As large swaths of the world emerge from over a full year on lockdown, studios are working at break-neck speed to make up for lost time. Film and television are entering into a production boom approaching record highs, presenting something of a double-edged sword for the industry.
March of 2020 saw the creation of a 640 million dollar investment fund from The Creative District Improvement Company, aiming to prop up several production studios throughout the UK. The ultimate goal–to expand on pre-existing locations by creating additional, much-needed studio space. Among the sites slated to benefit from this fund was Twickenham Film Studios: established in 1913 by Dr Ralph Jupp. Located in St. Margarets, Twickenham gave birth to beloved British classics such as The Italian Job and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in addition to producing Oscar-winning sound for the cultural phenomenon Bohemian Rhapsody.
Regrettably, a mere two weeks after the fund’s initial announcement, productions across the UK began to shutter as the COVID pandemic took root. Stay-at-home mandates and fierce restrictions resulted in major productions such as The Witcher, Jurassic World: Dominion and The Batman being placed on indefinite hold. Despite film production grinding to a halt nationwide, TDIC moved doggedly forward with expansion plans, announcing the creation of a brand new $290 million studio to be built in southeast London. The new site, dubbed the Ashford International Film Studio, was just one part of a frantic push to create much-needed production space throughout the UK.
More than a year later, between projects left in limbo by the COVID-19 crisis and new films still waiting to be launched, the UK is experiencing something of a bottleneck effect. Piers Read, a co-founder of TDIC, attributed the problem to a number of challenges facing the UK film industry, of which the global pandemic is but one contributing catalyst.
“This bottleneck was built because of COVID-19, and if you couple that with the lack of stage space and the tax breaks for overseas productions, it’s a recipe for tremendous demand.” Read went on to describe the UK’s demand for studio space as “white-hot”, concluding that: “It’s unprecedented, and mirrors the level of demand out there.”
For the film industry at large, this is undoubtedly heartening news. From film to stage to live music venues, the performing arts have been among the hardest-hit sectors throughout the COVID-19 crisis. While this explosion of creativity is a beacon of hope for the industry, productions demand space, and the UK remains locked in a desperate race to provide it. Streaming giants such as Amazon and Netflix are joining the ranks of the more traditional film studios, vying to secure precious production space. Should the UK fall short in meeting the new demand, it risks missing out on billions of pounds spent by the film and television markets annually.
A veritable tidal wave of films are currently being filmed at locations across the United Kingdom, including Mission Impossible 7, The Witcher, The Essex Serpent, Dungeons and Dragons, and Star Wars: Andor. Long-term deals have been recently sealed with both Netflix and Disney to produce works at Shepperton and Pinewood, respectively. This creative boom throughout the industry is, however, in many cases outrunning the studios in their ability to come back online in the aftermath of a year on lockdown. According to property consultant agency Lambert Smith Hampton, an estimated 2.3 million square feet of fresh production space will be necessary by 2033, if the UK is to remain relevant in the film production sector.
Chris Berry, director at LSH, expanded upon the issue, making clear what exactly is at stake should the UK fail to deliver.
“The requirements are equivalent to approximately four more Pinewoods. The level of demand for studio space and new content has changed, but the supply chain has not reacted to the extent required. Even when all the current schemes out there are delivered, there still won’t be enough space.”
“The UK risks losing out on billions of pounds of film and TV spending,” Berry concluded.
Throughout the pandemic, film and TV became more inextricably entwined in the lives of UK citizens than ever before. A staggering 9 million new subscribers signed up to the UK’s three major streaming platforms last year alone, doubling previous records. With many studios having exhausted their libraries during this time, the demand is now higher than ever to keep audiences entertained with fresh, engaging content. This rush to restock libraries and compete in the ever-growing streaming industry will likely create a demand for production space that runs well into the 2030s and beyond.
Jeremy Rainbird, a co-founder of TDIC alongside Piers Read, cites a rise in the number of “meanwhile spaces” as irrefutable proof of the current production space deficit.
“We need more proper space,” Rainbird insists. “The UK is considered to be the best in the world. The largest features and tentpole productions choose to come here. We are absolutely going to lose business if the space issue is not addressed. We are not going to lose business so much in Europe, where there can be language barriers, but we run the risk of losing productions to English-speaking countries with good facilities and incentives, such as the US and Canada. It is a space race.”
According to a senior executive at one production company, losses to overseas competitors are already racking up. The executive admitted that their company had been set to begin work on a major production within the UK, but shifted the planning process to Atlanta, Georgia after struggling to book UK soundstages in a timely manner. This boost in productivity throughout the film world is, above all else, a beacon of hope–a sign that our long-desired return to normalcy may finally be on the horizon. Only time will tell, however, if the UK can rise to meet it.