Vfx helps U.K. post-production stay afloat

High-end fare keeps effects houses hopping

London– While most entertainment business sectors in the U.K. are undergoing tumultuous budget cuts or worrying about downsizing, the folks running post-production houses are relatively sanguine. Sure, even the post biz stumbled a bit during the economic downturn, but the future now holds plenty of promise, particularly for those who create visual effects.

In fact, thanks to a concentration of talent and tax incentives, Blighty’s share of the film visual effects market has nearly doubled from 2005 to some 20% of the worldwide biz.

Anshul Doshi, global chief operating officer and group managing director U.K. of post conglom Prime Focus, allows that the economic crisis of 2008 was “devastating.”

“Several films that had gotten funded were put on hold, and that meant there were big gaps, and we had to work on a low-margin basis to keep going ahead,” Doshi says. “But as the industry has recovered, a lot of visual effects have come into the U.K.”

Gaynor Davenport, chief exec of trade body U.K. Screen Assn., says, “Post-production facilities have, of course, felt pain like everyone else as a result of delays in productions being greenlit; however, overall, the post-production sector held steady last year, with activity building over 2010 and good visibility into 2011.”

London-based houses have certainly kept busy. Double Negative created vfx for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” Paramount’s “Iron Man 2” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Cinesite did work on Disney’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” Framestore took on Angelina Jolie starrer “Salt” and “Avatar.”

Framestore chief exec William Sargent notes that many post houses — along with the U.K. studios — are operating at full capacity, and downplays the effect that the recent abolition of the U.K. Film Council will have on business.

“We operate (apart) from government,” he says. “We have relationships with studios themselves. It’s simply business as usual for us.”

Sargent adds that many in the post industry work on projects that aren’t U.K.-based or funded, and that any whispers of business being turned away can only be the result of there being too much work.

Doshi says that while there had been an overall softening in post-production prices, the spike in vfx work is ending the slowdown.

“Vfx is coming back in a big way,” Doshi says.

The 3D business has created opportunities for vfx houses. In April, Prime Focus introduced View-D, its proprietary process for the conversion of 2D to 3D stereoscopic images, in Blighty, following its international launch in October. One of the first projects the group completed was the conversion of Warner Bros.’ “Clash of the Titans” to 3D, done in eight weeks.

While critics slammed the pic’s 3D look — a verdict other 2D to 3D conversions have suffered — auds flocked to the pic, and Doshi predicts more post houses will tap into the 2D-to-3D conversion market. Prime has already spent $10 million on the sector. “London is the only other hub that has large visual effects that can deliver a whole big show,” he says.

Dennis Weinreich, managing director of film and TV post-production at Pinewood Studios, says any talk of doom and gloom in the U.K. post biz is isolated. “We have never known a busier time than the one we’re currently in,” he says.

Pinewood, which is housing “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” works on some 30 pics a year, including sound and excluding international work.

But Weinreich says he does see a softening of post-production in some areas, with fewer medium- and low-budget pictures being made.

A big part of Pinewood’s post business comes from outside the U.K. — and not just work from U.S. majors.

“Right now we’re enjoying a fabulous relationship with producers in Spain (Pinewood worked on Alejandro Amenabar’s ‘Agora’),” Weinreich notes. “We also do a lot of work on films coming from Russia.”

Weinreich adds that business is supported by “good working relationships with many of the big houses in town as well.”

Keith Williams, CEO of Goldcrest Post, which focuses on sound (it has housed projects including “Brighton Rock” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”) says that inward investment has been a key driver of biz the past few years.

“Hollywood is going to make more films than anywhere else other than Bollywood, and while the past few months have been slower, business is starting to look better,” he says. “The most interesting thing for us, like the entire U.K. film industry, is to see what happens in the next few months after the government announces the Spending Review in October. There was a huge fear in the election that government would change the tax credit, and thank goodness it didn’t. The U.K. may not be the best in Europe in terms of tax incentives, but you know what you’re going to get year after year.”

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