From ‘Lord of the Rings’ to ‘Bridgerton’: The Inside Story of the U.K.’s Production Juggernaut

In the early 1980s, around the time George Lucas and Richard Marquand were wrapping up “Return of the Jedi” at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, the British film industry entered a precipitous decline. As U.S. funding dried up following new tax rules and a pivot to television, fewer films were made in the U.K. than at any time since the beginning of World War I.

The golden era of 1960s and ’70s production — when Stanley Kubrick shot “2001: A Space Odyssey” at Shepperton Studios, Richard Donner took over Pinewood Studios for “Superman” and Lucas handpicked Elstree for “Star Wars” — was over.

“The British film industry hit rock bottom,” recalls Adrian Wootton, chief executive of Film London and the British Film Commission. “Most of our filmmakers had left to go to America. There was tumbleweed blowing through our studios.”

Four decades on, the landscape is unrecognizable. “[The U.K. is] the movie capital of the world right now,” says Playtone co-founder Gary Goetzman, who has spent the past eight months in the country shooting upcoming Apple TV Plus series “Masters of the Air.”

Despite contending with Brexit and a pandemic, the U.K. is experiencing a proliferation of film and high-end television production unlike anything ever seen. The final three months of 2020 resulted in a production spend of £1.19 billion ($1.6 billion), the second highest on record for a three-month period and almost certain to be surpassed in 2021 (figures for the current year won’t be released until spring).

“It’s unprecedented,” says Olly Money, the U.K.-based managing director of VFX at visual effects studio DNEG. “I don’t think I’ve seen this in 25 years of [business].”

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Brendan Hunt, Jason Sudeikis and Nick Mohammed star in “Ted Lasso”; Apple TV Plus has been focusing on U.K. content in the wake of that series’ success. Courtesy of Apple TV+

The reasons for the boom are manifold, but chief among them is the U.K.’s film and high-end-TV tax credit, which launched in 2012 in the wake of “Harry Potter” wrapping at Leavesden Studios, Hertfordshire, and the arrival of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” at Titanic Studios in Northern Ireland.

The effect of the tax credit, once implemented, was instant. “There was a huge influx almost immediately,” says Wootton, as U.K. companies who had long outsourced production to other parts of the world returned to Britain, followed by their U.S. counterparts. From the mid-aughts onward, tentpole-producing studios began flocking to the U.K. to make films such as “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “The Mummy,” “Mary Poppins” and “Justice League.”

Next year, the production of the second season of “The Lord of the Rings” is moving from New Zealand to the U.K. — which will be an enormous economic boon to the British entertainment economy.

Couple that with a fall in the pound sterling caused by the Brexit vote in 2016, and producing content in the U.K. is now fiscally very attractive. A U.S. adaptation of Big Talk Prods.’ television hit “Friday Night Dinner,” for example, will be shot entirely in the U.K. “It will be an American series with American cars, American sets, American houses, American exteriors, American writers, but a British studio, British crew, British HODs, British creative HODs, all shot in the U.K.,” says Big Talk CEO Kenton Allen of the series, which will be retitled “Dinner With the Parents.”

There are also a range of “soft” incentives, such as culture, architecture and common language, as well as practical ones that make the country an appealing destination for U.S. projects. “The U.K. is an attractive place to shoot for myriad reasons,” says Jeff LaPlante, Universal Pictures’ president of production. “The crew there is incredibly talented, making it easy to hire locally. There are also great tax incentives, and people enjoy shooting, as the country has vast optionality for looks and locations.”

The explosion over the past decade of both multi-picture film franchises and high-end episodic television has also resulted in a consistent workflow for British crews, leading in turn to high levels of expertise, which is then plowed back into productions. “The crew base is even larger — the expertise of the crews, the understanding of the vendors,” Goetzman says of his experience filming in the U.K. now versus 20 years ago, when he produced “Band of Brothers.” “Everybody’s smarter and more educated on what it takes to make something great.”

All of which meant that when the streamer wars picked up at the turn of the decade, Britain became a key territory in which to stake a tripod.

Having made significant inroads via “The Crown,” which launched in 2016, Netflix was first to gain ground and has invested heavily in the U.K., tripling its London headquarters to 100,000 square feet last year, hiring more than 400 employees and snapping up long leases on Shepperton, Longcross Studios and, most recently, Segro Park Enfield, an industrial space that is being converted into soundstages, making the U.K. Netflix’s second-biggest production hub outside North America.

