Despite the volatile economic climate, several UK studios are pushing ahead with ambitious plans to place their sites at the centre of creative hubs.

When the credit crunch first took hold, the property market became one of its earliest victims, so it might come as a surprise to learn that several UK studios are ploughing on with major development initiatives.

These include three multimillion pound, long-term projects by the Pinewood Shepperton group; the£400m scheme to build the UK's first purpose-built media city in Salford, backed by Peel Holdings, Salford City Council and the North West Development Agency; Norwich's£4m rebirth of Anglia Studios (now called EPIC) and Sky's planned state-of-the-art HD broadcast facility, set for completion in 2011.

Even those behind the beleaguered£330m Dragon International Studios project (sometimes referred to as “Valleywood”) remain optimistic that the scheme to bring a 330-acre, four-studio complex to Cardiff can be rescued.

The project, first announced seven years ago, has been lying in a semi-built state of abandonment since March when the administrators were called in.

The scheme, financed through a mix of private and public money and chaired by Richard Attenborough, apparently ran out of funding at a time when investors were starting to tighten up on property development money. However, administrator Rob Lewis, a partner at accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, hasn't yet ruled out the possibility of finding alternative means of finance. “The preferred option would be to see studios completed and films being made there, or to mothball the site until something else comes along,” he says.

Expansion plans
This year's closure of Capital Studios also failed to pour cold water on other studios' ambitious plans for expansion with many speculating that Capital's owners were “made an offer they couldn't refuse” by developers who owned the brewery next door.

Pinewood Studios, meanwhile, is redeveloping its existing facilities, having been granted planning permission to enhance the space it currently has and improve the density of on-site businesses. There are also similar plans afoot for Pinewood's sister studio, Shepperton, after the group joined forces with asset management company Morley Fund Management two years ago to plough around£20m in cash to fund its redevelopment.

Probably the group's most ambitious project is Project Pinewood, which introduces the work/live concept to the world of film and TV production.

The scheme - thought to cost around£200m - involves building a number of homes in and among a number of proposed permanently standing sets - including cityscapes of New York and Venice.

According to Pinewood Shepperton group corporate affairs director Andrew Smith, the project hinges on the creation of these domestic residences because “the housing element will pay for the creative side of the project”.

The scheme has already courted controversy because it involves building on greenbelt land and last month the number of planned homes was cut from 2,500 to 1,500 following local concerns about traffic congestion and noise. The project is awaiting planning permission and if it is greenlit Smith is confident that building could start by 2011.

Key to all of Pinewood Shepperton's redevelopment schemes is the hope of attracting extra complementary and ancillary businesses to the studios - above and beyond the 200 or so based at Pinewood's lot alone.

In common with other studio developers, Smith is fond of using government buzz words such as “creative hub” and “media park” to describe a scenario in which companies from training institutions to hospital imaging outfits are based on the site. And with both Technicolor and Apple set to move in next year, it looks as if this vision is already starting to take shape.

Regional hubs
Plans for another ambitious development - MediaCity:UK in the Salford Quays area are also gaining momentum following the BBC's announcement last year that it is shifting five departments to this north-west base.

It is understood that ITV is also on the verge of announcing its long-planned move out of its northern HQ on Quay Street in Manchester to the MediaCity:UK development.

To cater for the anticipated influx of new productions, an old pie factory building on the Salford Quays has already been converted, with the site now housing flexible office space and two sound stages. It is hoped this development will be the green shoots of a much bigger complex, which will house five HD studios by 2010, when the BBC's proposed move is scheduled for completion.

The east of England too is gearing up to become a “creative enterprise hub”, in the words of Mark Wells, director of the East of England Production Innovation Centre (EPIC) - a new HD studio development based at the former Anglia TV studios.

While work on the£4m publicly funded project is nearing completion (see box), the biggest challenge will be attracting productions to the area.

Like Pinewood, EPIC is also pinning its hopes on building up an on-site production community. Existing tenants include virtual graphics company Media Lab and synthetic speech company Nuance.

Wells has also launched initiatives such as a pitching competition, in which the successful candidate won finance and free studio time to make a 15-minute pilot based on a studio-located idea. The big question among Norwich's production community is whether this scheme will pay off. Most of the current onsite businesses are new media based, and not likely to make full use of the studio's HD facilities.

Others point out that, in the past, Norwich has struggled to carve out a niche for itself unlike Bristol (which has animation and wildlife) or the north-west, which, thanks to Granada Productions' legacy, has an existing production community on which to build.

“It's a bit like opening up a studio in the Outer Hebrides,” says one locally based producer. “Either it will be a£4m white elephant or it's going to work in some form. My feeling is that if it can persuade one good production to come onboard, then others will follow.”

