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In early March 2020, a new $640 million fund investing in a series of film studios throughout the U.K. was officially announced. First up: Twickenham Studios, the century-old London site known for such British classics as The Italian Job, Zulu and Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the home of the Oscar-winning sound work for Bohemian Rhapsody. The $50 million acquisition of this iconic spot was announced with the new fund, run by The Creative District Improvement Co. (TDIC), alongside plans to give Twickenham a major expansion that included additional soundstages.
There was no reason to think for a second that this wasn’t a sure bet. Thanks to generous tax credits and a major pool of talent helping the U.K. emerge as a key hub for Hollywood studios and streamers, production had been soaring for several years, reaching a record high of $4.7 billion in revenue in 2019 and led by a surge in high-end television. But the availability of studio space long had been failing to keep up with demand.
Within two weeks of the fund being launched, film and TV shoots across the U.K. — headlined by major productions including The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion, The Witcher and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 3 — were shut down one by one as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. With most of the U.K. population ordered to stay home, work ground to a halt at Twickenham, as it did at Pinewood, Shepperton, Leavesden, Ealing, Elstree and every other studio throughout the country.
While launching a fund to invest in studios just as they’re forced to shutter for an indefinite period of time might appear to be catastrophically unfortunate timing, it didn’t deter TDIC. Just three weeks later — as the entertainment world was starting to ask itself some worrying existential questions — it announced plans for the new $290 million Ashford International Film Studios, to be built (pending approval from local authorities) on a derelict former locomotive factory southeast of London.
In fact, despite the chaos faced by the British industry and numerous productions left mothballed for months, the demand for studio space didn’t stall at all during the pandemic. If anything, the rash of unfinished projects and new ones jostling to start pushed the need for more space — and the competition to acquire it or create it — through the roof.
“This bottleneck was built because of COVID-19, and if you couple that with the lack of stage space and the tax breaks for overseas productions, it’s a recipe for tremendous demand,” says Piers Read, a TV producer (The Inbetweeners, Peep Show) and co-founder of TDIC alongside Jeremy Rainbird, who helped launch Catastrophe star Sharon Horgan’s production company Merman.
Read describes the British studio space sector as “literally white hot” right now. “It’s unprecedented and mirrors the level of demand out there,” he says.
TDIC was among the bidders for a hotly contested 20-acre site in the East London town of Dagenham that was first touted in 2017 by London Mayor Sadiq Khan as a “rare chance to build a world-class film studio” in the British capital. U.S. property developers Hackman Capital Partners — owners of L.A.’s Culver Studios and New York’s Silvercup Studios — eventually won the contract in late 2020, promising to invest more than $420 million over three years on the property, now given the name Eastbrook Studios.
Just three months later, in March, Hackman agreed to a 10-year lease with the neighboring council to convert two 10-acre warehouses known as The Wharf into studios, complementing its Dagenham site.
Elsewhere and also now under construction, Sky Studios Elstree (north of London, near the famed Elstree Studios) is set to become an enormous 14-stage facility for Comcast’s European pay TV giant Sky, a major player in the high-end television space (recent shows include Gangs of London, with the Olivia Colman-starring miniseries Landscapers coming soon).
While Netflix — which last year reportedly spent $1 billion in the U.K. thanks to dramas like The Crown, Sex Education and The Witcher — has effectively taken over the iconic Shepperton Studios with a long-term lease signed in 2019, and Disney (recent U.K. productions include Cruella, Black Widow and The King’s Man) has done the same at Pinewood, Sky has gone a different route.
“To be honest, it’s about controlling our destiny,” Sky Studios COO Caroline Cooper says about the decision to build new premises rather than take out a lease elsewhere. “We want the kind of world-class site that works for us.”
Building its studio from the ground up means that Sky Studios Elstree — due to open in the first half of 2022 — won’t simply exist to accommodate the next influx of Sky Originals but has the specs, particularly the height, to also welcome Comcast’s vast array of Universal features that shoot in the U.K., including those from its prolific Focus Features (Downton Abbey) and Working Title (Cats, Yesterday) stables.
“We’ve tried to build in maximum flexibility so that everybody can be accommodated in the way that will work for them,” says Cooper, adding that, while “internal productions will be prioritized,” there will be opportunities for third parties to rent out the space.
Owning its own site should mean that Universal won’t need to ship its productions — as it has many times before — to Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden, now one of the biggest studios in the world after opening in 2012 with nine stages and growing constantly since then (it also is home to the phenomenally popular Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter).
Like everywhere else, Leavesden was forced to shut its doors in March 2020, and it remained closed for 14 weeks. But the issue the studio faced upon reopening didn’t have anything to do with a shortage of productions — it was trying to keep those that had been booked on track.
“At times we were at double capacity than what we’re used to,” says Emily Stillman, senior vp at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden, adding that the site usually operates in the “top 90s” percent capacity under normal circumstances. “Not only was there double the amount of production, there were also the COVID measures, so, for example, every car park has been taken for testing stations and PPE distribution.”
Alongside squeezing in all the shoots — both The Batman and Fantastic Beasts 3 wrapped earlier this year — Leavesden also grew during the pandemic. Bringing its total to 21, it added three extra soundstages, which were completed in March/April 2021 and immediately occupied by HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. To help keep the hotly anticipated series on schedule, Leavesden purchased a huge field adjacent to the studio to be used as a backlot area, while it’s also expected to take over a stage being refitted into a virtual stage when it opens later this summer.
