Tim Dams explains how the boom in scripted shows is driving the need for more UK studios.
With three dramas shooting early this year, Chernobyl producer Sister has run into a familiar problem for many producers of scripted shows – finding studio space in the UK.
Sister’s head of production, Magali Gibert, says it has been difficult to find what it needs for upcoming adaptations The Power (for Amazon) and This is Going to Hurt (for the BBC and AMC) and crime drama Landscapers (Sky and HBO).
Sister is just one of many producers vying for limited studio space in an era of buoyant UK content production, which hit £3.62bn in 2019. Growing demand for shows from streamers and US studios, attractive tax incentives for making films and high-end TV here, and the country’s highly regarded crews, talent and infrastructure have all conspired to drive up output and, with it, the need for more sound stages.
Yet very little new studio space has come on to the market, despite plenty of announcements about new developments. “There is a long way between a press release and a shovel in the ground,” says Stephen Bristow, partner in the film and television unit at media accountants Saffery Champness, who played a key role in the introduction of the UK’s tax relief scheme for high-end drama.
The new Sky Studios Elstree, which has 13 sound stages under construction, will be one of the first to open, aiming for the first half of 2022. Eastbrook Studios in Dagenham, east London, with 12 sound stages, is targeting 2023.
Sky Studios COO Caroline Cooper says the investment in its new studios comes as the Comcast-owned firm has more than doubled its investment in original content. “We need places to put those shows,” she says.
Sky is working in partnership with sister-company NBCUniversal on the new studios. “They really enjoy making movies in the UK, and they’d make more if they had more space to do it,” says Cooper. “Between the two of us, there was a real demand for some more capacity.”
Pressure on studio space has also been growing since Disney and Netflix signed long-term deals to lease all the stages at Pinewood and sister studio Shepperton Studios, respectively.
Saffery Champness is projecting double-digit annual growth in UK film and TV production over the next five years. As a result, Bristow doesn’t think the new studio developments will lead to oversupply. “It will be good for the industry to have more studio competition,” he says. “Producers pay a lot of money for studio space in the UK, so the more entrants the better.”
In the short term, the need for stages is only likely to grow, thanks to Covid-19 and Brexit.
Covid has led to producers looking for relatively safe, controlled studio environments at a time when many locations are nervous about accepting large film crews. International travel restrictions make shooting abroad a major challenge, and have caused many to opt instead for UK bases.
Brexit has added to the challenge of filming UK productions in the EU, given the need for work permits and carnets in many countries. There are also short-term worries about moving kit to and from the continent to hit shooting deadlines due to port bottlenecks and paperwork problems.
Environmental concerns, adds Gibert, are also leading many producers to favour building (and recycling) sets in a UK studio, rather than flying cast, crew and kit around the world.
Not every production requires a studio, of course. It is possible to be creative and to film in converted warehouses or shoot extensively on location in the UK. But a professionally run studio, with its ancillary services, such as props, parking, make-up and costume, is a big draw for complex, high-end productions.
In 2019, Lambert Smith Hampton (LSH) – a leading property advisor to the UK film and TV industry, and involved in developments such as Eastbrook Studios and Sky Studios Elstree – estimated that an additional 170,000m2 of studio space would be required in the UK by 2025.
LSH head of media real estate Christopher Berry stands by that figure. He notes that existing studios, such as Pinewood and Leavesden, have added new stages since then but no new complexes have been completed. “There have been hardly any new stages built and, if anything, demand is stronger.”
Securing sites, and funding and building studios takes time, explains Berry. In particular, there’s strong competition for sites from other industries. “Logistics is the hot investment sector,” says Berry, citing the growth of online shopping and its demand for large distribution warehouses.
The needs of the logistics and studio sectors are identical, he adds. Both want big sites that are well connected in the South East of England. “When you throw in demand for residential housing, you are really struggling.”
Until recently, most studio expansions and new builds were led by local authority investment, as the studio business model is a risky one. Most tenants only stay for short periods; long void periods can be very difficult for the business.
Local authorities were prepared to invest because they recognised the long-term benefits that studio facilities brought to their communities, such as skilled and well-paid jobs, and growth among support-service companies.
Now, however, private-sector money is increasingly attracted to the sector, particularly in the South East. Aermont Capital’s 2016 acquisition of Pinewood for £323m is widely seen as a success, particularly in light of the studios’ long-term tenancy deals with Netflix and Disney. This has given other investors the confidence to follow suit.
Post Covid, some think studios look more attractive for real-estate investors – certainly compared with office property, as home-working looks set to continue. Given the underlying growth rates in production, studios are also, arguably, a safer bet than the overheated logistics sector.
Indeed, Hollywood property developer Hackman Capital Partners is investing more than £300m in Eastbrook Studios in Dagenham. Legal & General, meanwhile, is providing financing for Sky Studios Elstree. Elsewhere, New York-based Bateleur Capital is backing studio developer Quartermaster, which plans to open a number of studios in the UK.
In the medium to long term, this means the studio development boom is likely to bear fruit and drive up the number of stages available to producers. But in the short term, finding studio space is likely to remain as challenging as ever.