Art

The British film industry is booming, but it’s in dire need of a crew

Can you sew a costume, lead actors from trailer to set, or read a chart? Then the British film industry needs you. As the stars gather for the glamorous Bafta awards tomorrow night, Britain is basking in a £6 billion film and TV production boom.

Huge sums of money are being spent on expanding existing studios, with huge new complexes planned, while Hollywood battles streaming giants for the facilities they need to produce new blockbuster content. But behind the scenes, a crisis is looming. A serious shortage of skilled workers – from set designers and accountants to special effects experts, handles and assistant directors – is affecting filming schedules.

Aviation workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic and ex-military personnel are being retrained and drafted onto film sets to fill gaps. Qualified accountants are particularly in short supply as budgets skyrocket to meet rising wage demands.

The crisis in the film industry is an unexpected consequence of the industry’s success. “We used to be in the cottage industry, but now we’re on par with manufacturing. We are currently bigger than Hollywood in terms of studio real estate,” says Ben Roberts, Managing Director of the British Film Institute (BFI).

With facilities in Liverpool and Birmingham alongside 20 new locations planned across the country, including a huge expansion at flagship Pinewood, UK studio space could rise to 6.8 million square feet, research property firm Lambert Smith Hampton predicts. For comparison, Los Angeles offers a sea of ​​5.3 million square feet of studio space.

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The phone is ringing non-stop with new booking requests at Shepperton Studios, a far cry from 1979 when the Surrey site hit rock bottom with just two films in production. Pinewood-owned Shepperton’s new multi-million pound deal with Amazon’s Prime Video, guaranteeing Jeff Bezos’ first use of around 450,000 square feet of space, will keep the studio busy into the next decade.

Netflix, which has pledged to spend £1bn on British productions every year, is doubling its own Shepperton space, from which films like Enola Holmes starring Millie Bobby Brown and Henry Cavill from Stranger Things and The Old Guard starring A-lister Charlize Theron .

Threatened with demolition in the darkest days of British cinema, historic sites like Berkshire’s Bray Studios – home of Hammer horror in the ’50s – are now developing ambitious plans for expansion, revived by the production’s gold rush.

The studio near Maidenhead, which has 54,000 square feet of stages and a 183,000 square foot backlot, will be one of the filming locations for Amazon Studios’ £700 million series based on The Lord of the Rings. UK combined spending on film and high-end television production in 2021 reached £5.64bn – the highest ever reported and £1.27bn more than the year before the 2019 pandemic, the BFI reported.

But now the skills shortage is starting to take hold. By 2025, UK industry will be short of 40,000 workers needed to produce manufacturing workers, according to an analysis. Experienced crews enjoying unprecedented demand for their skills can call their price and drive up production costs already having to bear the additional expense of adhering to strict Covid protocols.

Low-budget independent films in the £3-6million range are struggling the most. One producer reported a search of 72 assistant directors before finding an available candidate, who then claimed a salary 40 percent over budget.

“We have never seen such a level of production. We’ve got Netflix and Amazon renewing leases at Pinewood, expansion plans at Elstree, and groundbreaking in Marlow and Broxbourne. But we have a real shortage of experienced crew in mid-level roles, such as first assistant director,” says Gareth Ellis-Unwin, Head of Film at ScreenSkills, the training body that manages the £15million BFI-backed Film Skills fund.

The boom is attributed to Chancellor George Osborne’s decision a decade ago to create a tax break to attract more work from US studios after filming for the Harry Potter films wrapped at Warner Bros Studios in Leavesden, Hertfordshire were.

A new relief rate of 25 per cent for the first £20m release, followed by a rate of 20 per cent thereafter, immediately attracted an influx of productions from studios that had outsourced work to other countries.

“The tax incentives made us competitive, but we already had the infrastructure of skilled tradesmen and world-class technicians,” says Roberts of the BFI. “We’ve been making Star Wars films in the UK since 1977.”

The rise of streaming, with tech giants needing a pipeline of quality content to keep subscribers satiated, has given a boost to the resurgence of British film. Direct spending on UK canvas production rose 74 per cent to £13.86 billion between 2017 and 2019 alone, BFI figures show.

Will companies like Netflix continue to spend £12.5bn a year on new programming as subscriber numbers stagnate? “Over the next decade, we’re hoping that the market will mature into something with long-term viability,” says Roberts, who wants to ensure smaller independent films get enough funding to weather inflated production costs.

“This has been a period of really dramatic growth and the BFI has been working to ensure infrastructure is expanded across the UK.”

But the studio is just a big shed without the trained crew to staff it. The BFI will next month publish a “Current Skills Report” for government, highlighting areas of acute shortage. “We’re hiring people from engineering, manufacturing, and lighting,” says Roberts. “But we really need accountants badly.”

Ellis-Unwin — producer of the Oscar-winning 2010 film The King’s Speech — led an initiative with Pinewood, home of the Bond franchise, to help 1,000 airline workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic to retrain for film roles. The Heathrow to Hollywood push followed a similar pattern of retraining service members nearing the end of their military careers.

“I was shooting a British war film and it occurred to me that anyone who worked in logistics in the army and could keep an armored personnel carrier running in the desert could probably service a dolly or a crane on a film set,” he says .

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