Another COVID-era addition at Leavesden was the launch of a world-first, dedicated on-site childcare facility for those working in the industry. Part of WonderWorks — an initiative led by actress Charlotte Riley — the new center, aimed at helping women get back on set after having children, has been “a real game-changer” for some of the 55 families it’s now helping, according to Stillman.
Further toward London and catering for smaller productions, Garden Studios — a brand-new, 127,000-square-foot hub just seven miles from Soho — opened its doors in January 2021, while the crisis was still raging and the U.K. was in its third lockdown. Backed by Thomas Hoegh’s Arts Alliance, a longtime early investor in the creative sector (previous startups include Shazam, Picturehouse Cinemas and the Met Film School), Garden boasts three soundstages alongside a virtual production stage, all built by converting pre-existing warehouses.
Although Garden may well have once expected to house shows from the likes of Netflix and Sky, the fact that these big-spending producers are setting up shop in one base doesn’t concern studio manager Marnie Keeling.
“If anything, it actually increases the demand from independent and smaller budget productions, because people are realizing that there’s not as much availability at places like Pinewood or Elstree because the biggest streamers have taken over those spaces,” she says, adding that even though Garden has only just opened (its first feature film is due to arrive in July), nearby premises are already being eyed in order to expand the space.
It’s a similar situation at Twickenham, where Read says the ambition isn’t to secure a multiyear lease deal, but to have “different clients coming and going,” as has been the studio’s heritage.
Twickenham, according to Read, was “forced” out of the first lockdown in Summer 2020 by a “very high-profile feature film” that wanted to use one of its two 7.1 surround sound Dolby Atmos theaters (one of which was outfitted to the tune of more than $1 million when the studio doors were shut during the pandemic).
“We became the first COVID-ready studio to come out of lockdown one,” he says. “We were basically told by this particular studio in L.A. that we were their experiment, their guinea pig for relaunching their entire global production.”
Although Twickenham has roared back to life, ground at TDIC’s Ashford project has yet to be broken. COVID-19 may not have dampened demand for studio space, but it has forced much of the hard-hit travel industry to step back from expansion plans, and the original financing of the development was dependent on a major hotel chain opening within the complex. The upshot, claims Read, is that new plans could potentially increase Ashford’s available studio space: “I’ve got no doubt that the minute we get the funding resolved, that someone will take that studio [formerly occupied by the hotel] because the appetite for the content producers is just insatiable.”
While the majority of these new developments or expansions are taking place in and around London, particularly within the so-called “Golden Triangle” pegged out by Pinewood, Shepperton and Leavesden, the rest of the U.K. hasn’t been immune to the pre- and post-pandemic boom.
A major production hub has been growing in South Wales for over a decade and recently added Wolf Studios Wales, home for three seasons of His Dark Materials and the recent HBO hit Industry, while Scotland has burst onto the scene with new facilities announced for both Edinburgh — co-led by Sean Connery’s son Jason Connery — and Glasgow (in the city’s historic Kelvin Hall).
Liverpool, whose grand architecture has for years seen it double as New York City (Fantastic Beasts, It’s a Sin and The Batman are some of the more recent productions), is also getting its own space. The city’s famed art deco Littlewoods Building — first built in 1938 but facing demolition, having been empty since 2003 — is currently being transformed into a 275,000-square-foot facility, which TDIC is set to lease a portion of and operate under the Twickenham Studios brand.
With so many new facilities being built from scratch or by completely refitting old warehouse shells, one of the key focuses across the board is sustainability, both in the construction processes and day-to-day operations. Cooper says Sky Studios Elstree is aiming to be the “world’s most sustainable studio” — part of Sky’s pledge to be net-zero carbon by 2030 — and is planning for electric vehicles and a ban on single-use plastics, while it also hopes to generate a proportion of its own energy through solar power and to harvest rainwater to use on-site.
At Garden Studios, Keeling says they’re planning to “have oversight” of all the services they work with, including ensuring all of its catering is sustainably sourced.
But these sustainability efforts are irrelevant without the sustainability of the British industry, which appears to only be going in one direction — up. Although it hasn’t yet emerged fully from lockdown, the U.K. is awash in Hollywood productions, with the likes of Indiana Jones 5, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Mission: Impossible 7, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio and Ant-Man 3 now filming or in preproduction. It’s even busier on the TV front, with major projects underway including Star Wars: Andor, The Sandman, The Essex Serpent, Dungeons & Dragons, The Rig and the second seasons of Bridgerton and The Witcher.
Statistics back up the current boom. Official figures from the British Film Institute show that total spend on film and high-end TV in the first quarter of 2021 topped $1.2 billion, up 11 percent from 2020 and the highest first-quarter amount on record. Despite it starting with a lengthy period of inactivity as studios were shuttered, the 12 months from April 2020 to March 2021 were — somewhat incredibly — just 18 percent down compared to the year prior, hitting $4.15 billion. While the industry might still be considered to be in recovery, not too many people — especially those in the studio sphere — appear even slightly worried.
“Just from the amount of work that we’re turning away, I know that the demand is still there,” says Leavesden’s Stillman. “The desire to come to the U.K. [has remained], and I think it’s still a first choice for studios and TV companies coming out of the U.S.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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