“[The U.K.] is really important to Netflix, and it’s a great strategic hub for us,” says Ben Holt, Netflix U.K.’s director of original series production, noting that the streamer committed $1 billion to its U.K. slate over the past calendar year. In 2020 Netflix Studios U.K., which produces shows including “Bridgerton” and “Sex Education,” posted revenues of £78.8 million, an increase of 89% on the previous year.

Following the success of “Ted Lasso,” Apple TV Plus has also been focusing on U.K. content, and in addition to “Masters of the Air” has commissioned “Slow Horses” and “The Essex Serpent” from London and Australia-based production company See-Saw. Earlier this year Disney Plus unveiled its first U.K. scripted slate.

But Amazon Prime Video is Netflix’s chief competitor. Between 2018 and 2020, the streamer commissioned 30 co-productions with U.K. partners, including public service broadcasters, and 10 U.K.-produced original series.

Most significantly, of course, was Amazon’s revelation in August that it would be transferring production of “The Lord of the Rings.” Sources close to the production tell Variety it will be filmed at Bray Film Studios, Berkshire, and Bovingdon Airfield, Hertfordshire, among other locations, with preproduction starting in spring.

“I think [the move to the U.K.] speaks to the depth of talent here, the reputation, the skills, the infrastructure,” says Dan Grabiner, Amazon Studios U.K.’s head of originals. “It is a large production. To make an operation like that work, you need world-class people and world-class talents working on it.”

What makes the current boom unique and, industry leaders hope, lasting is its spread across the country. Over the past year, “Dungeons & Dragons” wrapped in Northern Ireland, Wales is hosting “Doctor Who” and “His Dark Materials” and Bristol has welcomed Disney Plus’ “The Last Bus,” Starz’ “Becoming Elizabeth” and Big Talk’s “The Outlaws,” featuring Christopher Walken in his episodic television debut. Amazon alone has poured £2.3 billion worth of investment into Scotland and £1.5 billion into Wales since 2010 (these figures represent investment from across Amazon’s portfolio of businesses, including its studio.)

“Manchester was absolutely full,” says Mark Freeland, head of TV comedy at Working Title Television, who executive produced “Oliver Twist” prequel “Dodger” there earlier this year, sharing a crew with Sky One show “Brassic.” Also filming at the same time were “Peaky Blinders” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” among other titles.

“It’s a British success story,” Freeland says of the decentralized production boom.

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From left: Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh and Emily Blunt in “Mary Poppins Returns,” among the films that studios have been flocking to the country to make: Olivia Colman in Season 4 of “The Crown,” with which Netflix made inroads into the U.K. in 2016 Crown: Liam Daniel/Netflix; Mary Poppins Returns: Jay Maidment/Disney

Success, however, has its drawbacks. Combined with pandemic-induced production delays and global supply chain issues, the U.K.’s production boom has resulted in a scarcity of resources.

“The phone pretty much does not stop ringing,” says Marnie Keeling, studio manager at London’s Garden Studios, which opened in 2020. So desperate are some to secure space, they are even trying to book soundstages before they have locked in funding or crew.

To cope with the volume, 17 studios are either expanding or under construction across the U.K., including the recently announced $1 billion Sunset Studios in Hertfordshire, which is backed by Hudson Pacific Properties and private equity firm The Blackstone Group.

“Private investors six years ago wouldn’t have thought of investing in a studio,” says Wootton. “All of a sudden, we have a situation where studios have become a financially appealing prospect.”

Other companies are building their own spaces. Warner Bros. has Leavesden; Netflix now has Shepperton, Longcross and Segro Enfield; and next year, Comcast-owned Sky Group will open Sky Studios Elstree to cater to both its own content as well as sister brands such as Universal Pictures and Peacock.

“NBCU in particular were looking for a more permanent home,” says Sky Studios Elstree chief operating officer Caroline Cooper. “We wanted to have more control of our own destiny.”

For those without the option of constructing facilities, the situation is challenging. “The resources [issue] has become acute,” says Working Title co-founder Eric Fellner.

