In what is the first official glimpse of the pandemic’s impact on U.K. film and television production, British Film Institute (BFI) data reveals that film and high-end television production spend exceeded £2.84 billion ($3.9 billion) in 2020, only 21% down on 2019 levels.
BFI boss Ben Roberts tells Variety that the speed with which the industry was able to band together and hammer out guidelines for production allowed the sector to weather the toll of the pandemic, particularly as it allowed the buoyant studio sector to quickly rev up operations. Film and television production has continued through the U.K.’s three national lockdowns, working to pan-industry guidelines that were drawn up in late spring. The BFI led the Screen Sector Taskforce, creating the guidance for COVID-safe productions alongside a host of industry players, including the British Film Commission and producers’ trade org Pact.
“Because we spoke very much as one voice to the government and the [Department for Culture, Media and Sport], that’s why we now have stats that show we’re only at a 20% dip on a record year in 2019,” says Roberts.
The year was heading towards a record spend for the first quarter, but production was suspended in late March at the onset of the global pandemic. Although some post-production, VFX and animation was able to continue, physical production only began resuming in earnest from mid-July. The industry showed extremely strong signs of recovery, however, in the final quarter of 2020, generating a £1.19 billion spend for film and high-end TV — the second highest three-month spend on record.
The annual BFI report, released Thursday, shows that film production reached £1.36 billion, 31% down from a year prior, while high-end TV production topped £1.49 billion, only 11% down on 2019.
Inward investment — where financing originates from countries outside the U.K. — and co-production spend on film and high-end television in the U.K. reached £2.36 billion, with £1.24 billion spent on feature films, representing 91% of the total (£1.36 billion) spend.
Inward investment films that managed to shoot when production resumed include “The Batman,” “Cinderella,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 3,” “Jurassic World: Dominion,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Lockdown,” “Mission: Impossible 7,” “The Northman” and “Text for You.”
Around £1.13 billion was spent on high-end TV production, making up 76% of the total (£1.49 billion) spend. The 2020 spend is the second highest on record — a testament to the resilience of the country’s TV sector, even during pandemic times.
Inward investment high-end TV productions include “Anatomy of a Scandal,” “Andor,” “Becoming Elizabeth,” “The Girlfriend Experience – series 3,” “Godmothered,” “Hanna – series 3,” “Pennyworth – series 2,” “The Pursuit of Love,” “The Sandman,” “War of the Worlds – series 2” and “The Witcher – series 2.”
Meanwhile, domestic HETV productions accounted for £357 million — only 4% less than the £372 million for 2019 (which was updated mid-year to £482 million). These shows include “Bloodlands,” “Call The Midwife – series 10,” “Doctor Who – series 13,” “Finding Alice,” “Line of Duty – series 6,” “The Pact,” “The Pembrokeshire Murders,” “Roald and Beatrix – The Tail of the Curious Mouse” and “Worzel Gummidge- Saucy Nancy.”
Elsewhere, U.K. animation TV production generated £61 million in spend, with 73% coming from co-productions and inward investment.
The greatest drop came for domestic (independent) film production, where spend amounted to just £119.5 million, or 9% of total spend. This constituted a 43% dip on 2019 levels. Domestic high-end television production spend of £357.4 million reflected a 26% decrease from a year prior.
Roberts, who consistently bangs the drum for independent production, warns that the studio sector is “very interconnected with having a prosperous indigenous sector as well. This is where we grow talent and train crews.”
Overall, on the exhibition side, U.K. independent productions grew their market share to 14%, led by Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen” (£12 million), “Emma” (£7 million) and “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (£6 million). In fact, three of 2020’s top five grossing films at the U.K. box office were made in the U.K.: “1917” (£44.1 million), “Tenet” (£17.5 million) and “Dolittle” (£15.9 million).
The box office, however, was predictably battered in 2020. Cinemas were closed from March through to July, and were shuttered, re-opened and closed again in late fall and winter. They have stayed closed since December.
Across the year, the closure of cinemas and reduced capacity screenings during restrictions saw just 44 million admissions, 75% down on 2019. A £307 million box office total for the U.K. and Republic of Ireland reflects a 81% drop on 2019.
Roberts tells Variety that the BFI and other cinema operators are targeting a reopening date at some point in May, but given the volatile nature of the U.K.’s COVID crisis, this date could potentially be earlier or even later.