Several film and TV studios are being developed in the U.K. in response to a boom in production there and a shortage of stage space.
The total spend on movie and high-end TV production in the U.K. last year was £3.62 billion ($4.49 billion), a 16% annual increase, and the highest figure ever recorded.
Underpinning that boom is the 25% tax rebate for production, a strong and growing studio infrastructure, a thriving VFX sector, and a rich vein of talent behind and in front of the camera.
Real estate consultancy firm Lambert Smith Hampton estimated last year that an additional 1.8 million square-feet of studio space will be required in the U.K. by 2025.
Among the sites being developed is a production studio and digital creative hub in Reading, which is 30 minutes from the western edge of London. Ryan Millsap’s Blackhall Studios, whose facility in Atlanta hosts productions from most of the Hollywood majors, is spearheading the development, while Nick Smith, formerly executive commercial director at Pinewood-Shepperton studio, will head the new facility in the role of U.K. president and chief operating officer.
The Reading complex, which is estimated to open early in 2022, will create up to 3,000 jobs, including 1,500 employed at the studios. It will be integrated into Thames Valley Science Park, owned by the University of Reading, on the M4 highway, which connects to London’s Heathrow Airport. The initial investment in construction will be $187 million.
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The studios will have 20 soundstages, totaling 500,000 sq. ft., with on-site post-production facilities and a movie theater, alongside a digital media hub, which will house visual effects, augmented reality, animation and e-gaming companies.
Smith says the studios are designed to “attract major inward investment from the biggest players.” He estimates that three to four movies will shoot there a year.
The location was chosen because most of the existing large studios are in that area — on the western and north-western edge of London — and so that is where the best crew live, and talent want to be close to the capital.
“For the first time we are taking a major facility to where the crew are rather than asking the crew to travel,” Smith says.
“The clients and the crew want to be predominantly in the southeast of England. If you move out of the southeast the rates you can command for whatever you build are significantly lower.”
He wants it to be a “center of excellence — somewhere people can congregate, and you know you are going to get the best talent.” It’s not just about the facilities, he says, “it’s the people you bring along with you; it’s the quality of the crew.” Smith adds that training of new crew — in partnership with the university — “will be very much at the heart of what we are trying to do.”
Another major development is being planned by Comcast-owned European pay-TV operator Sky, in partnership with sister company NBCUniversal. Sky plans to build a 28-acre TV and film studios facility, to be called Sky Studios Elstree, in Borehamwood, 20 minutes north of the heart of London.
It will house 12 soundstages, totaling 260,000 sq. ft. Alongside the stages will be two production support buildings, which will offer a space for the manufacture and storage of props and sets, and five production office buildings, incorporating post-production facilities and screening rooms. The studios are expected to open in 2022, and will create more than 1,500 jobs.
As well as series generated by Sky’s production arm, Sky Studios and NBCUniversal Content Studios, the studios will host movies from Universal Pictures, Focus Features and Working Title. It will also be available for hire by third-party producers.
Sky says $242 million will be spent on constructing the studios, which will generate production spending totaling an estimated $907 million a year. Financial services company Legal & General will develop the site and provide financing for the project.
The new studios will be a separate entity to the nearby historic Elstree Studios, which was home to such movies as “The Shining” and “Star Wars,” and is the production base for Netflix series “The Crown.” Elstree Studios has seven stages, and is planning to build two more.
Meanwhile in Ashford, in England’s southeast, the Creative District Improvement Co., headed by Piers Read and Jeremy Rainbird, has teamed with Quinn Estates to plow $312 million into the construction of a TV and film studio to be called Ashford Intl. Studios. It will be 38 minutes from central London on the Eurotunnel high-speed train that travels between Paris and London. The studios are scheduled to open in early 2022, and will target premium single-camera TV productions.
The project, on a 15-acre site, will involve the restoration of five historic buildings — formerly a railway locomotive manufacturing plant — and the construction of 80,000 sq. ft. of TV and film studios, 80,000 sq. ft. of ancillary production space, 50,000 sq. ft. of workshop, storage and logistics space, and a 30,000 sq. ft. media village, as well as the Future Media Centre, an educational hub that will be developed in partnership with several academic institutions, incorporating what is claimed will be the largest film school in the U.K. The plans also include a hotel, serviced apartments, a conference center, a gym and a restaurant.
Rainbird, who co-founded production company Merman with his wife, Sharon Horgan, says having spent “all my life producing content — being on that side of the fence — you know how hard it is to find suitable studio space,” and the streaming boom has “compounded the issue.” Another bottleneck in the industry he and Read identified was the lack of skilled labor.
“What we started to realize was a dream of being able to combine studios with education clustered with flexible work space, which also doubles up as production offices and ancillary space.”
Also in the mix would be a high-quality food and beverage offering.
“We started to build a vision where we took all the things that we as producers knew we wanted to see,” he says.
TCDI Co. is also investing $62 million in the development of London’s Twickenham Studios, and another studio development in Liverpool.