Lights, Camera, Action - Space! A Close-Up Look at the Studio Space Race in the UK
A streaming boom over the last few years has triggered heightened demand for fresh, new content. However, packed with big new productions, studios in the UK are struggling to keep pace with demand, triggering an influx of funding to provide new developments and expansions.
According to provisional estimates by the department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, the UK creative industries contributed £115.9bn of Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2019 before the pandemic hit, accounting for just under 6% of the total GVA in the UK. By comparison, the construction industry contributed £129.3bn, the automobile industry contributed £49.1bn and agriculture £13.0bn. Employing over 2 million people, the UK’s creative sector has been growing faster than the UK economy since 2011 but, like many creative industries, the sector was hit hard in 2020. Some sources indicate GVA fell by £29bn in 2020 and that revenues generated from the creative industries dropped by £74bn. However, since the second lockdown in the UK ended (in July 2020) the industry has got back up and running and is experiencing a post-COVID filming boom.
A quick glance at The Studio Map shows that there are 27 new studio facilities currently being proposed in the UK that are due to open in 2021 and beyond. New sound stage expansion is also being planned at a further six existing studios, including Pinewood, Shepperton and Elstree.
Plans for what will be the UK’s largest film studio (delivering 1 million sq ft of studio space) were recently submitted for approval. The new £430m Hertswood Studios development in Hertfordshire will include 21 separate sound stages and an additional 600,000 sq ft of commercial space for supporting workshops, offices and a hotel for actors and crew. It will sit adjacent to a 30-acre, Legal & General-backed Sky Studio development (on which work has already commenced by BAM) and will form part of the UK’s first TV and film industry cluster.
Huge demand for new content has spurred the need for these proposed new developments. The current mismatch between supply and demand could potentially dethrone the UK as a leading production hub. Fortunately, the UK Government has recognised the unique economic and cultural proposition provided by film and TV studio space with Chancellor Rishi Sunak allocating £4.8m in the Spring 2020 Budget to expand the work of the British Film Commission (BFC) to expand its work in promoting and facilitating studio-space development and increase studio capacity to attract and support major international productions throughout the UK.
Although new facilities and expanded sites are evidently coming down the line, the current lack of stage-space is not going to improve in the short to medium term. Many anticipate a ‘traffic jam’ of sorts with delayed and newly commissioned content vying to get made in 2021 and beyond.
Diversified income streams would have helped many studios to survive the early shutdown periods when productions went completely dark. Income from long-term tenants hiring studio facilities will have helped as they hung on to sound stages (or, in some cases, even extended their leases) in order to guarantee a place to resume work and ramp up quickly when the industry reopened. Some studios were able to pivot, using sound stage space for set production in preparation for future productions. This kept many studios solvent during the early lockdown periods, but now that demand has returned in seeming abundance, the situation experienced by studios has since been flipped on its head. Many suggest that the unprecedented levels of demand for new shows caused by lockdown-induced streaming binges could support significantly more studio space.
In fact, consultancy firm Lambert Smith Hampton estimates that there is an immediate need for an additional 2 million sq ft of studio space – that’s the approximate equivalent of four more Pinewoods. Demand for space is unlikely to be satisfied in the immediate future as most space in the studio development pipeline is a few years away (eg the new Sky Studios at Elstree, which has 12 sound stages under construction, is targeting completion in 2022). In the interim, smaller studios will have to fill the gap.
Space has been squeezed by the likes of Disney and Netflix agreeing long-term deals with Pinewood and Shepperton Studios to secure stages in a bid to ensure uninterrupted content flows. US studios and streamers favour the UK for making content because it offers bespoke infrastructure and talented crews. Accordingly, appetite for investment in studios is only growing despite the inherently risky business model. A stable income and a return on investment is far from guaranteed as most tenants only tend to hire facilities for short periods. Long void periods can be catastrophic which is why historically local authorities have helped plug the gap by investing in studio facilities, in the knowledge that there would be positive downstream effects in their communities in terms of jobs etc.
