Oct. 5, 2021
In “good omens”, a fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman published in 1990, Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon, set out to sabotage Doomsday and save Earth. A television adaptation by Amazon Studios in 2019 saw the unlikely pair cross paths in a variety of locations, including the Garden of Eden, ancient Rome, medieval England, revolutionary France and Blitz-era London. The filming schedule was equally gruelling, with the crew trekking through a succession of sets in South Africa and southern England.
Season 2 will involve fewer air miles. Production begins next month, alongside “Anansi Boys”, another Amazon Studios adaptation from Mr Gaiman’s back catalogue. Both will be filmed entirely in Scotland. The decision is a vote of confidence in Britain’s high-end television industry. Spending by production companies on this segment has risen from £1.1bn ($1.5bn) in 2016-17 to £3.5bn in 2020-21, says the British Film Institute.
The boom is driven by streaming services, which demand new content and high production values. Britain, with its global language and deep talent pool, was well placed to benefit. Netflix says Britain is now its third-biggest production site, after America and Canada. It has even won plum productions away from other countries. In August Amazon announced that the second season of its “The Lord of the Rings” prequel series will be shot in Britain, after two decades in which Middle Earth meant New Zealand.
Tax incentives play a big part in film-makers’ decisions. In Britain they can claim up to 180% of their actual spending against tax. And if that results in an overall loss, they can take 25% of it as cash. Sweeteners are on offer even if global productions do only minimal work, such as soundtrack recording, in Britain. On top of all this, last October the government launched a scheme to spend £500m encouraging film and television production to restart as the pandemic eased. Production companies are “almost too incentivised”, says one producer. “But it’s brilliant.”
One result is a scramble for studios. Some have been booked out for years, and new ones are being built. Last month Sunset Studios, a Hollywood company, said it would be spending £700m on a new studio in Hertfordshire. John Madocks Wright of Savills, an estate agent, says he now markets warehouses for rent not just to logistics firms but to film-makers.
Demand is rippling out from the south-east, a trend encouraged by yet more incentives from local film bodies. Streaming services are moving into cities where national broadcasters have long been required by government rules to make some content, says Tom Harrington of Enders Analysis, a research firm. Film executives say they are seeing a shift from crews popping up for a week to shoot on location to productions entirely on-site. Screen Yorkshire was founded in 2002, but started to need a films office only in 2018, when demand boomed. Caroline Cooper Charles, its head of creative, says congestion in the south-east gives Yorkshire a competitive advantage: more parking spaces.
These new studios are often built on old industrial sites. FirstStage Studios in Leith Docks, Edinburgh, which opened last year, was built on the site of a wave-power plant that went bust in 2014. It received a grant of £1m from Screen Scotland and will soon host “Anansi Boys”. Belfast Harbour Studios, which opened in 2017 in a former glass-bottle factory, recently underwent an expansion costing £45m. “The School for Good and Evil”, a Netflix show, is being filmed there. A 38-acre studio in Digbeth, an industrial part of Birmingham, will be part of a swanky new media city, conveniently located next to a stop on the planned hs2 high-speed rail line.
Regional politicians hope new studios will increase employment, as cash flows out from film sets into hotels, catering and restaurants. “Game of Thrones” contributed more than £50m to Northern Ireland’s economy in 2018. Many sets now run apprenticeship schemes for local youths. Generous tax breaks mean any new jobs will come at considerable cost to the Treasury, but at least more of them will be where they are most needed.