Disney is all but taking over Pinewood Studios for the next decade – but is this is a good or bad thing, we wonder.
In a sign of the confidence that Disney has in UK production, as well as the strength of government tax incentives, it was announced early in September that the company had inked a long term deal. A deal that very much has an impact on British production. The basics were that Disney had block-booked the highest profile production facilities in Britain, Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, for at least ten years. And by block-booked, it means that Disney will be taking over nearly all of the studio’s stages and space.
It’s a huge deal for Pinewood, and extends Disney’s commitment to the UK, which began in earnest when the government rolled out the red carpet to welcome filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Britain. You may recall that such were the tax break alterations that took place to help lure Star Wars to Britain that the then Chancellor Of The Exchequer was explicitly thanked in the film’s end credits. Since then, Disney has shot further Marvel movie material in Britain, as well as several of its live action animated movie remakes. And of course the UK has been the base for the Star Wars movies. It’s not just Disney, either. Netflix is keen to film more films and shows in the UK, and it’s inked a similar block-booking at nearby Shepperton Studios, which affects 14 of the facility’s stages. It’s unclear if that’s a decade-long deal too, but it’s likely to be a significant commitment.
Furthermore, the Disney deal at Pinewood has an option for the firm to extend it too. As the announcement was made, the new James Bond film, No Time To Die, was coming to the end of its production. The film, as per usual, had been based in and around the 007 stage at Pinewood, and incoming soon at the facility is Universal’s Jurassic World 3.
All good news then, right? Well, if you’re a film worker in and around the London area, working in big budget cinema, then it’s hard to sniff at. Likewise, the fact that more and more major films and TV shows are coming to Britain is a positive. Sure, there are question marks over whether the growth in big budget production is being overly supported by tax breaks (that we covered in a previous issue of the magazine), and producers such as Matthew Vaughn (currently finishing up on The King’s Men) is one of those who believes the British film industry is being built on a house of tax break cards. But presumably guarantees or indications have been given to Disney to ensure it makes such a long-term commitment.
But there are losers in all of this. When we broke the news of the deal on Film Stories, we were quickly contacted by some independent film producers who now find themselves frozen out of the Pinewood facilities. Heck, there are questions already as to whether there will be room for non-Disney blockbusters in the 2020s, even if they’re Jurassic Park or James Bond movies. Yet for producers of smaller British films, they were already facing the rising costs of Pinewood and Shepperton as more and more big productions come looking for space. Now there’s the knock-on effect of there not being room even if they had the money.
That said, the rest of the UK appears to be responding to the growing demand for production space.
Shepperton has already announced plans to have new stages operational by 2021. Meanwhile, Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight has been looking for years to set up his Mercian Studios project in the Birmingham area. He’s also said to have acquired space in the city centre for a media city-style complex. Elsewhere, Channel 4’s decision to location its new HQ in Leeds is set to result in more production space in the north east. Liverpool is set to host the ‘Pinewood of the north’. In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, Belfast Harbour Studios is now up and running. That’s just a flavour of the regional facilities that are springing up and expanding around the UK. The hope will be that the influx of productions is sustainable, and that these many production facilities will not only be geographically spread, but busy.
There are question marks. What happens if we get to a point where the Pound sterling isn’t as weak? What happens if more eastern European territories – where several British independents are now looking – offer significant savings? And for those of us not London-centric, can we build a film industry that’s genuinely spread around all of the UK, and not gravitating most of the work south of the M25?
It feels on the surface that this influx of Disney and Netflix money is a big, positive step. It’s hard to find too many negatives of a decade-long major commitment to the UK film industry. Back in the early 90s, the thought of one blockbuster filming here was remote. Now, it’s a regular occurrence. The caveat, though, is that there’s surely an onus on the British film industry to protect and nurture its talent and its independent productions, and to make sure there’s affordable room made available for them. If it can do that, then hopefully everybody wins…
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