London facils expand as regions make own push

LONDON — When it comes to filming in the U.K., all roads lead to London. But regions elsewhere in the country are beginning to lure crews outside of their comfort zone in the capital.

Every major studio facility is either based in London or on its outskirts, from the veterans — like Pinewood, Shepperton and Ealing — to more recent entrants, like Leavesden and 3 Mills.

But in December plans were unveiled to challenge the hegemony of the London studios with a £300 million ($587 million) production facility in Durham, Northern England. Coolmore Estates, a consortium led by producer Philip Moross, intends to build seven studios, workshops, post-production facilities, a theater, two hotels and serviced accommodation.

Moross sees the facility — which also caters for TV, music and new media, and will be used as a training center — as complementing rather than competing with the established studios. He says it would offer producers “low-cost, high-quality space, good quality, cost-effective labor, and potential equity funding.” Details of the equity funding arrangements will be revealed later this year.

But the London studio community has heard about such schemes before, with proposals for grandiose studios in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland rapidly turning to dust.

Pinewood, meanwhile, has plans of its own. In November, the studios unveiled Project Pinewood, which is a proposal for a $390 million extension to the site. This would include a series of permanent sets, including an English castle, a Roman amphitheater, an Italian lake, a piazza in Venice and street scenes from New York, Paris and London.

Ivan Dunleavy, CEO of Pinewood Shepperton, explains the attraction of these zones for filmmakers: “The ability to walk from Venice to Paris in five minutes: that’s the core concept. It’s the multiplicity of choice and the efficiency, not only in terms of production and logistics, but also the cost benefit that comes with that.”

As well as eliminating all the issues connected with shooting on location — such as traffic, security and bystanders — there would also be technical benefits. Dunleavy envisions a scenario where digital cameras would be connected wirelessly to a network of fiber-optic cables, which would be linked with the edit suites.

Ealing also has been developing its site, albeit on a more modest scale. The makeover will add 130,000 square feet of production workspaces, a restaurant, screening room and an underground car park to its existing five stages.

The studios are home to Barnaby Thompson’s Ealing Studios production shingle, and his experience as a producer has allowed him to tailor the studios to suit the tastes and needs of fellow filmmakers.

“As a producer, I know very well what you expect from a studio, and understand the problems that producers have, and the things that matter to them most,” he says. “It is so important, for example, for the talent to be happy. It is so important to create an environment where they feel good.”

Although not large, Ealing does benefit from its close proximity to the center of London: “It is a very personable space,” he says. “It is small and perfectly formed, and it is close to town.”

Although London has the vast majority of the traditional film studios in the U.K., the regions have learned to adapt other spaces for production.

Screen agency Northern Ireland Screen, for example, has leased the Paint Hall, a massive building that was once used to paint ships, and turned it into four stages that each measure 16,000 square feet, and with 90-foot-high ceilings.

The agency not only offers the Paint Hall rent-free, but makes an investment of up to $1 million in any production that spend at least $4.8 million on local cast, crew and facilities.

Walden Media and Playtone Prods. shot fantasy adventure “City of Ember,” which stars Bill Murray, Tim Robbins and Martin Landau, in the Paint Hall last year.

In Bedfordshire in the east of England, a 223,300 square foot former airship hangar at Cardington has been leased to Warner to use as a makeshift studio. Vince Vaughn vehicle “Fred Claus” and Batman pic “The Dark Knight” recently shot at the site.

But even those regional agencies without vast hangers or warehouses to offer have been able to perk up the pace of production in their regions.

Two of the most energetic have been EM Media in the East Midlands area of England, and Screen Yorkshire in Northern England.

“Atonement,” “The Golden Compass,” “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and the upcoming “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which premieres at the Berlin Film Festival, have all been drawn to these two regions, attracted by the aristocratic country houses and breathtaking scenery, and have also benefited from the production support provided by the local screen agencies.

Ruby Films’ “The Other Boleyn Girl” shot for 10 days at the historic Haddon Hall and another 10 days in the surrounding Derbyshire countryside.

Faye Ward, the film’s associate producer, has looked into shooting past productions for Ruby Films in other countries, but the quality of U.K. crews and the country’s tax breaks have always won the day. “In some respects, having a reliable, amazing artistic team is just as important as having, say, Scarlett Johansson attached, for both the financiers and yourself,” she says.

Screen Yorkshire has recently been providing production support to Ecosse Films’ “Brideshead Revisited,” which shot for five weeks at Castle Howard, Working Title’s “Wild Child,” which shot in Robin Hood’s Bay, Haworth and Harrogate, and an Indian film, “1920,” which shot for 20 days at various locations.

But it’s not just the locations and production services that are pulling in the projects. The regions also have cash and studio space to offer.

Screen Yorkshire, for example, invested $490,000 in the bigscreen version of “Brideshead Revisited,” which will be distributed by Miramax in the U.S.

EM Media has $11.7 million provided by the European Regional Development Funds to give out over two years.

One of the pics to benefit from EM Media’s funding was Anton Corbijn’s “Control.” Although the pic is set in Northern England, it was shot almost entirely in the East Midlands. Interiors for the film were shot at the former Carlton TV studios, which became part of the U of Nottingham campus in 2005. EM Media has now persuaded the university to hire out the two stages, measuring 8,000 square feet and 2,099 square feet, to other productions. The studios have recently been used for “Goal! III,” which features a cameo from David Beckham.

Large-scale studio space is in short supply in Yorkshire, so Screen Yorkshire is encouraging the management at Wakefield’s Litestructures Studio, a 17,664-square-foot rehearsal space used by rock bands to prepare for tours, to also accommodate film productions.

For smaller productions, a 19th century wool mill in Huddersfield has been turned into North Light Film Studios, which has six stages.

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