These positive downstream effects were recently recognised by Wokingham Borough Council, which gave temporary planning consent to Shinfield Studios to build four sound stages and workshops on a temporary basis at the University of Reading’s Thames Valley Science Park Campus. The council-backed studio scheme, which is currently under development, could even become a much larger, permanent fixture. Full planning was submitted in June 2021 to create 18 film sound stages (encompassing the four temporary stages and workshops), together with workshops, a post production complex including cinema, plus contemporary offices. The studios and associated creative and digital hub will provide the opportunity for other businesses to locate to the area, providing ancillary benefits such as sustainable new jobs. In fact a spokesman from Shinfield Studios said the scheme is expected to create 1,500 direct jobs and up to 1,500 indirect jobs, creating a regional gross value of £46.4m and £113.3m nationally. Building the site will also create 1,399 direct and 1,355 indirect construction jobs over the 27 month build time.
Fortunately, void periods are likely to be less of an issue post-pandemic as high demand for content reduces some of the risk for private capital investors. In fact more than £300m of private capital money is being spent on the new Eastbrook Studios by property developer Hackman Capital Partners but Barking and Dagenham Council is still putting money into the project. Some argue there is perhaps greater certainty for long-term institutional debt and equity investors in the film and TV sector post-pandemic than there will be in other sectors, such as commercial office.
New studios of scale tend to cost between £50m to £350m according to Katya Baker, founder and chief executive of studio developer Quartermaster. Fortunately, the more recent trend of long-term commitment to studio space by broadcasters, streamers and production houses is acting to encourage more investment. Commitment from end-users allows credit committees to feel more comfortable with deploying funds as private investors rarely take the view of ‘build it and they will come’. She noted that while most production houses don’t have the scale to commit to 10-year deals like Disney and Netflix have, a group approach with the commitment spread over several independent producing parties could be an innovative solution, providing investors and studio developers with greater certainty.
Studio Sector: Pipeline
As a result of the increased demand for production space, there is a strong pipeline of proposed studio builds and expansions. Not all will get built but according to JLL’s ‘Reel Estate – Film and TV Studios as an Investment’ report, up to 4.5 million sq ft of development is under consideration. If all of this space under consideration gets built, this would more than double the current amount of permanent stage space in the UK. However, at the moment, only 920,000 sq ft of this permanent stage space has been committed to be built by 2024. This means that the potential further development pipeline under consideration stands at around 3.6 million sq ft.
Some of the largest proposed projects include:
- Eastbrook Studios (Dagenham) – being developed by one of LA’s largest property developers (Hackman Capital Partners), the £300m project will build 12 sound stages with a 2023 target completion date.
- SkyStudios Elstree (North London) - Sky and NBC Universal have begun construction on 12 sound stages which are set to open in 2022.
- Pinewood – achieved planning consent for 26 additional sound stages at both Pinewood and Shepperton, taking its total purpose-built UK sound stages to 64.
- Stratford (London) and Birmingham - Studio operator Quartermaster is developing two new studios in the UK, one in London and one in Birmingham. The studios in Stratford will be open from summer 2021 and the Birmingham City University studios from winter 2022. Quartermaster is also progressing separate dedicated film studio developments within the M25 area, totalling more than 1,300,000 sq ft of media space. Development on these will begin in 2021, with the potential for 300,000 sq ft of space, including stages, workshops and production offices, available from late 2021.
- Ashford International Film Studios – the £250m, 200,000 sq ft scheme to develop the former Newtown railway works in Ashford into a studio complex has been linked to Netflix, Amazon and HBO. Planning permission was gained in April 2020 but the project was delayed due to the pandemic. Quinn Estates will also redevelop the Grade II-Listed locomotive sheds for mixed commercial and residential use as part of the scheme.
- Belfast Harbour - planning permission has been granted to expand and build a further six studios that will provide 346,000 sq ft of new facilities as part of a £45m investment.
Studio Development Trends
UK studio facilities have been lacking when compared to some of the world-class facilities in the US. However, developers are now trying to elevate the user experience through modernisation, providing cutting-edge sound production studios and flexible workspace. Driving this is a TV and film production boom. Quantities of productions serviced in the UK hit a seven-year high in Q4 2020 according to the BFI (with almost £1.19bn being spent on production) as projects that stopped during the pandemic started up again and new projects come to market to fill the void from all the content that has been consumed during lockdown. Although total spend on film and high-end TV production in the UK fell by 21% year-on-year to £2.84bn in 2020, this is expected to be an anomalous blip on an otherwise accelerating production growth trend. Broadcasters, producers and streamers are all now rushing to get the pipeline flowing to plug the pandemic gap in fresh content.
