- By Theo Leggett
- Business correspondent, BBC News
Like it or not, the Barbie movie has been the movie hit of the year, grossing more than $1.38 billion at the box office so far.
The film, made on a reported budget of $145 million, was produced by American entertainment giant Warner Bros. But much of it was actually filmed in the United Kingdom.
The film is one of a growing number of high-profile film and television projects to be produced wholly or partially in this country.
According to the British Film Institute (BFI), spending on this type of production reached a record £6.27 billion last yearand most of that money comes from abroad.
The demand for studio space has increased dramatically. Among those to benefit is Frank Khalid, the owner of West London Film Studios.
The company is based on a rather drab industrial estate in Hayes, a couple of miles from Heathrow Airport. From the outside it barely exudes the glamor of Hollywood.
However, its five sound studios have hosted artists such as Sir Anthony Hopkins, Renee Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey and Emilia Clarke.
Scenes from films such as The Imitation Game, The Gentlemen and Bridget Jones’s Baby were filmed here, along with all three seasons of the notable Apple TV+ drama Ted Lasso.
Across the road, the finishing touches are being put on four more cavernous new stages, the result of a £23 million expansion project.
When Khalid bought the company 15 years ago, things were very different. The studio he bought had been closed and his original plan was to use the space as a venue for elaborate Asian weddings.
Since then, however, the backdrop has changed. First came the introduction and subsequent expansion of a generous tax incentive scheme, which allowed UK-based co-productions to claim cash refunds on a portion of their expenses.
Then, the emergence of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ created a wave of new demand for original content.
Khalid says both factors have had a “massive impact.” Enough, he says, to convince him to sell his wedding business and focus exclusively on film and television.
“When I first bought the studios, there were no tax breaks and a lot of studios closed,” he says.
“But since the tax breaks came in, demand has increased tremendously. Many movie studios are now being built to meet that demand.”
Some of the projects currently planned are large scale.
Pinewood Studios in Berkshire, already the largest facility in the UK, intends to build 21 new sound stages at its site near Iver Heath, bringing the total to 51. The project as a whole is expected to cost £800 millions.
In Leavesden, Warner Bros. wants to build 11 new sets, as well as production offices and workshops.
Ben Roberts, chief executive of the BFI, says there is a long history of international productions made in Britain, and Elstree was used to film the original Star Wars film, for example.
He agrees that tax breaks have certainly made the country more attractive to foreign companies, but emphasizes that other factors also come into play.
“I think the reason we have such a successful global production hub here in the UK is a combination of the tax breaks, but also the quality of our teams, the availability of talent… the on-screen acting talent of the “The United Kingdom is world-renowned and very popular,” he says.
But he admits that such high demand for production facilities also creates its own challenges, particularly ensuring there are enough qualified staff available.
“We need accountants, gardeners, carpenters, electricians, as well as all the well-known jobs. We have estimated that we will probably need around 20,000 jobs, in addition to those we currently have, by 2025.”
The Hollywood strikes have also shown how exposed the British industry now is to events elsewhere. Earlier this month, film and TV union Bectu said the conflicts were having a severe effect on freelancers, with big projects like Deadpool 3 coming to an end.
“Many of our members have been dismissed from productions under ‘force majeure’ clauses with little notice and pay,” says Bectu director Philippa Childs.
And despite the influx of cash from foreign companies, some parts of the industry are struggling. BFI statistics show that spending on independent film fell by 31% last year, to £174m, for example.
Victoria Adeola Thomas is a film producer and professor at the London Film School. She worries that big-budget film and TV productions are making life harder for independents.
“Independent filmmakers now have to compete with everyone else on a commercial level, which means more money. That’s why the average cost of an independent film has increased,” he says.
“Trying to make an independent film now for less than half a million is going to be a real challenge unless you have a lot of ‘in-kind’ support…and probably paying your crew minimum wage!”
While streaming services offer an avenue to market independent films, she says their business model, which minimizes ongoing payments to content creators, is unhelpful.
“Once you sell to a streamer, that’s the end of the revenue stream, because they will never pay royalties,” he explains. “And that’s a model that has really disrupted everything.”
She thinks the amount of taxpayers’ money going into the industry places a duty on policymakers to ensure it is not just the big multinationals that benefit.
“I think governments really need to pay attention so that they don’t end up killing off the independent space and enabling big companies, most of which aren’t even British,” he says.