British countryside to house new studio

LONDON — Veteran British producer Simon Relph is developing plans to create an Ealing-style film studio in the heart of rural England.

He is mobilizing the support of several big British film names for his imaginative proposal, which has already won some preliminary financial backing from the BBC, British Screen, the British Film Institute and the Arts Council’s lottery fund.

His idea is to set up a studio with its own full-time production team, which would have the resources to pump out four low-budget feature films and four shorts a year. These would be made by rookie directors, producers and writers, who will be invited to live and work at the studio for around 18 months at a time.

Relph has found a disused factory called Freshford Mill, near Bath in England’s West Country, as a possible site for the venture. He himself lives nearby, and is approaching several other film notables who have homes in the area as possible trustees, including directors Stephen Frears and Paul Weiland, and producers Stephen Woolley and David Rose.

He’s toying with the name Thunderbolt Studios, in a conscious allusion to the golden age of London’s Ealing Studios, which produced a string of classic British comedies in the 1950s that included “The Titfield Thunderbolt.” That pic was shot in the valley where Freshford Mill is located, and starred Relph’s grandfather. Relph’s father was a producer at Ealing.

Training is the main driving force behind Relph’s project. He sees the studio as a bridge for promising filmmakers between film school and the industry at large. The aim is to give emerging talent the time, space and stability to hone their craft.

“It will enable us to make first-time films more economically, and will give first and second-time filmmakers the opportunity to work under more desirable circumstances than they do at the moment, at a reasonable cost,” he said.

It would also provide on-the-job training for production staff of all kinds, working under experienced department heads. His idea is to create a production community away from London to nurture new talent. “Eventually it may grow to have a continuity and identity in the great tradition of Ealing Studios,” he said.

Relph is looking to raise just over $9 million as initial capital for the studio. It will be set up as a trust rather than a commercial venture, although it will aim to make commercial movies for the British market on budgets of $1.4 million apiece. The studio will reinvest any revenues in future production.

The Arts Council recently awarded him about $70,000 from its lottery funds for a detailed feasibility study, and Relph is hoping to get lottery backing for the studio itself. He is planning to apply for various EU and film industry training grants, and to equipment manufacturers for their support.

He is hoping to interest major film companies keen to get the inside track on the talent coming through the studio, and is looking for an output deal with a broadcaster or distributor to provide another source of production funds.

The serious fundraising will start in the next few months, with the current feasibility study due for completion by Christmas. If all goes to plan, the studio will be set up by the end of next year, and the first film will roll by mid-1999.

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