“Before, it used to be, ‘Could I get stages at Shepperton?’ I would maybe have to wait six months, a year or 18 months or have to go and build a shed somewhere, but then you would always have a choice of a couple of cinematographers and three production designers and writers and actors,” says the executive. “That’s the thing that’s become hypercritical. I’m having to think about when we shoot things, due to availability.”

As Fellner points out, equally critical is the crew shortage. According to estimates, the U.K. has 25,000-30,000 jobs that need to be filled over the next five years.

“The industry is taking it very seriously,” says Fellner, who, together with Working Title co-chairman Tim Bevan, “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman and “James Bond” producer Barbara Broccoli, among others, opened the state-funded London Screen Academy in 2018 to train 16- to 18-year-olds from diverse backgrounds in film and television production. The academy will graduate approximately 350 students each year. “We are literally a tiny piece of the jigsaw,” says Fellner, although more LSA branches are in the cards. “It’s very hard to just magically conjure up [experienced crew].”

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Nicola Coughlan and Luke Newton in “Bridgerton,” among the shows produced by Netflix Studios U.K. Courtesy of Liam Daniel/Netflix

“There’s almost a catastrophic shortage of not just directors but of anybody involved in the production of moving image,” says Big Talk’s Allen. “There is a shortage across the board, from line producers, accountants, makeup designers, gaffers, DoPs. And then if you look at something like ‘Lord of the Rings’ arriving into the U.K. from New Zealand, with half a billion pounds’ worth of production to spend — there aren’t enough people.”

The skills shortage has additionally created wage inflation ranging from 40%-70%. Anecdotes abound of crew members walking off mid-shoot for better-paying jobs. “Freelancers are jumping ship from one production to another to take advantage of the inflation in the labor market, which I’ve never seen before,” one producer tells Variety on condition of anonymity.

Allen says he is aware of a production where a gaffer left after being offered more money elsewhere. “[The producers] phoned 93 other gaffers, none of whom were available, and they ended up having to postpone the shoot for four weeks at a cost of £1 million before they could crew it up,” he says.

Some of the blame has, inevitably, been leveled at the SVODs, whose packed production schedules have created a surfeit of work and whose seemingly bottomless budgets are hoovering up top talent.

“We’re on our fourth line producer,” one producer says on condition of anonymity. “I love ‘Bridgerton,’ but I don’t love the fact that they can double or triple somebody’s weekly rate and on my production I lose a line producer. That’s not healthy for the industry.”

There was particular consternation when Netflix signed its long-term deal with Longcross, especially since it meant BBC series “Call the Midwife,” which has been produced there for eight seasons, would have to relocate. The show’s executive producer, Pippa Harris, was said to have been infuriated by the news. (A rep for Harris declined to comment.)

“I think they were pretty stealthy,” says one senior industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They went in, in the night, gave [Longcross] a huge check and just took it off the table.” (In a statement, a Netflix spokesperson responded: “We plan to produce some of our most popular shows at Longcross, which reflects our deep commitment to production in the U.K. With millions of square feet of production space coming into the market in the next few years, there’s more than enough to meet everyone’s needs.”)

With studio space and crew — not to mention items like wood, generators and artist trailers — either impossible to source or commanding inflated prices, one producer, who asked not to be named, expressed concern for the future of independent films, whose budgets cannot compete with those of Hollywood blockbusters or SVOD dramas, especially with COVID protocols and low cinema attendance eating into an already slim profit margin. “Film has historically been a sort of passion project and doesn’t always pay the same as what you can pay on television shows,” the producer says.

If the streamers have contributed to the strain on resources, however, they are investing in them too.
Earlier this year Amazon committed to creating 1,000 apprenticeships, while Netflix operates a range of training schemes, including the £1.2 million Grow Creative U.K., which supported 1,000 apprentices in 2021, a rotational training program with “Bridgerton” production company Shondaland and a Production Guild of Great Britain accounting program.

The streaming wars also mean that there is more opportunity to get less commercial content made, whether an independent film or an episodic television show such as “Squid Game.”

“With SVODs now, there are enough platforms — there’s enough hunger — that actually films that may not have had viewership before [in cinemas] now can find a platform,” says Kate Gardiner, director of marketing at Searchlight U.K. “It gives us more choices and more freedom with what we can make. We can take more risks, in a way, on those lower-budget things. And that’s really exciting.”