U.K. can be a cheap place to shoot

Filmmakers able to meet budgets with right moves

LONDON — Any American who has spent $5 or more for a venti latte in a London branch of Starbucks will tell you that the U.K. is overpriced. But when it comes to shooting movies, British film commissioner Colin Brown claims that Britain isn’t nearly as expensive as people assume.

Well, he would, wouldn’t he? It’s Brown’s job to put a positive gloss on what Blighty can offer. But in this case, Brown is supported by research into the comparative costs of shooting in the U.K. vs. alternative territories.

A report by Olsberg SPI concludes that out of nine rival locations (Los Angeles, Connecticut, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Ireland, Hungary and the Czech Republic), only the last two of these are cheaper than the U.K. for a movie costing around $100 million. For a movie costing around $20 million, the U.K. is beaten only by Hungary.

Shooting in Los Angeles is a staggering 33% more expensive for a big-budget movie and 29% dearer for a midbudget pic.

The biggest reason for this surprising result is the U.K.’s tax credit, described by Olsberg as “one of the most generous incentives in the world.” This goes a long way to mitigate the U.K.’s relatively high upfront cash cost of production.

Marc Huffam, exec producer of “Mamma Mia!,” testifies that the tax credit made a big difference to Universal’s calculations about where to shoot the Abba musical. Despite its Greek island setting, the production spent a bare four weeks on location in the Aegean, with the rest filmed on soundstages at Shepperton.

As a result, the $52 million movie managed to net an $8 million-$9 million rebate from the U.K. government.

“The studio only wanted to spend a certain amount of money, so the U.K. tax credit was how we were going to maximize it,” Huffam says.

The other big factor identified by the report is the hidden cost of shooting in some territories where the local infrastructure is less well developed. The cost of living and local labor may be cheaper, but if you have to fly your skilled workers in from elsewhere and put them up in hotels, savings soon evaporate.

“It’s very hard to compare,” Huffam says, “but take the example of a film I didn’t produce, ‘Inkheart.’ New Line had a budget for Prague of $71 million, but the director wanted to do it in England and Italy, so they asked me to do a budget and I brought it in at $69 million, even before the tax credit.”

What about Hungary, which even the U.K. Film Council thinks is cheaper? Answers Huffam: “I guarantee I can do a film cheaper in the U.K. than I can do it in Hungary, You still have to take too many people over there for the sums to add up.”

Paul Trijbits of Ruby Films, who scoured Eastern Europe for locations to shoot Joshua Michael Stern’s “King Lear” before settling with the director’s artistic preference for Scotland, concurs.

“We looked at Hungary, Romania, Latvia,” Trijbits says. “But this is a period drama, so you’d have to fly all the costumes in, and it’s very difficult to get the above-the-line talent to come to places like that.”

Huffam cautions that the most economical way to shoot in the U.K. is to avoid London.

“To make a film in London is as expensive as New York,” he says. “In terms of location costs, London and the rest of the U.K. are very different.”

One problem, as the Olsberg report points out, is that talent who would put up with the Hilton in Budapest see it as their divine right to stay at the Dorchester in London for several times the price. On the other hand, those creature comforts are one reason why it’s easier to lure the big stars to shoot in the U.K. than to rough it in Eastern Europe.

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