The ever-increasing demand for new content has put a strain on production capacity and the current lack of space is becoming a growing concern. In light of this, content producers are seeking out and committing to long-term, exclusive studio deals to help fill their space requirements and ensure certainty. The emerging trend of content producers committing to longer studio leases has incentivised greater inward investment into the asset class. In fact, inward Investment on film production spend in the UK increased by 30.6% over the five years to financial year 2019/20 while investment on High-End TV spend rose by 265.5% over the same period. Demand for studio production space hasn’t stalled during the pandemic. A combination of unfinished projects competing with new ones is pushing the need for more space and increasing the competition to acquire it.
Also incentivising greater inward investment is associated new revenue sources beyond that of stages/studios and offices. Ancillary facilities such as workshops for making sets and hotel-style accommodation, both on and off site, provide investors with greater development opportunity and revenue sources. According to JLL, some studio developments are being used as a planning tool to bring about a level of excitement about larger mixed-use regeneration projects (eg the Ashford International Film Studios mentioned above which, according to approved plans, includes 300 homes, offices, a 120-bed hotel and a multi-storey car park).
COVID-19 has brought with it new studio protocols, colouring every part of the production process. These include health screenings, social distancing and additional personal protective equipment. Adhering to some of these protocols requires more physical space as staff are unable to work as closely together as they once did. Some of these protocols will be dropped over the long-term but many new industry standards for health and safety will likely remain permanent. This could have a longer-term impact on the space requirements of content producers.
What kind of space is required?
New or purpose-built studios themselves are constructed to a specialist design representing a form of warehouse with sound attenuated walls, high eaves heights and the ability to suspend large lighting rigs. New sound stage developments tend to have substantial ceiling height clearances. Floor-to grid heights tend to range between 20-50 ft but 35 ft is fairly common. Ceiling heights greater than 50ft makes lighting and hanging sets more difficult. Sound stages also tend to have pillarless spans to maximise the internal space and minimise any obstacles to filming.
Developments are also increasingly being built for flexibility and adaptability, designed with the circular economy in mind. A company called Stage Fifty has recently entered the UK studio scene, introducing a relocatable production space solution. So far, two large sound stages have been prototyped, tested and built as proof of concepts. It is developing three UK film studio sites that will offer in excess of 300,000 sq ft of studio space by early 2022. The moveable, production-ready sound stages can be built anywhere in around four months and have sizes ranging from 9,400 to 32,000 sq ft and floor-to-grid heights of 10m to 15m. All stages are soundproofed, rigged, ventilated and production ready.
Stage Fifty is working with Spantech, a semi-permanent structure specialist that is helping design and build the studios using its bespoke, modular-designed Grand I-novation aluminium system as the base for the sound stages. The solution offers content producers a great deal of flexibility as no foundations are required, allowing them to film wherever and whenever they like. Furthermore, because its production-ready stage spaces are built with the same durability as a permanent stage, it can be moved and set up time and time again. Its solution also offers landowners the ability to rapidly convert unused spaces into revenue streams. The company has an ambition to create 1m sq ft of high quality, relocatable production space (or 50 sound studios) over the next three years.
