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The power of film studios to boost the UK economy

Future Cities Forum's second panel discussion at our 'Creative Cities' event held at the BFI, looked at the growth of investment in film studios to boost the UK economy.

Taking part (pictured above - from left) were Barry Jobling, Director, Hoare Lea, Andrew Osborne, Head of Economic Growth at Ashford Borough Council, Owen Spencer, Senior Associate at Forsters LLP, Jason Lebidineuse, Director at architects Scott Brownrigg. and Michael P. Davies, Founder and Director, Vitamin Advisers.

Jason spoke of Scott Brownrigg's work at Shinfield Studios, on a site in Berkshire owned by Reading University, which are a third of the way through construction:

'Netflix and Disney are already filming there and it is on the original science park. Longcross - an old defence site in Surrey - is also a good example of how some sites are more suitable for filming and it is where we were appointed to carry out the master-planning. In a joint venture with Countryside and Aviva Investors, we looked at changing the site into a business park but it never really had the necessary legs. You really need an anchor tenant, a university and public money from the council. Longcross didn't quite have that but we have been active in the film industry for many years and it seemed natural to go about re-purposing those sheds into new film studios. It is no surprise that Tom Cruise chose the location for filming.'

Above: Shinfield studios in Wokingham, Berkshire (designed by Scott Brownrigg - photo courtesy of Earth Grid & Curo)

Jason continued:

'The key thing that Shinfield had was the university involvement, linking it to the community. They don't like being described as Reading as they are in the Borough of Wokingham. There is a lot of work that goes into taking the local community and council with you along the journey of creating these studios. Will the roads around the site be gridlocked during the school and work-life rush hour for example? But because of the long working hours of the film crews, this wasn't going to be a problem. Then there are questions about how many productions will take place there? How many studios are needed - three or four? What is the sizing of the production office required? Once you understand the needs, you can go from there.

'There is a speed to market challenge in the film business, it is the craziest of sectors. So the masterplan has to be flexible and we are constantly re-designing, and using temporary buildings on different areas of the site in the form of kits of parts. This also helps with the life cycle costing. There is a challenge in how these buildings can be given a better life cycle and the insurance is huge. But they are far more sustainable with reduction in the use of concrete and so they can last up to 60 years.

Above: Barry Jobling of Hoare Lea (courtesy Hoare Lea)

Barry Jobling joined the panel to talk about his experience at consulting engineers Hoare Lea in delivering high quality acoustic environments for the film industry. Hoare Lea is working on Sky Studios’ Elstree project in Hertfordshire, where Sky is creating a 32-acre TV and film studio that will allow more high quality, original content to be created. The new development will sit beside the current studios and is a significant investment into the creative economy. It’s forecast to create up to 2,000 jobs in the local area. The project's team includes NBCUniversal and Comcast, Hertsmere Borough Council and Legal & General.

In addition to the Elstree project, Hoare Lea's work in the UK film studios sector includes Warner Bros Leavesden Studios (completed), Space Studios in Manchester (completed), Eastbrook Studios Dagenham (under construction), Shinfield Studios near Reading and Pinewood Screen Hub in Buckinghamshire (both at planning application stages).

Barry stated:

'Hoare Lea is multi-disciplinary and the acoustics team has been fortunate to get into the film industry over the last ten years. The challenge in part comes from the film industry being very good at making do. Working in the sector requires a lot of work and learning around what the film studios need and what we can actually provide.

'The studios need to be quiet to capture the best in sound quality and there are many ways to crack an egg in doing this. Instead of using ten inches of concrete for sound proof walls, perhaps we can suggest alternative materials to the client. When we worked for Warner Brothers, there was the same need for speed that there is now and it was a case of maxing out the budget. We were forced to innovate and create lighter, quicker builds with less carbon. Mainly we are working with industrial buildings and how they can be enhanced. It is an education.'

Barry commented on the building of the new film studios adjacent to the heritage railway works in Ashford in Kent which he has visited and consulted on:

'It's a challenge accepted, where you have to be mindful of the money equation. You are building intelligent boxes with a limited budget, so you really get your thinking caps on, but it can all be done.'

Above: CGI of new film studios at NTW ('New Town Works') Ashford to be built on a brownfield site around heritage railway works - Courtesy Ashford Borough Council.

