The new Brit backlots

H'wood finds stages in old warehouses, military bases

Longcross, Greenford and Cardington don’t have the same evocative ring as Pinewood and Shepperton. But increasingly these old military and industrial sites are stealing away Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters from Blighty’s traditional studios.

“Clash of the Titans” shot at Longcross Studios, previously a tank-testing facility southwest of London. Both “Batman Returns” and “The Dark Knight” filmed their Gotham City scenes in an old airship hanger in Cardington, a village north of London. Chris Nolan returned there for his latest project, “Inception.”

Disney’s “John Carter of Mars” is the latest franchise to split its shoot across Longcross and another facility, an old Woolworths warehouse in the west London suburb of Greenford, although the production is also maintaining a base at Shepperton.

The reason is cost. The biggest shed at Longcross rivals Pinewood’s legendary 007 stage in size, but is 80% cheaper to rent. The production company has to bring in all its own equipment, facilities and services, but for a U.S. major with a $200 million budget, that can be worth it.

The set for “John Carter of Mars” is built from steel girders. The advantage of Longcross is that it can be left standing until Disney sees whether the first film will perform well enough to spawn sequels. As one insider says, “The cost of striking that set is probably greater than the cost of building it in the first place.”

Unlike Longcross, which is a challenge to heat, Greenford has the advantage of sophisticated climate control across a massive open floor space that can be used to construct vast multilayered sets. It was previously a computerized storage center for the bankrupt retail chain Woolworths, and rather than let it sit empty and idle, its owners are renting it out to Disney while they decide what the long-term future of the site will be.

Warner pioneered the creative use of disused military and industrial sites with Cardington and with Leavesden, the former Rolls Royce factory that is home to “Harry Potter.” With Potter coming to an end, Warner recently announced plans to buy Leavesden and redevelop it, alongside a permanent Potter exhibition.

Similarly, in Belfast’s old shipyards, Northern Ireland Screen has taken over the Paint Hall and turned it into a film studio. It was first used by Walden to shoot “City of Ember” and most recently by Universal for “Your Highness.” Now HBO is set to shoot fantasy series “Game of Thrones” there.

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