In addition to new/purpose-built studio facilities and the relatively new concept of relocatable production space mentioned above, the other types of space content creators consider include:
- Refurbished/ repurposed buildings (ie existing buildings such as warehouses, air hangers or factories that have been converted for studio use. Repurposed buildings require additional soundproofing and light locking)
- Flat or ‘shiny floor’ TV studios (typically used for TV, incorporating black laser-levelled resin floors to allow multiple cameras to track smoothly)
- Alternative space (ie vacant former industrial units that have not been refurbished, offering “blank canvas” production space. Such spaces typically require little construction work other than incorporating additional soundproofing. The shortfall in dedicated studio space has prompted some to turn to alternative spaces such as old carpet warehouses)
Recent changes to the planning system have made the conversion of existing units into studio space much simpler. Until 2020, the planning use class for film studios was B1(c) – light industrial – meaning only similar buildings benefitting from such a use could be converted and used without permission. As of 1st September 2020, the B1(c) classification falls within a newly created Class E which includes retail, amongst other uses. In theory, this would mean that provided there were no restrictive conditions on retail, empty retail units could be converted to studio use without the need for express planning permission. Although the permitted development right to use land/buildings for film-making purposes is only temporary (ie not exceeding 9 months in any 27 month period), this creates an opportunity to deliver much-needed dedicated studio space.
Regardless of whether the sound stage is being used for TV or film, the building needs to create a sound and light lock. This is typically done by building a box-in-box structure or adding additional soundproofing and light locking to the envelope of the structure. The location of the studio will have an impact on the level of acoustic isolation required as facilities in busier, built-up areas will require upgrades to acoustic isolation to avoid any noise bleed from the external environment. Acoustic engineers will be able to advise on the sound insulation performance of the proposed design, ensuring that external activities unrelated to the recording are not audible and that ambient noise within the studio (eg from building service systems) is at an acceptable level.
Another general design requirement is screening plant equipment from view and ensuring that it doesn’t take up too much valuable ground space. One solution that is often implemented is to locate plant in adjoining support facilities – often on the rooftops. However, this needs to be done in such a way as to allow easy access for maintenance.
Due to their vast consumption of power, studios need to consider how to efficiently provide enough power to meet demand. The high electrical loads involved mean that a resilient, high-voltage (HV) power network will likely be required. In certain circumstances it may be preferential to enhance the offering by providing a secondary incoming power supply, business continuity generator or Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) installations to mitigate the risk of downtime should the primary supplies fail. Larger studio schemes tend to have privately installed HV networks which more often than not tend to be cheaper than networks installed by statutory bodies (eg UKPN, SSE). Sometimes HV networks are installed, owned and maintained by Independent Distribution Network Operators (IDNO’s) which shifts the risk and responsibility of downtime and system maintenance away from the client. However, the client should consider the terms and conditions they are agreeing to when adopting these agreements.
It’s possible to integrate equipment to correct ‘power factors’ (ie equipment that can adjust the characteristics of electric loads in order to optimise the efficiency of the power supply and reduce electricity costs). While power is usually provided to sound stages from dimmer racks in dedicated dimmer rooms and then delivered by sockets and connectors, the BBC believes that the phasing out of incandescent lighting in favour of low energy lighting technologies will make dimmer racks and rooms obsolete. Discharge, LEDs and fluorescents now include integrated control gear that does not require separate dimmer rooms. For modern types of tungsten halogen luminaires, remote dimmers can be used - these can be compact and installed in mobile racks.
Lighting choice is key in studios. It’s imperative to avoid glare and flickering as this can impact broadcasts and production shoots. Dedicated studio lights are made to pulse at a very high frequency so they look as though the lighting is constant. When combined with flicker-free, high frequency dimming ballasts, light fitting costs can be high on studio schemes.
Below, we explore some of the particular characteristics and space requirements for two of the main types of studio space.
