incentive 1: tax breaks

While the UK’s tax incentives aren’t unusual in the global industry – similar schemes are available in many other countries – relief of up to 25% is available for films and high-end TV programmes that qualify as British, either via a cultural test or as an official co-production. Effectively that means productions shot in the UK but backed by Hollywood qualify.

  1. Financial incentive 2: a weaker pound

The relative weakness of the pound against the dollar in recent years has added to the UK’s appeal to US producers.

  1. The availability of on- and off-screen talent

The UK’s highly skilled, talented and experienced workforce is respected throughout the global industry. Very few countries can locally crew major productions – the UK and the US among them. London, in particular, is home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of film and TV expertise.

  1. The long-term growth opportunities attract institutional investment

The founder and chief executive of studio developer Quartermaster, Katya Baker, says: “Our experience is long-term institutional debt and equity investors in various territories are keen to invest in this particular space.”

Part 6: round-up: Blackhall Studios

Blackhall Studios

Location: Thames Valley Science Park, a tech hub owned by the University of Reading and situated 40 miles west of London on the outskirts of the town.

Story: Atlanta-based Blackhall Studios, the studio group behind Venom, Jumanji and Godzilla, plans to build and run a £150 million Hollywood-style studio complex – the UK’s largest purpose-built production facility.

This particular investment differs from others in our series because the government helped to secure a site.

The plan: Due for completion in early 2022, the new complex will comprise one million square feet of physical production stages alongside digital media facilities tailored for special effects, augmented reality and animation.

The project is expected to create up to 3,000 jobs, including 1,500 at the studio site, and generate £500 million of inward investment to the UK each year.

Blackhall Studios’ UK operation will be run by Nick Smith, who was previously executive commercial director at Pinewood-Shepperton.

What they said: Liz Truss, international trade secretary: “The UK and the US are each other’s largest investors and this announcement demonstrates the strength of our trading relationship.”

Ryan Millsap, Blackhall chairman and chief executive: “We are delighted to be establishing a base in the UK. Blackhall is the global standard for entertainment production space and our US-based clients like Disney, Universal and Sony are all asking us to expand into the UK to meet their desire to create productions here.”

Part 6: round-up: Ashford International Film Studios

Ashford International Film Studios

Location: Ashford, Kent.

Story: The £250 million project is being developed by TCDIC, The Creative District Improvement Company (TCDI Co), who acquired a 50% stake in Twickenham Studios in February 2020 and are looking to invest £500 million across the country. Ashford International Film Studios is scheduled to open in early 2022.

The plan: The 15-acre Newton Railway Works in Ashford, a locomotive manufacturing site from 1847 until it was shut in the early 1980s, will be developed to feature four 20,000 square-foot film stages as well as a film training academy, conference centre, 120-bed hotel, 68 serviced apartments, a 10,000 square-foot gym, a restaurant and leisure space..

Ancillary production space spanning 80,000 square-foot is also part of the plan, as well as 30,000 square-foot of media village, which will include the Future Media Centre, an educational hub made in partnership with the University of Kent and the three other Kent-based universities. It’s hoped this will become the largest film school in the country.

The studio space will be located close to Ashford’s Eurostar station, providing links with Netflix’s European hub in Amsterdam and France’s TF1 network.

What they said: Piers Read and Jeremy Rainbird, founders of TCDI Co: “As we emerge from COVID-19 there will continue to be unprecedented demands for stage space and a demand for skilled workers which will continue to grow.

“With A.I. constantly encroaching into the UK employment sector, the creative industry is one of the only industries that robustly defends itself from mass unemployment. British TV and film making is the best in the world thanks to facilities like Ashford International Studios.”

Part 6: round-up: Mercian Studios

Mercian Studios/Birmingham Media Village

Location: Digbeth, Birmingham.

Story: ‘Brummiewood’ is a multi-million-pound media village including film and TV studios as well as space for houses, bars and restaurants. It’s being created by screenwriter Steven Knight, the man behind Peaky Blinders, who says his Mercian Studios will sit within a new “residential, retail and food and drink neighbourhood” in a 32-acre site in Digbeth.

The project appears to be back on track after an independent report on Film Birmingham, published in October last year, stated “work was to start on the privately funded Mercian Studios in Digbeth in 2020, but Covid-19 has halted any building work and as yet there is no decision on when it can commence.”

The plan: The £18 million, 50,000-square-foot facility based at The Bond in Birmingham’s historic Creative Quarter has had an investment of £3 million approved. Mercian Studios will be a film and TV studio hub and cater for related industries such as animation and virtual reality.

Steven Knight will work with the BFI and Birmingham City University to help create apprenticeships. The BBC, meanwhile, “will work with local partners in the West Midlands region to explore the possibility of growing its production presence in the Digbeth Creative Quarter, as plans for the Digbeth Creative Content Hub and Mercian Studios develop”.

What they said: Steven Knight said: “Studios are usually not slap bang in a city but my plan is to create a community and neighbourhood – a place where people live and work, as well as hang out. So there will be mixed used space available on the site for housing, restaurants, bars and restaurants.”

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands: “It is incredibly exciting that thanks to some brilliant collaborative working we have managed to get this world class Creative Content Hub off the ground. The West Midlands has some of the most creative talent in the world, but in the past we have been notoriously poor at nurturing and retaining it. This new hub will go a long way to both addressing that and re-establishing the West Midlands as one of the country’s premier film and TV destinations.”

The big picture

We’ve covered a good number of studios across the six parts of this series but there are plenty more TV and film facilities being developed right around the country.

But new world-class studios, including purpose-built developments and converted buildings, comprise only part of the story: there are several reasons why the UK’s production industry is booming and looking healthy for the next few years at least.

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