Ashford Borough Council's Head of Economic Growth, Andrew Osborne, shared the panel with Barry and spoke of the enormous task in hand to deliver the new film studios for Kent:

'We are creating the new studios at the Victorian railway works site in Ashford which were in operation since 1847 and have been producing locomotives over the years. The site has been derelict for 35 years but there is significant heritage. We are not putting studios in those buildings but creating a mixed-use development with commercial space, and then studios in separate buildings. We have planning permission for all of it and the site is some 80,000 square feet.'

Andrew was asked how the site would be branded to attract business in competition with other studios in the UK?

'The concentration of film studios in west London is the driver for UK PLC and the UK does need a range of spaces to support talent. We are bringing talent through in smaller spaces in Kent. Our location is excellent and we could have people commuting to use the studios from Calais in France as they can easily travel through the Channel tunnel, but we are also close to London and Paris via the fast train links. We are five minutes walk from the train station at Ashford and we working on the place-making of the site, celebrating the heritage of the town and bringing these new industries. We want to bring in skills and training and want to link with the University of Canterbury. We are working with the Kent Film Office and the recent Sam Mendes film 'Empire of Light' filmed in Margate, creates tourism and attention for us too. We have our levelling up funding and working with studio operators. It is hugely challenging because of the brownfield site that we are on but we are making space where talent wants to be.'

Above: CGI of Ashford NTW ('New Town Works') and studios campus with heritage buildings on right (Ashford Borough Council / Quinn Estates)

What of the legal considerations in moving forward with the building of film studios in the UK? Owen Spencer, Senior Associate at leading law firm, Forsters LLP, joined the panel to answer the question. Owen acts for Netflix and Columbia Pictures in relation to their occupational requirements. He also acts for investor landlords, including in relation to acquiring sites to construct new studios.

Owen said:

'Why would stars such as Tom Cruise want to choose Longcross because it is not a glamorous place that you would normally associate with the film industry? The answer is because it works and it therefore is not a risk but a guarantee. The place is more like a tank factory and you can knock it about, so there isn't always a drawback to working in an old building, which is tried and tested.

'What are the legal warning flags? It depends on what you are developing, whether on brownfield or greenfield sites, there will always be different challenges around planning. It makes sense to understand the implications before spending any money and be accurate about what it is you are converting. Mostly for the film business it is not about historic buildings but light industrial sheds which are being converted into small studios, so you are not thinking about how to deal with asbestos or Victorian beams, but there can be issues around parking or energy power sources in addition to noise. Something can look good on paper but the reality of the site can be quite different.'

CGI by MICA Architects of proposed cultural development in Ashford town centre (part of the St Mary's and Vicarage Lane regeneration project for developer Milligan in association with Ashford Council)

Founder of new advisory firm Vitamin Advisers, Michael P. Davis, talked on the panel about how the trend for producers and crews is now for 'out of London':

'I set up the film studio business at JLL over ten years ago and worked with Ealing film studios among others, where I had an advisory position. I assess the viability of new places and funding and also work on cultural destinations.

'Culture is providing a catalyst for economic viability. London has always been a powerhouse but where successful studios are built, it is always underpinned by the council. Games of Thrones was going to be filmed in Scotland but there was a better supportive offer in Belfast, so it went there. Dr Who filmed in Wales, allowed a whole host of people there who were out of work to engage. Production numbers are vast and absorb some 400 to 800 people that make up the crew on one production. If you look at the latest British Film Institute figures, we will need a further 25,000 people to move into the industry.'

Michael was asked about the reluctance of crews to move outside London to work:

'I know plenty of crew members who would love to leave London and go back to Wales for example. We are talking about the impact of lifestyle. A few years ago everyone would have laughed about successful film productions in Cornwall but executive producers love to go down there. There are Hollywood producers who want to bring filming back to Sunderland because they grew up there and see it as an economic catalyst for the North.

'With successful film production comes gentrification of areas and that is always difficult to talk about. It has happened in Margate, but nevertheless there is always a trade off. It enables the visibility of other things. The 'Empire of Light' filming in Margate has been the best branding for Kent and Ashford. Years ago crews would not go down to Ashford but now they they would.'

Above: Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop for the Royal Opera House at High House Production Park in Thames Estuary is one of several training establishments along with the University of Kent and local colleges that are being created to fill the skills gap for the creative industries.


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