Shiny Floor TV Studios
Typically providing around 5,000 sq ft, ‘shiny floor’ TV studios offer the following:
- Seamless, super-flat floors with acoustical value topping to facilitate camera tracking equipment and mitigate sound transmission (eg concrete with topping, wood with self-levelling resin)
- Multi-camera sound stages with high technical specifications
- Generators/uninterrupted power supply (UPS)/infrastructure offering multiple electrical connections to the studio to ensure uninterrupted live broadcasts
- Space to accommodate audiences (eg reception/waiting area, check-in with scanners, additional space for reconfigurable of ‘raked’ seating and front-of-house provisions such as toilets)
- Likely to require more adjoining post-production office space to support production/content capture
- Long-running TV productions will require more permanent space in the form of dressing rooms, catering, editing suites, green rooms, galleries and control rooms
- TV studios with accommodations for audiences will have additional cooling/ventilation demands (ideally through displacement ventilation outlets)
Purpose-Built Film Studios
These are large, well-equipped sound stages suitable for non-live film and big budget TV productions. These are typically built to bespoke requirements of production companies. Examples of these in the UK include Pinewood and Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden. Sound stages are usually at least double the size of shiny floor TV studios (10,000+ sq ft) and also differ in the following ways:
- Taller building height (typically 35 ft) than TV studios to accommodate larger sets, lighting and scenery rigs
- Less adjacent post-production space (eg editing facilitates and dubbing suites) than TV studios
- More pre-production space in the form of workshops for set building, located next to the stages for good interconnectivity
- Greater net internal area. Larger films typically require significantly more space than TV studios with big budget blockbuster films often requiring at least 125,000 sq ft of stage space
- Purpose-built sound stages tend to have metal frameworks with catwalk systems (ie a walkway or tensioned wire grid) to accommodate better manoeuvrability for the cinematographer
- Film producers tend to prefer to build their own sets, providing their own lighting and in some cases cooling equipment. Therefore where film-makers are the intended market, facilities will not often include full lighting rigs. It is therefore important to allow flexibility through the base build installation to cater for these types of tenant
- Purpose-built film studios occupy larger sites which mean that there is often a larger area of external works with significant paved areas next to the studios for parking of heavy vehicles including production support gallery vans and trailers
- Backlot space (ie areas behind or adjoining the studio which contain exterior buildings for outdoor scenes or space for temporary set construction). Although backlots aren’t as widely used anymore (a result of the industry transitioning to shoot most outdoor scenes on location) some purpose-built studios do still have backlots
Meeting any carbon targets or local authority carbon reduction requirements means that close attention has to be paid to lighting design and efficiency, the airtightness of the structure (ensuring that it is thermally and acoustically sealed) and the heat retention and thermal transmittance of buildings. Ground or air-source heat pumps, solar/photovoltaics, rainwater harvesting and using locally-sourced, low carbon materials are just a few of the solutions being incorporated into some of the new purpose-built developments such as the Sky Studios development in Elstree, Hertfordshire. In fact Sky Studios Elstree, which is set to open in 2022, will not use gas or fossil fuels to power day-to-day running of the site – instead it will source renewable energy with the capability to generate up to 20% of energy on-site through solar energy.
With extensive facades, studios and stages need to have thermally-efficient and cost-effective cladding. Two new soundstages that are currently being built at the existing Elstree Film Studios (next to which the new Sky Studios Elstree will be built) will adopt flat, copper faced composite wall cladding over a lower (3m wide band) band of Corten weathering steel around the base of the building. The composite copper provides high levels of fire, acoustic and thermal performance. However, largely due to the recent material price rises, the choice of materials has pushed up the cost of the project by £2.2m to around £15.6m.
Adding sustainable, low carbon elements to sound stage designs will inevitably increase construction build costs but they may also provide an economic dividend in the longer-term in the form of energy cost savings. It’s also important not to neglect existing studio facilities that are heated by gas or inefficient electric heaters. These will ideally need to be converted to adopt a more eco-friendly energy strategy going forward.
Sustainability is increasingly becoming a key design driver in new sound stage developments, but the high lighting and occupancy loads required in these vast spaces adds complexity. Including efficient heating, low energy lighting solutions and cooling strategies alongside good water services management in the cost plan from the outset will be essential in making spaces greener.
Studio Case Studies
Kelvin Hall, Glasgow
Gardiner & Theobald has been appointed to provide Project Management, Cost Management and Principal Designer & CDM Consultancy services on a £10m project to create a TV and film studio at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall. Developers have applied for listed building consent to progress plans for the studio at the historic B-listed building.
Glasgow City Council has secured up to £7.9m in funding from the Scottish Government (subject to a long-term tenant being secured for the facility) and £4m from Glasgow City Council after concerns were voiced over a current lack of suitable TV and film facilities in the area, limiting the work that the strong community of independent producers could do. It is hoped the studio will help the area win higher-value commissions that will support and expand the city’s thriving creative industries sector, creating significant social and economic benefits including attracting additional local investment, increase employment and provide spill-over benefits to the local area and supply chains.
