Lights, camera, studio space? Lack of production capacity hits UK film industry

Experts warn sector needs extra space equivalent to four new Pinewoods to sate demand

The UK needs to build the equivalent of four new film studios to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for new content from streaming giants such as Netflix, or risk losing out on billions of pounds of movie and TV spending to rival markets, according to a report.

The UK is currently packed with Hollywood productions including films such as Mission: Impossible 7, Indian Jones 5 and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and TV productions including Amazon’s The Witcher, The Essex Serpent, Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars: Andor. Netflix and Disney, two major users of British film infrastructure, have struck long-term deals to make productions at two cornerstone UK film studios, Netflix at Shepperton and Disney at Pinewood, both near London.

But the heightened level of demand for content ushered in by the boom in pandemic viewing means new studio developments are not coming online fast enough, says the property consultancy Lambert Smith Hampton (LSH). According to LSH, 2.3m sq ft of new studio space will be needed by 2033.

“There is nowhere near enough space,” says Chris Berry, a director at LSH. “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.”

The global pandemic has supercharged the so-called golden age of TV viewing ushered in by the battle for streaming supremacy among deep-pocketed rivals including Netflix, Amazon and Disney.

Britons spent 40% of their waking hours watching TV at the height of the pandemic. There were 9 million new subscribers to the three big streaming platforms in the UK last year – double the number of the next best year on record. Lockdown viewing helped make the BBC’s Line of Duty the most-watched drama series this century.

However, the shutdown of studio productions for extended periods last year has meant TV companies and streamers are struggling to keep their libraries stocked with fresh content, resulting in an unprecedented boom in demand for studio space.

Last year there were 231 films and high-end TV productions – premium dramas costing more than £1m an episode to make, such as Bridgerton – made in the UK, a quarter fewer than streamers and broadcasters needed to sate viewer appetite in 2019.

The report from LSH estimates that the need to restock libraries, coupled with the ever-increasing demand for new content as streaming companies and traditional broadcasters seek to attract and retain viewers, means a sustained demand for new studio space in the UK that will run into the next decade.

There are a myriad of developments in progress across the country, including Barking and Dagenham council’s £300m “Hollywood of London” site. Sky and Universal Studios, maker of The Fast and the Furious, are building a new large scale complex at Elstree in north London, and the US outfit Blackhall Studios, which is behind blockbusters such as Venom and Godzilla, has a £150m plan to develop a complex in Reading.

In the final quarter last year, £1.2bn was spent on making films and high-end TV in the UK, the second-highest quarterly spend ever recorded by the British Film Institute (BFI), as the race to develop new content moved back into top gear. This has continued with the spend in the first three months this year hitting £878m, the most ever recorded for the first quarter of any year.

However, a senior executive at one production company said the UK was already losing some productions to overseas rivals. The executive said their company had been lined up to work on a major production planned for the UK but midway through the planning process the work was moved to Atlanta owing to being unable to book sound stages here within a reasonable timeline.

Jeremy Rainbird, a co-founder of The Creative District Improvement Company (TDIC), which runs facilities including Twickenham Studios, says there are already signs of an impending crisis evident in the amount of “meanwhile” spaces – temporary sites such as warehouses – that are being converted for filming use.

Netflix, which has a long-term deal to exclusively use most of Shepperton Studios, is nevertheless poised to sign a long-term deal to develop a new studio space in Enfield, north London, to fulfil its space requirements. Apple has secured facilities in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, through a deal with Tristan and the US-based production support company MBS, which is also involved with the Dagenham development.

“We have seen a significant increase in ‘meanwhile’ space, developments with deals for up to 10 years, but these aren’t permanent solutions as they are mostly closed shops for just one player to use,” says Rainbird.

“We need more proper studio space. 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 to 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.”

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