British film industry insiders tell of the great pandemic escape

Film sets closed nationwide when Covid struck but the sector has staged a remarkable £3bn recovery

The Hollywood of Hertfordshire: the proposed development of Sunset Studios in Broxbourne, north of London, symbolises British film's brave new world. AFP
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It was a case of lights out, cameras away and no action for the British film industry as the coronavirus pandemic mothballed film shoots up and down the country in March last year.

Even the most phlegmatic of film producers could be forgiven for thinking “Covid, we have a problem” and harbouring bleak thoughts about the future.

Yet, in a comeback worthy of Rocky Balboa, the industry has risen from the canvas to post a knockout £3.01 billion ($4.16bn) spend on film and high-end television in the first half of 2021, the highest figure reported in British Film Institute records.

“When coronavirus first hit, we went from a fully employed industry to one which wasn't allowed to turn up and go back into production – so no work was happening,” BFI director of industry and international affairs Neil Peplow told The National.

The UK’s first Covid lockdown led to cinemas drawing shut the curtains, meaning no films were distributed and no income was boosting the coffers of either multiplex and smaller independent picture houses.

“It was looking pretty disastrous,” said Mr Peplow, a disaster compounded by the film industry being largely freelance meaning “there was not as much opportunity for furlough”.

May the task force be with you

With its future at stake the BFI convened a cross-industry task force to develop emergency measures to enable a recovery.

Its first task was to get production going again and people back to work. To this end, Covid protocols were developed that applied to film and TV production and post-production visual effects.

Once the framework was signed off by the UK government, the industry was able to get production up and running.

“This was a real boost,” Mr Peplow said. “We were one of the few countries which then could reopen its doors both to the smaller independent sector but also to the larger studio films like Mission: Impossible 7.”

Tom Cruise has popped up at numerous UK locations during the pandemic in the course of filming 'Mission: Impossible 7'. Alamy

Having a framework was one thing, but being able to work within it was quite another.

While larger film studios could offset the financial risks attendant on shooting during a pandemic, the independent sector was hamstrung by an inability to get insurance.

The task force’s next challenge, then, was to work with the government to revive smaller productions. The result was the £500m Film and TV Production Restart Scheme.

Launched last October but with claims able to be backdated to July 2020, the numbers racked up by the scheme make it an undisputed box office hit.

The BFI estimates that 640 independent film and TV productions will have started or restarted as a direct result of the project within 12 months of its inauguration.

It says these productions have contributed £1.9bn to the UK economy and provided more than 55,000 jobs.

(L-R) Michelle Rodriguez, Chris Pine and Justice Smith during filming for 'Dungeons and Dragons' in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, one of several inward investment films in production in the UK. Getty Images

The industry is now “back to capacity if not slightly above” where it was pre-Covid, Mr Peplow said.

Film companies look skywards to fill skills shortages

It is tempting to say the British film industry has returned from the dead, but zombie movies tend not to end well.

Like a zombie, though, the industry is keen on swelling its ranks.

“We don't necessarily have enough studio space or skilled workforce to address the demands that we have facing us at this point,” Mr Peplow said.

A lack of studio space has been addressed with a host of new studios in development, including Sunset Studios in Hertfordshire, Made in Dagenham studios in Essex, and Belfast Harbour Studios in Northern Ireland.

The Made in Dagenham film studios in Essex will provide much-needed space for an overstretched industry. Photo: Hackman Capital Partners

Skills shortages in the sector predate the pandemic but the continuing Covid travails of other industries have presented an opportunity to plug some of the gaps.

“At the moment we're seeing a range of skills that we need in production management and accountancy,” Mr Peplow said.

“We're looking at how we can retrain people who are already in these areas because there's lots of shared skill sets with industries which may have been more significantly impacted in terms of job growth than ours."

To this end, he cited a scheme Pinewood Studios ran with the Department of Work and Pensions to retrain people from the aviation industry in film and TV.

The aviation industry has been one of the areas hit hardest by the pandemic, and in April, The National spoke to one former pilot who had set up his own coffee business after losing his job as a pilot.

Echoing the BFI’s optimism is Elstree Studios, which told The National the UK is “an increasingly desirable place for international production companies to film ... highlighting the ongoing strength and creativity of the UK’s screen industries”.

Proof is in the pudding and in 2020 inward investment from major international productions reached £2.34bn: £1.128bn from High-End TV, including War of the Worlds season two, The Pursuit of Love and The Witcher season two; and £1.213bn from feature films, including Jurassic World: Dominion, Mission: Impossible 7 and The Batman.

In pictures: 12 inward investment films which started production in the UK in 2021

For context, UK spending associated with inward investment features in 2019 was £1.74bn, so the figure fell by a mere 30 per cent, extraordinary given the level of disruption that the industry had to overcome.

Where the financial effects of Covid have been felt most deleteriously is at the point of delivery – cinemas. In 2020, cinemas accumulated a £307m box office total for the UK, a 75 per cent drop on 2019.

While the extent of the plunge is a pandemic anomaly, cinemas in the UK, and for that matter globally, are facing a huge challenge from changing viewer habits, spawned largely by the rise of streamers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+.

What we've seen happen is opportunity, foremost, because the streamers are coming in and increasing the amount being spent as a whole in the sector
Neil Peplow, BFI

“I think, as with all of these kind of global online aggregate models, it does take a while to work out what the longer term impact is,” Mr Peplow said.

He believes the shorter-term effects of the streaming hegemony are benign, however.

"What we've seen happen is opportunity, foremost, because the streamers are coming in and increasing the amount being spent as a whole in the sector … so it's an increasing pie," he said.

The Netflix drive to localise output has proved another boon to the UK industry. “When the studio makes a big global blockbuster, it is designed for audiences all around the world," he said. “Whereas with Netflix they are commissioning on a territory-by-territory basis, so they understand that in order to retain and gain subscribers in each of their territories, they need to create content which appeals to them. And that means it has to reflect the culture of that territory.”

Mr Peplow highlighted Spanish megahit Money Heist as an example. It’s a daring tale of a motley crew of robbers overcoming seemingly insuperable odds – a scenario to which the resurgent British film industry can surely relate.

Updated: September 14, 2021, 9:30 AM