The development will include a 10,000 sq ft television studio and flexible production office space, suitable for big-budget entertainment and drama productions. It will include production and editing suites, dressing rooms and meeting spaces. According to the plans, space at the front of the studio (the central vault) will be used to encourage performances and gatherings and will be a prime location for creative enterprise, gallery space, pop-up markets, stalls, temporary installations. On the site there will also be spaces for live readings, screenings, performances and music, with catering facilities.
It is hoped that the studio box will be ready in early 2022 to allow fit-out to commence and attract productions as soon as possible. The challenging delivery timeline has been proposed due to the current lack of studio space, high demand for film and high-end TV drama productions and a political imperative on Public Service Broadcasters to make more productions in Scotland
While two of the buildings vaults at Kelvin Hall remain empty and inaccessible to the public, the western vault at Kelvin hall has already been refurbished and includes sports facilities, a public cafe, children’s soft play area, a climbing centre, museum collections, the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian offices and teaching space and National Library of Scotland’s Scottish Screen Archive collection. According to a report giving details of the scheme, the investment into the new studio project at Kelvin Hall will have a positive economic impact to the area and will “...provide an immediate stimulus to the construction sector and help bolster the pipeline of construction activity in Glasgow.”
Fox News Room – 1211 Avenue of Americas, NY
G&T was engaged for Project Management and Cost Management services by Fox News Channel for the design and construction of a multi-floor newsroom.
The space was last renovated in the early 1990s and was formerly an executive floor. The project was approximately 60,000 sq ft and was built out in three phases in order to maintain connectivity to critical broadcast infrastructure during construction. Key features of the project include:
- A circa 2,000 sq ft glass box studio fully equipped with robotic cameras
- Circular LED pillars and a large curved LED display in the centre of the space
- An interactive video ribbon suspended from the ceiling - custom built with flat screens allowing staff to interact and monitor video and data feeds
- Custom circular workstations designed to increase collaboration
- Sound proofed video/graphic editing bays
- An interconnecting staircase with adjacent pantry and breakout spaces
The newsroom is an office space but also the backdrop to the glass box studio. Because of this the space was designed by an architect and scenic designer and includes both architectural and theatrical lighting elements.
Demand for streamed content has put enormous pressure on studios to build more sound stage space. Studio developers therefore need space quickly and will choose designs that will enable the fastest possible construction programme so that they can be rented to content creators.
The desire for a fast construction programme is warranted. Unless sufficient space can be made available, the UK risks losing billions in production spend going overseas. Streaming service providers such as Netflix have business models that rely on continuously signing up new subscribers. Without new, high-quality programming, their user base can diminish quickly. While the current boom in production demand may not be sustained, it’s patently clear that even before the pandemic, the UK suffered from a chronic lack of studio space. Some argue that the number of proposed studio developments and expansions risks saturating the market with space once the current bottleneck clears. While this may be true, older studio space is becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. Production crews and talent expect ever-improving facilities and unless world-class studio sites are available, a handbrake could be put on the UK’s cinematic ambitions.
With larger networks, streamers and production companies taking on long-term leases at the more traditional, purpose built studio developments in the UK, smaller players may look to turn to alternative or repurposed/refurbished spaces. Converting derelict industrial sites or warehousing to meet demand for studio space is a good option. Many content creators aren’t looking for technically sophisticated space – just space they can control and customise. In the sector, functionality is understandably often prioritised over aesthetics. After all, according to some, studios are just, “slightly grimy industrial estates full of windowless warehouses with sound deadening panels on the walls”. However, the pandemic has increased demand for this kind of space and so the TV/film sector is in competition with the food and online retail sectors. In the short-term at least, it looks like finding space could be expensive and frustrating work.
G&T has been involved in a series of studio projects in both the UK and the US for large studio developers, as well as entertainment and production companies. These range from TV and film studios to smaller music recording studios. To find out more about how G&T can help bring your planned TV/ film studio project to fruition, please contact Nancy Elgarf and Duncan Pollock.
 The BFC acts as a single source of expert advice for investors and developers, providing targeted support at the early stages of viable projects to facilitate increased provision of studio facilities across the UK.