In a year when Pinewood and Elstree both reached landmark anniversaries and the doors opened at MediaCityUK, studios bosses had much to smile about. George Bevir reports.
This year saw some landmark anniversaries in the studio sector, with Pinewood celebrating its 75th birthday in September.
Over the decades, the Buckinghamshire studios have hosted some of the world’s most well-known TV and film productions, but Pinewood took on a leading role in arguably the biggest story of the studio sector in 2011: the takeover of Pinewood Shepperton by MediaCityUK developer Peel.
Peel launched its bid back in April, and after some dramatic twists and turns - including a rival bid by Mohammed Al Fayed and highstreet jeweller Warren James upping its own stake in the facilities group - the deal was finalised in July, when Peel took a 71% stake in the business.
For Pinewood, 2011 ended strongly, with television revenues for the second half of the year “signifi cantly ahead” of the same period last year.
Pinewood’s positivity is echoed by other studio bosses. “This year has been the highest in terms of revenue and utilisation in the past 10 years,” says Elstree managing director Roger Morris.
“That has been driven by our strategy and the buoyancy of the market.”
Elstree celebrated its 85th birthday this year, but perhaps a greater cause for celebration at the studios was the return of Big Brother, with Channel 5 picking up the reality show after it was dumped by Channel 4.
“We left the [Big Brother] house in place in agreement with Endemol because we thought it was not a dead format and it was still getting high viewing figures when it left Channel 4,” says Morris.
“For the new series, we built a production village, which we are very pleased with because it is a much more efficient way of working.”
Fountain Studios managing director Mariana Spater describes 2011 as “the strongest year ever”. She attributes this to a combination of efficient scheduling and high demand.
“By and large, we have been able to fi t in one show after another, with a mixture of returning and new shows. If we can fit in everything again, we expect that to be the same next year,” she says.
BBC Studios and Post Production head of new business and entertainment Craig White is similarly upbeat. He says the there has been 15% growth in studio days, with a mix of projects across productions of all types and sizes.
As well as BBC staples like Strictly, BBC S&PP provided facilities for 10 O’Clock Live for Channel 4 and Harry Hill’s TV Burp (below, right) for ITV1.
One of the most ambitious projects it tackled was Deal Or No Deal Live, 12 x 60-minute shows transmitted over two weeks from BBC S&PP’s Bristol Paintworks studios, with live inserts from the contestants’ home cities.
MediaCityUK’s The Studios opened in January, with A Question of Sport and Frank Skinner’s Opinionated among the programmes to be shot in Salford.
Head of studios Andy Waters says that in less than 12 months, utilisation of the studios stands at 35%.
Waters estimates that prices charged by The Studios are 15% cheaper than in London, and he hopes the facility’s competitive rates will contribute to utilisation rates rising to 50-60% within a couple of years.
“We want to see rapid growth, so it’s important to find a way to offer savings that are worth thinking about for productions,” he says.
Wimbledon Studios, the former home of The Bill, opened for business in the first quarter of the year after £500,000 was spent refurbishing the 220,000 sq ft site.
A media village has begun to be assembled on site, with Wimbledon Sound and Decode among the 30 media firms now based at the facility.
Read says he’s “delighted” at the studio’s fi rst year of trading.
“One year on, the site is proof of what we thought it could become,” he adds. “For studios generally, I think it’s been a very good year - it feels as good as it’s ever been.
“The infrastructure to attract overseas productions is in place, the Film Council has done a lot of work to promote the UK, and the drive from Sky to produce drama and comedy has chipped in enormously, and we have benefited from that [Sky 1 programmes Spy and Starlings used the studios].”
Spater says next year is just as promising. “It doesn’t look like demand is flattening off just yet, and there seems to be enough work to go around.”
But Elstree’s Morris is more cautious: “Next year, if the recession bites too deep, TV will have problems with revenue, and studios are at the end of that chain. That is why it is important not to be totally dependent on one part of the market.”
Timeline: A year in studios
The Studios opens at MediaCityUK
Wimbledon Film and TV Studios opens
Peel launches Pinewood Shepperton takeover bid
Pinewood appeals decision to refuse planning permission for its Project Pinewood development
Peel concludes takeover of Pinewood Shepperton
Mediahouse completes £1.5m overhaul
BBC s&PP completes HD upgrade of major studios at Television Centre
Pinewood boss Ivan Dunleavy reveals plans to finance TV productions The Bottle Yard signs its first permanent tenant
BBC S&PP head of new business and entertainment Craig White says it is increasingly providing accommodation, studio and post-production packages to customers.
“Saltbeef TV is currently with us and in pre-production for the second series of Friday Download, and we expect this area to grow in 2012,” he says.
In October, Pinewood chief exec Ivan Dunleavy revealed that the facilities group was likely to begin investing in TV production next year, but its plans to diversify further and move into property development are on ice.
The group’s attempt to build 1,500 homes and a network of sets faced opposition from local residents.
In May, it appealed against South Buckinghamshire Council’s decision to refuse permission for the project, and the final decision now rests with secretary of state for communities and local government Eric Pickles.