The studios behind the headlines, part 4: The Big Hitters
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The studios behind the headlines, part 4: The Big Hitters

The Frame 25 series on large-scale studios in the UK continues.

And in part four this month, we look at what some of the world’s biggest content producers – Netflix, Disney and Apple – are doing within these shores.

Before we dive in, here’s a recap of what we’ve covered so far in the series:

Previously…

In part one, Twickenham Studios came under the spotlight. The south-west London facility is to be expanded, with more stages and workspaces added to existing capacity.

Sky Studios Elstree, featured in part two, is a new £400 million development comprising state-of-the-art film and TV studio space across a 32-acre site. It’s scheduled to open in 2022, and forecast to attract £3 billion of production spend within five years.

Part three’s focus was on a studio just a mile away from Sky’s new development: Elstree Studios. Known as the birthplace of Star Wars, Elstree enjoyed 97% occupancy throughout the pandemic and yet had to turn away contracts worth millions of pounds because of a lack of capacity. Two new sound stages are to be built as well as ancillary workshops, which are vital to Elstree’s long-term success.

What’s driving the investment in UK production space?

Locating UK studio space is no easy task. And it could get even harder, for a while at least.

Netflix’s deal to secure production facilities at Shepperton Studios, announced in 2019, is likely to increase pressure on space and skills already in high demand.

The country’s creative industries were doing well before Covid hit. Other factors, including tax relief of up to 25% available for films and high-end TV programmes that qualify as British, and a weaker pound against the dollar which attracts US producers, are also encouraging greater demand.

Globally, the biggest SVOD platforms are enjoying extraordinary growth. Netflix has more than 200 million subscribers, Amazon is estimated to have close to 150 million, and Disney+ already has more than 100 million after launching less than 18 months ago.

All this demand on a what has traditionally been a very limited supply of facilities has led to the huge investments in studio space we’re now seeing.

Part 4: Netflix, Disney, Apple TV+

When demand vastly exceeds supply, prices rise, and when that happens, the poor (or poorer) are priced out. In the context of UK studio space, Netflix and Disney can afford to secure the use of large facilities for years to come while their smaller competitors will almost certainly find it harder to access available space.

In the fourth part of the series, we round up a few heavy hitters, starting with that Netflix deal with Shepperton Studios.

Netflix

Location: Shepperton Studios, Shepperton, Surrey.

Story: Between the summers of 2018 and 2019, 40 Netflix originals and co-productions were made across Britain, including Sex Education in Wales, Outlaw King in Scotland, and The Crown at Elstree Studios.

And in July 2019, Netflix announced it was to take a long-term lease, believed to be ten years, on Shepperton Studios, which dates back to 1932 and is built around the 17th-century Littleton House. Pinewood Group bought Shepperton Studios in 2001 for £35 million.

Netflix produced more than 50 titles in the UK in 2020.



The plan: Netflix, increasing its spend on UK production to £750 million, has plans to use all 14 of Shepperton’s stages, its 10 acres of backlot and thousands of square feet of workshop space as a dedicated UK production hub.

A further 16 stages are due to be built at Shepperton (which won’t contribute to the Netflix hub), and another six at Pinewood, as part of a wider £500 million expansion, which will make Shepperton the second-largest studio in the world.


What they said: Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer for Netflix, said: “[Shepperton] has been synonymous with world-class film for nearly a century. We’re incredibly proud to be part of that heritage. This investment will ensure that British creators and producers have first-rate production facilities and a world stage for their work.”

Selected titles produced at Shepperton Studios:

  • Gladiator
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again
  • An Inspector Calls
  • Superman
  • Alien
  • Blade Runner
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • Chocolat
  • Cruella

Disney

Location: Pinewood Studios, Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire.

Story: Disney and Pinewood entered into a long-term agreement in September 2019, under which Disney takes all of Pinewood’s stages, backlots and other production accommodation.


The plan: As well as the deal with Disney, and the additional six stages, Pinewood announced in 2020 that it’s to create Screen Hub UK, which the company describes as a “Screen Industries Global Growth Hub”. The project, an expansion based on £450 million of investment to be located on a 77-acre site adjacent to the existing studios, is expected to create about 3,500 jobs.

Screen Hub UK will include a 350,000-square-foot, film-inspired visitor attraction, the Pinewood Studio Experience, as well as new production facilities, an educational training and skills hub, and a creative industries business-growth hub.


What they said: Paul Golding, chairman of Pinewood Group, said: “It’s wonderful to have Disney here at Pinewood. They’ve been making great films with us for many years and the fact they want to shoot so many more here is testimony not only to the quality of the teams and infrastructure at Pinewood, but also to the British film industry as a whole.

On Pinewood Group’s strategy, he said: “Our plans, which represent the single biggest expansion of stage space across the UK, will see Pinewood Group open 22 new sound stages, enabling us to host even more productions. This growth will help secure the ongoing success of the UK film and TV industry.”

Selected titles produced at Pinewood Studios:

  • Most of the James Bond films
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  • Tim Burton’s Batman
  • Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
  • Mary Poppins Returns
  • Rocketman
  • Bugsy Malone
  • Mary Queen of Scots
  • On Chesil Beach
  • Aliens

Apple

Location: Apple is to take over two facilities within the Woodlands Enterprise Zone site, on Symmetry Park, in Aston Clinton, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire – just a few miles up the road from Frame 25’s UK office.

Story: Apple appointed California-based production support company MBS in 2020 to identify UK studio locations. MBS is understood to have struck a deal with property firm Tritax Big Box for the two facilities, which together provide 170,000 square feet of space for film studios and set workshops.

A deal was reportedly struck in March 2021, according to Buckinghamshire County Council documents, and the Aston Clinton sites are scheduled to open later this year.


The plan: The two units are being developed by Apple “to film some of its upcoming film and TV productions”.


What they said: A council document states: “At the Woodlands site we have confirmed that Apple TV are creating a film production facility in two employment units built within the Woodlands Enterprise Zone site (units 2 and 3, Symmetry Park, Aston Clinton – 170,000 square feet).”

The big picture

A report published in October 2018 by property company Lambert Smith Hampton said space the equivalent of 100 football pitches was needed to meet demand.

The company’s head of media, Christopher Berry, told BBC News in September 2019: “The situation is actually worse now than it was when the report was written. And obviously, the Shepperton deal has taken more supply off the market. What’s happening is people are going into converted warehouses as a cheap way of converting and creating space.”

Apple’s new venture is testament to that.