It has been a year of change in the UK studios market, with cutbacks and closures at the smaller end of the market matched by big investments from larger players such as Sky, Pinewood and MediaCity.
Last week's announcement that BBC Studios will lose 36 of its 274 staff is the latest upheaval in a year that saw the closure of Wandsworth-based Capital Studios and Channel 4-owned 124 Studios.
Job losses at BBC Studios were described by BBC Resources chief executive Mark Thomas as “intended to make the business smaller, more flexible and resilient to changes in demand”. But one industry insider comments that it is simply the first in a series of cuts that will downscale TV Centre before it closes in 2012. This followed the studios being put up for sale in August 2007, a process abandoned in March this year when talks with Pinewood fell through.
Capital Studios closed in October with its owner, Minerva, planning
to sell it as real estate. Similarly, 124's January closure was blamed
on lack of funds available for an HD upgrade.
In sharp contrast, 2008 was also a year in which media centres - developments offering a mix of studios, post and other media ventures - crept into the studio vernacular in a big way. Pinewood Shepperton Group started work on three long-term multi-million-pound projects, while the£400m MediaCity:UK build started in Salford. Plus there was Norwich's£4m rebirth of Epic, the old Anglia Studios, and Sky's planned state-of-the-art HD broadcast facility, set for completion in 2011. The top end of the studios sector has certainly compensated for the losses at the smaller end this year.
STUDIOS HD UPGRADES:2008
Feeling the squeeze
Elsewhere, leading players such as Maidstone, Fountain and The London Studios report that business has remained consistent, despite clear signs of belt-tightening from producers.
The London Studios' director of studio service & client liaison, Kathy Schulz, explains that producers have begun to block book stretches for long-running shows, rather than film them on a weekly basis for one or two days. “This means producers don't have to spend time and money dismantling sets,” says Schulz, who cites BBC1's QI or Richard Hammond's Blast Lab as recent examples.
However, block booking can be double-edged for studios, as Schulz explains: “It can be hard to fit shorter shows around these bookings and means we have to turn work away.”
Pinewood director of sales Paul Baker is also looking at ways to help producers manage their dwindling budgets. “Gameshows can be shot without a live audience, which allows us to make three shows in a day rather than two - reducing the amount of time the producer needs to be in the studio.”
Baker also argues that Pinewood's full on-site post facilities mean it can offer better deals to producers. “Little Dorrit was shot here, and the visual and sound post-production was worked on by Molinare, which has a station on the site - the relationship means we can offer a great price.”
Epic managing director Mark Wells argues that belt-tightening may mean producers spending more money on HD-quality studio productions -co-produced with international partners so they can sell into new territories and make bigger returns.
Two of the Epic facility's three SD studios were fully upgraded by systems integrator Megahertz to HD in August and the company began using the space last month. It has filmed two gameshow pilots and is currently working on two as yet unnamed commercials.
Maidstone Studios general manager Kenton Oxley reports an average year for the facility and admits that difficult market conditions have meant a reduction in ad hoc work. He says: “A number of repeat long-running clients such as Five's The Trisha Goddard Show and the BBC's Basil Brush have kept things ticking along but we are seeing fewer short contracts.”
Out-of-London studios could find the tougher climate means companies that once paid a premium for central London facilities look to the regions to make their budgets go further. “Endemol came to us from [Wembley-based] Fountain in January with BBC's National Lottery show 1 vs 100 and we have just completed a second series,” says Oxley.
However, Baker points out that studios are a relatively small slice of production costs: “Budget pressures may not be as tight for studios as the more expensive elements such as talent, production staff and writers.”
One upside to the recession for studios is a growing appetite for glitzy light entertainment. This year has seen the continued success of The X Factor, filmed at Fountain, and Strictly Come Dancing, filmed at TV Centre. Wells says: “Although the idea that people like being entertained when they feel low might be a cliché, these shows don't cost as much to produce as a drama and get far more viewers. It looks like a winning formula for broadcasters.”
Baker says another trend is the growth of the studio-based sitcom. He argues that this is a genre in rude health on the back of hits such as the BBC's Gavin and Stacey and My Family and Channel 4's The IT Crowd.
The conversion to HD continued in 2008 (see box). Upgrades this year included TV Centre's Studio 4, Epic's HD upgrade in Norwich and Fountain Studios£1.5m investment completed in July.
Fountain marketing director Sarah Joyce reports that there have already been two HD shows this year, including BBC3 comedy Clone this summer and Sky Sports 1's The Cesc Fabregas Show in May, with more HD sitcom work booked for 2009.
The coming year
The outlook for the first half of 2009 appears stable for most, with Fountain, Maidstone, Pinewood and The London Studios reporting solid bookings for the first six months. That may change later in 2009, however. Fountain's Joyce warns: “The shows we have booked for Q1 and Q2 2009 were commissioned before the meltdown this -autumn, and it could be that the full force of the downturn won't filter through until August.”