Covid pandemic fuelling growth of film and TV studios in UK | Business

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The coronavirus pandemic may have shut cinemas and choked off the supply of new films and TV shows, but developers are banking on the streaming boom by pouring hundreds of millions of pounds into building Hollywood-style studios in the UK.

This week, Dagenham council struck a £300m deal to build a studio in east London that is expected to welcome its first TV and film productions as soon as mid-2022. “We will become London’s Hollywood,” says Darren Rodwell, the leader of the Barking and Dagenham council, who has toiled for the last four years to make the project a reality.

The deal to build a new studio complex was agreed against the backdrop of a second lockdown in England, which began on Thursday and closed any cinemas that had remained open. But the inexorable rise of streaming, given a boost by the pandemic, is driving demand for studio space.

Dagenham is not alone as developers enter a race for space in the UK, banking on the continued growth in demand fuelled by streamers from Netflix to Amazon and Disney+. Last month, Liverpool city council submitted a planning application to create the city’s first “pop-up” TV and film stages, which will sit alongside a much bigger development of the city’s historic Littlewoods Building, a 10-acre (four hectare) site dubbed the “Hollywood of the north” that will open in 2023.

“Film, and TV production in particular, has been on an absolute boom,” says Jason Hariton, chief real estate officer at US film studio operator MBS Group, which will run the Dagenham studio complex.

“The quantity, the budget, the amount of films and TV shows being made in all the [world’s] main production hubs is all increasing. In the fourth quarter this year we are setting a seven-year record for quantities of productions serviced,” he says.

“We are seeing all the projects that stopped when the pandemic hit starting up again and seeing new projects being raced to market to fill the void, because of all the content that was consumed. Even if you take [the pandemic] aside the industry has been on an explosive upward path.”

Virgin Media says viewers in the UK spent a third more time watching Netflix during lockdown, and there has been a general doubling of viewing of video-on-demand content since 2017.

There has been a knock-on effect for the UK production industry, with nearly £3.7bn spent on shooting expensive TV shows and films last year, from The Crown to The Avengers: Endgame and the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die.

Although £1.95bn was spent on shooting films, the growth engine is high-end TV production, defined as shows that cost more than £1m an episode to make. Between 2014 and 2019, spending on high-end TV shows in UK, such as The Crown and Game of Thrones, almost tripled from £640m to just under £1.7bn, according to industry body the BFI.

Almost 80% of that spend was “inward investment” from the likes of Netflix and Amazon, which have a combined 25 million UK viewers and almost 350 million globally, according to Ampere Analysis.

To keep up with the demand, Pinewood, the UK’s biggest studio and permanent home to the James Bond and Star Wars franchises, is to double in size. Pinewood-owned Shepperton, which has a long-term production deal with Netflix, is quadrupling in size.

In December, Sky and Universal Studios, maker of The Fast and The Furious, both owned by the US pay-TV giant Comcast, announced the intention to build a new large scale studio complex at Elstree in north London.

Earlier this year, the US production outfit behind blockbusters including Venom and Godzilla, Blackhall Studios, unveiled plans for a £150m production complex in Reading. But property professionals say more sound stages are needed.

“There is nowhere near enough space,” says Chris Berry, a director at the commercial property firm Lambert Smith Hampton. “We estimate there is an immediate need for 2m square ft [186,000 sq metres] more of studio space. That’s approximately four more Pinewoods. There is going to be more and more demand as the streaming services need to keep refreshing content.”

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Adrian Wootton, the chief executive of Film London and the British Film Commission, says that in March his organisation was given official permission by the government to help untangle red tape for productions not able to find traditional studio space. Last year, Film London helped Joss Whedon’s Victorian sci-fi drama for HBO, The Nevers, convert a disused factory in London into filming space.

“We have been given more responsibility to work with developers and councils around the country to cut red tape and accelerate more infrastructure [to use as studio space],” he says.

“If we can deliver the stage space we can move from almost £4bn investment in productions in the UK to £6bn over the next five years. The growth curve is such that we are nowhere near the ceiling. Cinemas are in trouble but the streamers have emptied their content banks. Subscriptions and eyeballs aren’t going away.”



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