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Can Britain’s Workforce Keep Up With Film, TV Production Boom?

Variety logo Variety 12/14/2016 Leo Barraclough
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Britain’s production sector is bursting at the seams, with movies and television shows being shot in every corner of the country. But can the infrastructure and workforce keep pace with the demand?

The boom has been fueled by a nearly 10-year-old film tax credit, worth 25% of a production’s budget, which was extended to high-end TV production in 2013. The steep fall in the value of the pound following Britain’s June decision to leave the European Union has made the country even more attractive to those offshore.

“If you add the currency exchange rate, plus the tax credit, plus everything else, the U.K. is incredibly popular at the moment,” says Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission and head of Film London, the agency in charge of production in the capital.

Movie spending in Britain has remained high, totaling £1.37 billion ($1.74 billion) in the 12 months to Sept. 30. Television spending has gone through the roof, with the 77 shows that qualified for the tax credit paying out £631 million ($800 million) during that period, more than twice the amount spent two years ago.

“The TV credit has really accelerated things, and not just in London and the Southeast,” Wootton says.

London’s high-end studios — Pinewood, Leavesden, and Shepperton — are nearly booked solid with Hollywood blockbusters, including the “Star Wars” and “Fantastic Beasts” franchises. That has forced big-budget drama series to seek smaller studios or alternative spaces. Netflix’s “The Crown” set up shop at London’s Elstree, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” in Northern Ireland, Sony’s “Outlander” in Scotland, and BBC’s “Sherlock” in Wales.

At the same time, facilities are adding studio space. Pinewood opened a three-stage facility in Wales last year; Northern Ireland’s £20 million ($25.4 million) Belfast Harbour Studios, with two stages, opens in January. Film London is studying the possibility of building a large studio complex in Dagenham, east of London.

Pinewood opened five sound stages June 30; the next day, they were full, according to Pinewood Group corporate affairs director Andrew Smith. Ironically, Pinewood had no space for a high-end TV production that the studio itself had invested in, Amazon’s period drama “The Collection,” so the series wound up filming at an unoccupied factory in Wales.

Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the county of Yorkshire all offer funding for production, which is further stimulating growth. Screen Yorkshire’s £15 million ($19 million) Yorkshire Content Fund has invested in films like “Ghost Stories,” starring Martin Freeman, and TV series like “Peaky Blinders.” The organization also assisted with the conversion of a former air force base into a film studio with three stages, where Buckingham Palace interiors were re-created for ‘Victoria.’

Hugo Heppell, Screen Yorkshire’s head of investments, says 75% of the “Victoria” crew came from the local area. Extra crew can be brought in from Manchester, another major production hub less than an hour’s drive away.

But the race is on in Britain to train new below-the-line staff, as well as to help existing artisans and technicians move up the ladder. “We do have a skills shortage. We have managed to crew everything, but we are getting a huge amount of demand,” Wootton says. “We’re coping, but we need to do more than cope.”

Training programs are gradually filling the gaps in qualified crew members. So are initiatives like Trainee Finder, a database run by government agency Creative Skillset, which helps place newcomers with production companies.

“The problem is, it is quite a slow process,” says Barry Ryan of Warp Films, which is shooting “Ghost Stories” in Yorkshire. “We need people in almost every department. It will take a number of years.”

The demand for crew allows experienced freelancers to be selective. “There are more choices for crews, and they’re able to work on what they want to work on,” says Alison Small, chief executive of The Production Guild. Inevitably, freelancers gravitate toward jobs with bigger paydays, which can leave independent producers scrambling for experienced staff.

“It’s great for crews because they’re in a good position,” says Ryan. “As a grip, the difference in your job on a $100 million film and a $3 million one is very small, but the difference in what the producer is able to pay isn’t. As a producer, you still have to attract people with the same amount of passion and engagement.”

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