The £6bn UK film and television production boom is teetering on the brink as an acute shortage of skilled workers – from set decorators and special effects experts to accountants – is causing delays in filming schedules and driving production costs across the big and small screen pushes up.
The streaming wars have sparked an unprecedented boom in demand for content as it scrambles to attract new subscribers and viewers, with a record £5.6bn spent on producing blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible 7, Big budget dramas including Bridgeton and reality shows such as master chef in the UK last year.
The huge surge in spending – double that of pandemic-stricken 2020 and £1.3billion more than 2019 – has pressured wealthy Hollywood studios and streaming giants to scramble for studio space to ensure the production pipeline continues flows freely.
Last week Prime Video inked a record-breaking deal with Amazon to lease space at Shepperton Studios, which will house productions of up to extraterrestrial to Mary Poppinsthe company’s first long-term commitment to the production of television programs and films in the UK.
The streaming giant joins Disney and Netflix, which have already signed deals with Pinewood, home of James Bond war of stars Franchises and Shepperton as the space race continues.
But a crisis is brewing behind the scenes of Britain’s production boom: sources say there will be up to 40,000 workers missing by 2025 – with filming schedules already affected.
“We’re absolutely back and flying,” said Paul Golding, managing director of Pinewood Studios, which also owns Shepperton Studios. “In my time I have never experienced that the studios are used as intensively as they are at the moment. However, the biggest challenge facing the industry is the crew. Build infrastructure, studio space – that’s relatively quick when it’s needed. But crew, this is much, much more difficult. We’ve talked about this for a long time.”
The British Film Institute (BFI), on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is in the process of assessing the extent of the skills shortage and sources say its report will detail an industry facing a crisis when it it came out in April.
Skill shortages are not only causing delays in some filming schedules, but are driving down wage inflation as productions struggle to secure in-demand crew.
ScreenSkills, the body representing workers in the UK film and television industry, says there is a particular shortage of experienced staff in the ‘crushed centre’.
“The real pressing issues are in the veteran middle class and that is our focus for the coming year as bottlenecks there impact production schedules, cause delays and cause wage inflation,” said Seetha Kumar, Managing Director of ScreenSkills.
“All the research we do and the regular feedback from the industry that sits in our competence councils and working groups, [tells] of skill gaps and bottlenecks across the board – from production coordinators and managers to editors, script managers and accountants.
There are growing concerns that the skills shortage could impact the quality of UK-made productions. ScreenSkills research has revealed that crew are promoted to meet demand before they are ready to move to a more senior position.
Added to this is the growing practice of so-called “show jumping”, in which crews who are particularly in demand leave a production facility early because of the offer of better-paying work.
For now, the growing skills shortage hasn’t caused the UK to fall behind other countries as a location for the production of Hollywood blockbusters and crown jewel content for the streaming giants. Amazon is set to begin filming the second season of its $1 billion+ 35mm adaptation of JRR Tolkien Lord of the rings in the UK in the coming months. Amazon made the surprising decision to move the filming out of New Zealand, home of all previous ones Lord of the rings and hobbit Productions to the UK last August.
“It’s great that the UK continues to be viewed as a great place for film and television production and that there has been such growth, not just in production spending but also in the scale and ambition of what is being done,” said Kumar. “But a skills shortage is the biggest risk to continued growth and we believe a cash injection is badly needed. There is no quick fix for that.”