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U.K. Studios Mull Going Dark Amid Coronavirus Lockdown But Confusion Reigns

Major U.K. studios are recalibrating coronavirus strategies as they parse recent government advice around the country’s lockdown, and whether or not they should go dark.

U.K. studios including Elstree, Pinewood, Shepperton and Warner Bros. Leavesden are still believed to be operational — albeit with minimal staff on the ground — despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s nationwide address Monday night, banning gatherings of more than two people and strictly advising Britons to “stay home” amid severe limits on non-essential travel and outside contact.

Although the vast majority of the businesses’ broadcast and Hollywood studio clients have pulled productions in recent weeks or curbed audiences for TV shows, most spaces have stayed open, with Pinewood releasing a statement as recently as March 19 noting it is “enabling productions to continue to film and record on site.”

However, it’s understood that Pinewood Group, which also operates Shepperton, is currently in the process of putting revised measures in place in light of the new government directives.

Elstree and Warner Bros. did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Piers Read, managing partner at Twickenham Studios, which has been used by films such as “The Iron Lady,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “1917” for production and post-production, paints a complicated picture for studios.

“We’re open for business in terms of you can contact us, and we will support your production as far as we can whilst we’re waiting for more specific government advice,” he tells Variety. However, thus far, it’s still “not exactly clear what’s prohibited and what’s not.”

Twickenham does not have any productions filming in the studios currently.

Meanwhile, The Bottle Yard Studios confirmed production has ceased at its complex on the outskirts of Bristol, where series including the ITV-PBS period drama “Sanditon” and Starz’s “The Spanish Princess” have been shot.

“The site remains open to the businesses based here that still want and need access to their premises, however this is constantly under review and we expect all our tenants to follow government advice and guidelines,” says studios director Fiona Francombe.

“All Public Health England guidance is being followed with increased cleaning regimes and strict social separation measures in place to try to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Studio operations at London’s Ealing Studios, which has hosted productions including “Downton Abbey” and “Killing Eve,” are “up and running,” according to studio manager Charlie Fremantle, though productions have gone on hiatus.

“Productions are working from home and not shooting,” he said. “As a business, we are still operating. We haven’t shut our doors. The gates are open.”

Elsewhere, a spokesperson for Screen Scotland, which oversees all studio operations, confirmed that all studios have gone dark across the country, with filming on hold until summer. However, projects in development, post-production work, animation and VFX “continue where possible.”

“Screen Scotland will continue to track both national and international productions that are paused with a view to offering production support when needed. There will be a strong focus on aiding the re-start of production wherever possible,” says the spokesperson.

Scotland’s Wardpark Studios and Wales’s Bay Studios Swansea and Bad Wolf Studios have shut down due to the pandemic, while Northern Ireland’s Titanic Studios, the former production base for “Game of Thrones,” has also closed.

“All production in Northern Ireland has ceased and the studios are dark,” said Richard Williams, chief executive of Northern Ireland Screen.

The uncertainty about the extent of the lockdown measures, which the government will re-evaluate in three weeks’ time, has made it difficult for studios to calibrate how long the production shutdown could last.

“During these three weeks where the U.K. is officially in lockdown, we are monitoring the situation (like) everyone, waiting to see to what extent any other physical production on site may be possible,” says Twickenham’s Read.

Demand for U.K. studio space was rising sharply before the coronavirus pandemic hit, driven by streaming giants such as Amazon, Apple and Netflix, which took a long-term lease last year at Shepperton Studios. The Walt Disney Co. also inked a long-term deal to occupy the majority of Pinewood Studios outside London.

Read and his partners, who plan to invest £500 million ($585 million) in a network of film studios across the U.K., are hopeful such demand points to the health of an industry that will be able to ride out the storm of the current crisis and find its footing once more.

“We’re looking across the valley, not down into it,” he said. “If we can mitigate any short-term collateral damage as an industry, then we know there’s going to be an absolute avalanche of original content and production demand in the very near future.”

Manori Ravindran contributed to this report.

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