The London four-waller
Of course, there are myriad reasons not to go ahead with redevelopment in these financially turbulent times. Derek Watts, studio executive at East London's 3 Mills Studios - which operates as a commercial business within the London Development Agency, which owns it - says he can't justify any spend at the moment, without knowing that the complex will receive some form of return. And at present, he says, the outlook is uncertain.

“In terms of feature films it's very quiet. UK tax breaks are getting better but in the meantime other countries have put together even better deals and competition from abroad is stiff,” he says.

Watts also questions how much use Project Pinewood will get out of its proposed permanently standing sets. “For a while we kept the Bad Girls set after ITV decommissioned the series - but while there are lots of shows that have prison scenes, they only consist of one or two shots and the cost of keeping the set running just wasn't worth it,” he says, although he adds that 3 Mills has kept hold of a prison exterior and a single cell.

To generate money in the face of a tough feature film market, 3 Mills is pursuing the TV and commercial markets more vigorously, with recent four-waller productions including series three of Hell's Kitchen and Living TV's The Underdog Show. Watts is also keen to increase the number of businesses housed at the Bow studios site, which falls within London's zone two. “It makes sense to maximise solid income from long-term occupation because ordinary stage occupation is so volatile and there's a much better chance that [these businesses] are going to use your other facilities,” he says.

Full facility studios
For most London-based facilities - especially among the fully kitted studios - there's little room for expansion, though many are currently weighing up when to upgrade their facilities to HD. On one hand there is Channel 4's peripheral business, 124 facilities, which closed its studios last year after being faced with the prospect of having to invest a seven-figure sum in the studios, including an upgrade to HD, that would have had to have been written off over 10 years.

On the other hand, there are niche, HD-only outfits such as the Paul Allen-backed venture The Hospital in Covent Garden, which opened its TV studio in 2004, along with a private members club and a music studio - all of which appear to be going from strength to strength.

“We read the papers so we're not counting our chickens but our utilisation rates have been phenomenal this year,” says studio sales manager Ann-Marie Phelan - who adds that next year there are plans afoot to expand the concept abroad, with Berlin earmarked as the first port of call.

And it's business as usual for BBC Studios following the BBC's decision to retain the studios and post divisions of BBC Resources. The facility has decked out three of its 13 studios at BBC TV Centre with HD kit over the past 18 months. The latest is a£2m upgrade to Studio 4, home to Friday Night with Jonathan Ross.

Fountain Studios in Wembley is also in the middle of a£2.5m HD upgrade, which, according to chief engineer Chris Cooper, started a year ago with the acquisition of 10 Sony HDC1500 cameras that have been put to use already on Friends creator Adam Chase's forthcoming BBC3 sitcom Clones.

Others are taking a more cautious approach to upgrading, particularly since those big, shiny floor productions such as The X Factor are still being delivered in SD (despite being captured in HD at Fountain).

While London Studios is planning HD investment in both studios 1 and 2 next summer, head of sales Debbie Hills stresses that “the main driver is the normal replacement cycle”.

According to Maidstone Studios general manager Kenton Oxley, despite picking up a couple of big jobs this year - including a two-year contract for The Trisha Show, produced by Norwich-based production company Townhouse Media - he has not seen that much demand for HD work.

Similarly at MTV, while the broadcaster has spent£2m upgrading the infrastructure in its Camden master control room, no HD cameras have been installed yet. According to vice-president Jane Anderson the studio is close to upgrading - with Sony cameras thought to be the most likely option. However, with budgets being squeezed, she recognises that, at present, it's difficult to justify the added expense HD pro-duction can entail.

Megahertz's EPIC refit
In March this year systems integrator Megahertz Broadcast Systems won a EU-wide tender to re-equip the East of England Production Innovation Centre (EPIC) with a suite of TV studios for HD production, editing and broadcast.

As EPIC director Mark Wells points out it was not a straightforward “from-scratch” HD installation: “We wanted to upgrade some parts of our systems and retain others, while overhauling the cabling and routing architecture to facilitate further upgrades which we know we'll need to do in a couple of years.”

Two of EPIC's three SD broadcast studios have been fully upgraded to HD, with new Sony HDC-1500 high-definition cameras and Canon lenses, plus Thomson Grass Valley Kayak HD vision mixers and HD distribution infrastructure, as well as new interfacing, sync, and monitoring systems.

The third studio in the EPIC complex, a virtual studio based around a new Orad Smartset system, has been fitted with a new SD Thomson Kayak vision mixer and its cabling infrastructure has been upgraded so that it can be easily transformed into an HD operation at some point in the future.

Megahertz also refitted EPIC's sound control room for HD-compatible 5.1 surround-sound mixing and live broadcast. The core of the new EPIC systems is a Thomson K2 HD playout and storage server with over a terabyte of capacity, which will integrate with the existing 48-terabyte SAN server already installed at the centre.

EPIC's in-house Final Cut Pro and Avid-based video-editing systems have also been integrated into this network. The refit was completed by Megahertz's in-house woodworking division.