To mark Pinewood Studios’ 75th anniversary, we demand better support for London’s film industry
My aunt used to work on The Muppet Show. She took me to meet Kermit the Frog when I was five. I almost wet myself with excitement.
As a child in the 1950s, my mother watched legendary film director John Huston capture Moby Dick on celluloid in a huge water tank on the other side of her garden fence.
In the 1970s, my father built film sets for Walt Disney’s live-action movies.
My family doesn’t come from Hollywood. All of this happened in Borehamwood.
The site of the Moby Dick water tank is now a Tesco car park. Across the road, Jim Henson’s Muppets left long ago to make way for Eastenders’ actors. And a big Argos
North London’s film production industry remained strong during the 1980s. Stanley Kubrick caused a summertime blizzard on Borehamwood high street when he got over-excited with a snow machine while filming The Shining at Elstree Studios. George Lucas filmed the first of the Star Wars trilogy there, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But Elstree’s star gradually waned. The site of the Moby Dick water tank is now a Tesco car park. Across the road, Jim Henson’s Muppets left long ago to make way for Eastenders actors. And a big Argos.
But a 20-minute drive away in Leavesden, London’s film production industry is enjoying a renaissance that presents myriad opportunities for the capital’s business community at large.
This renaissance started back in 1995, when a defunct local Rolls-Royce factory was chosen by MGM Studios as the location for shooting the 17th Bond film, Goldeneye.
Then George Lucas returned to the neighbourhood to film the second of his Star Wars trilogy. After that, Warner Brothers selected Leavesden as the site for shooting the first Harry Potter film.
All eight film-adaptations of JK Rowling’s books have since been made there – as has Guy Ritchie’s recent Sherlock and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
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All this was just the beginning. Warner Brothers bought Leavesden Studios last year and is investing £100m to make it one of the world’s premier film production complexes.
Next year, the company is opening a Harry Potter visitor attraction on the site, catering for 6,000 people every day, who will be able to wander around many of the original Hogwarts film sets.
“What the British film and television industry has over cheaper [overseas]competition is a greater number of highly trained, highly skilled, highly talented crew members in all areas required for a particular production”
Nik Powell, Director of the UK’s National Film and Television School
Developments like this are great news for London’s tourism industry, not to mention its network of special-effects houses, post-production units, camera crews, soundmen, lighting gurus, carpenters, costume designers and countless other specialists involved in the filmmaking process.
So why are the likes of Warner Brothers banking on London as the film hub of tomorrow?
“What the British film and television industry has over cheaper [overseas]competition is a greater number of highly trained, highly skilled, highly talented crew members in all areas required for a particular production,” explains Nik Powell, who co-founded Virgin Group with Richard Branson and director of the UK’s National Film and Television School.
Josh Berger, Warner Brothers’ president for the UK, Ireland and Spain, says the new Leavesden project will “generate jobs, inward investment and interest in an industry that is respected the world over”.
Meanwhile, London’s home-grown film production industry is flexing is muscle across the globe.
Pinewood Shepperton plc, which turns 75 years old today, is opening a 35-acre studio complex in the Dominican Republic, including an eight-acre water effects tank situated against the backdrop of the Caribbean Sea. The London-based company has already set up filmmaking operations in Canada and Germany, with another in the pipeline in Malaysia.
London film industry facts:
- London is the world’s third-largest filmmaking centre, after Los Angeles and New York.
- The film industry employs more than 90,000 Londoners.
- Two-thirds of the investment for film-making in Britain in an average year comes from the US.
- On the average day in 2005, there were 35 location shoots going on in London.
(Source: Economic Development, Culture, Sport and Tourism Committee, the London Assembly).
For all of these reasons, the government’s decision to scrap the UK Film Council last year was bad for London’s film industry and bad for the capital’s economy at large.
From its inception in 2000, the council backed more than 900 productions, which collectively generated around $700m at the box office worldwide.
Clint Eastwood, among countless others, agrees that the decision to abolish the Film Council is foolish – and wrote to George Osbourne last year to voice his disapproval.
“Locales with active, knowledgeable film commissions are far more appealing to us as producers … I respectfully request careful consideration of these concerns in deciding the fate of the UK Film Council,” he wrote.
The government must support London’s film industry, for both the cultural and economic value it brings to our country as a whole.
Back in North London, I’m looking forward to taking my children on the Harry Potter tour in 2012. I hope it’s as memorable as my momentous meeting with Kermit in 1981.