Despite a flurry of bleak news stories, the studios sector has had a reasonably good year and, by increasing flexibility and preparing for HD, should be in a strong position for 2006. By Andy Stout.
Despite a flurry of bleak news stories, the studios sector has had a reasonably good year and, by increasing flexibility and preparing for HD, should be in a strong position for 2006. By Andy Stout.

Two thousand and five has been a fairly bipolar year for the studios sector. While the sector has managed to generate its own fair share of gloomy news stories - "closures, consolidations and cock-ups" is how one insider characterises it - on the other hand company representatives remain bullish. Most say that on the whole it has been a good year and the most downbeat comment you tend to get is that it has at least exceeded expectations.

Tony Chamberlain, head of 124 Facilities, goes further. "2005 has almost been a record year," he says. "Only one other year in the past decade has been as good as this and we're doing overflow work for other studios, so there's lots around."

Nevertheless, high-profile casualties included ITV's sale of Anglia Studios, while Central Television's Nottingham studios, once the home of both LE leviathan Bullseye, not to mention Crossroads, was hived off to the local university. Pinewood Shepperton Studios, meanwhile, had to step in and spend£2.6m to buy out Teddington Studios after the latter had gone into administration, and Elstree (Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Big Brother) is being handicapped by the local council's lease tendering process rumbling on all the way to summer 2006.

The company's director of studios, Neville Reid, says that while it's personally been a good year for the studio, the film side of the business is definitely suffering due to the ongoing tax situation. "We adopted a very clear policy five years ago to build up the TV side of our business," he says. "I'm not saying we saw the tax issue coming but we were aware of the fluctuations that happen in film productions moving around the world."

As a result, Pinewood Shepperton is looking to aggressively ramp up the amount of TV productions coming through its doors (currently just under a third of turnover). So far, however, the established broadcast studios have yet to see an impact. "All we've seen is a lot of rhetoric," says one studio head dismissively.

On the plus side of the balance sheet though you also have the establishment of several new studio facilities chasing a variety of both broadcast and film work to consider. These range from large complexes such as Web Film Studios in Salford and Dragon International Studios in South Wales down to the refitted Battersea Studios with its two broadcast spaces. The Maidstone Studios, meanwhile, has unveiled its new£2m Studio 5 which, at 12,000 sq ft and holding a 1,000 strong audience, claims to be the largest studio build in the past 30 years.

It's a mixed picture, with no firm trends that can be obviously sifted from the data available. All the people, however, who cite 2005 as a good year also maintain that flexibility is the key. So many of the factors that studios compete on - location, personal preference, even the distance to director's house - are out of their control, that being flexible in size, price and meeting client needs is vital.

For some this means providing the proverbial blank canvas that being a four-wall facility provides. "The term 'producer's choice' has been around for some time, and going into a four-wall facility gives them the ultimate version of that," comments a Three Mills spokesperson, adding that this way producers get to choose best of class kit from preferred suppliers and hire companies.

Others such as The London Studios, which spent£1.5m on post kit earlier this year, possess business plans that make a virtue out of the fact that clients can use their quick turnaround editing facilities as well as their studios. "We are enthusiastic about continuing to provide quick turnaround editing for our 'nearly live' programming," comments TLS sales and marketing director Penny Lent.

However, while this gives those that follow this path a more diversified revenue stream, it also can expose them to the capital headache of constant re-equipping.

With HD on the horizon, this is potentially significant too, though there are workarounds. The BBC, for example, simply brings in a scanner, or occasionally a demountable, for HD work. "We're currently waiting for the business case to stack up for HD and for that we need some of the broadcasters to stipulate that they will have a specific volume of work by whenever," says Richard Philipps, director of BBC Studios.

There is an emergent third way too, as epitomised by Maidstone's Studio 5, which has been designed for bespoke fitting. "It's got all the cabling in place and you can set up a 20-camera outfit in a couple of hours," says the company's Kenton Oxley. "You're buying a facility which has a lovely level floor, a full lighting grid, all the dressing rooms. We can crew it for you, but the made-to-measure spec you design yourself. If you're doing a two-camera 4:3 shoot for Albanian TV, then that's all you pay for."

Oxley says that at some point soon Maidstone is likely to see the same principles applied to a gallery, with all the wiring in place but the kit being hired in on a per-project basis.

That's a possible for 2006, where the mixed picture continues. Craig Sykes, Studio Manager at Web Film Studios, is optimistic, rating 2006 as a possible eight out of 10. "We are looking forward to 2006 with two pencilled-in bookings for our newly built C stage which are looking very promising," he says. "We also have Red Production's and the BBC's New Street Law, which began shooting this week, which means A and B stages are going to be full for the foreseeable future."

Chamberlain at 124, meanwhile, talks of bookings extending half the year into 2006, way further than the typical two to three months. But, before anyone gets too carried away, the BBC's Philipps sounds a note of caution. "We see the market becoming ever tougher," he says. "I inaccurately predicted this year being more difficult than it has been, but unfortunately think that my prophecy was just a year too early. The cuts broadcasters have made in budgets will have worked through and there are issues to come around the refurbishment of facilities, particularly if HD does take off."


Light Entertainment

LE might not rule the roost when it comes to examining turnover at the end of the year any more, but in terms of sex appeal, image and the vitally important task of keeping a studio's name out there, it's still streets ahead of the rest. Potential longevity can make for good steady earnings. There have now been over 300 editions of Talkback Thames's Never Mind the Buzzcocks, for instance (BBC Studios) and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? is in its fifth year at Elstree.


In fact anything long-running is an exceptionally good prospect. Producers are exhibiting an increasing tendency to shop around, but once a good working relationship is established with a production company, it can be advantageous. Three Mills Studios houses Shed's Bad Girls and Footballers' Wives, and Hewland's Dream Team and Mile High. "Good scale, long-running TV productions are a good, stable type of client," says a spokesperson. "They're perfect for a studio environment."


Sitcoms have specific requirements which make them something of a specialisation. According to Roger Morris, managing director of Teddington Studios (My Hero, Green Green Grass, The IT Crowd, Carrie and Barry), these typically include a 9,000 sq ft or thereabouts studio with an audience capacity of 300 to 400, good dressing rooms and services on-site to deal with large numbers of people. "Both us and Pinewood have invested in audience and audience areas," he says. "We've worked closely with the audience handling companies to give them the best experience possible."


Space is the over-riding consideration. Blockbusters consume it avidly - Pinewood's 007 stage isn't over 45,000 sq ft for no reason. Smaller budget productions with more location work can be more flexible, but all films also look carefully at on-site support services such as design and construction, prop storage, catering, security and so on.


Winners 2005

Eastern Europe

Their studios have their issues, but you can't argue that it's cheaper to shoot over there' and many production managers don't. Recent productions include Sex Traffic and Sweeney Todd.

The Teddington workforce

The Pinewood Shepperton buyout saved 55 jobs. After an initial hit, Pinewood's share price has now recovered to pre-buyout levels.

Studios as a whole

Rates are stable and the remorseless optimism is catching.

Losers 2005

The British Film Industry

The tax kerfuffle has not been kind to it. Turnover in the first half of the year was down as much as 40% in some film-oriented studios. Luckily, the dollar is recovering slightly against the pound and the UK Film Council has welcomed the government's announcement earlier this month of a new tax credit system for the British film industry.


Clogged up and congestion-charged, while there might not be a full-blown flight to the regions underway, the periphery is appearing more and more attractive.

HD Kit Manufacturers

Even Europe's first HD studio, The Hospital, now in a long live run of Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two, reports "tons of SD work and only the odd HD job every now and then".