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Film London

Programming Profile

London’s still calling


Film London’s Adrian Wootton tells Content London why he believes the UK film and television industry has never been in a better place and how there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.


“If it moves in London, we have something to do with it,” says Film London’s CEO Adrian Wootton about his agency’s role in supporting the film and creative moving image industries.


His agency, alongside the British Film Commission, has a broad remit that encompasses television, animation, games and art, promoting and facilitating production as well as supporting talent development and film culture.


In the past year, says Wootton: “In the UK overall, we’ve been involved with 88% of film and television spend coming in from the US, and that represents something like £3.5bn. That’s dozens and dozens of big feature films and multiple high-end television series.”


Over 75% of those have been shot partly or wholly in London and the south-east of England. Westminster, St James’s and the City are all popular for productions wanting a classic London backdrop, while council estates are popular for soap operas and other TV series.


Adrian Wootton, Film London

For historical productions, the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is “almost in constant use,” he says, while “Battersea Park doubles a lot for New York’s Central Park, used most recently on Tom & Jerry.”


But lesser-known locations, like independent school Harrow (The Crown, Harry Potter, Doctor Foster) have their own advantages. “It’s a place you can close off completely during the school holidays,” says Wootton.


Film London is always being challenged to enrich the visual vocabulary of filmmakers, he adds: “Sometimes that’s by doing things in locations that haven’t been used before, like when we helped make the Houses of Parliament accessible for Suffragette. But it’s also about places you wouldn’t expect, like Bishopsgate Goods Yard in Shoreditch, which was used for the last Mission: Impossible film – they wanted a more dingy and edgy urban backdrop, which doubled for Berlin.”


Mission: Impossible 7 was scouting in London just before lockdown and is due back soon. Wootton says it is a prime example of Film London’s role in partnering with different agencies on the ground to make a production happen.


“For Mission: Impossible Fallout, one sequence ran from St Paul’s to Bankside, where 11 key agencies and a whole lot of other people were involved.


“Whether it’s the Tate [art museums], Transport for London or the Metropolitan Police, they all now recognise the value that television and film bring to London, and that’s really changed how filmmakers can do things in the capital.”


While tourism is challenged at the moment, its return will be valuable. “Film and high-end television create a real trigger for people to visit,” Wootton says.


The first UK lockdown in March brought a number of projects to a sudden halt. “Over £1bn worth of production for international feature film and television was frozen in our studios,” he says, citing Jurassic World: Dominion, The Little Mermaid, The Northman, Fantastic Beasts 3, The Batman, Pennyworth, The War of the Worlds, The Witcher and Death on the Nile. “All those shows and a whole range of domestic ones – from The Great British Bake Off to Line of Duty – were in different stages of production.”


The challenge for Film London and the British Film Commission was restarting them safely.


“That led to the biggest consultation exercise the British Film Commission has ever been involved in,” says Wootton. “We talked to the entire UK industry, went out across Europe and also talked to each of the individual studios and streamers in the States to put together guidelines, which were published in June. We not only got complete cross-industry buy-in but we also had sign-off by every relevant government department through to Number 10, all saying that what we’d done was rigorous, tough and granular. All of a sudden, something like 125,000 people started again.”


Shooting under Covid-19 conditions was “a seismic logistics exercise that’s required a lot of ingenuity,” he says.


“Scripts are being modified, people are having to rely on camera technology to shrink the illusion of distance, they are having to do more shifts, more pre-planning and more pre-production. Time means money so that’s also meant less shooting time, fewer episodes and fewer people in those episodes.”


Several months of experience later and thanks to everything that’s been put in place, filming has been able to continue under the latest national lockdown – and Wootton says there’s no indication of demand slowing.


“It’s like a gigantic bus queue. We had this huge backlog and at the same time there are all these buses queuing behind to get in. Content banks have been diminished so they are desperate to make more,” he says.


Before the pandemic, Film London witnessed a huge acceleration in high-end TV and film production in the UK. “There was a 51% increase in television in a single year – the figures doubled by hundreds of millions of pounds. That includes everything from Killing Eve to The Girlfriend Experience, Venom 2, Tom & Jerry and Black Widow.”


Wootton estimates that the split between film and TV production in the UK is currently around 65 to 35 in favour of feature films, but adds: “High-end television has been catching up. You can see why Content London itself has become bigger and bigger because the real content drive is in multi-episodic dramas. In the next year or two, I would be very surprised if high-end TV wasn’t at the same level as feature film, and may exceed it.


“There’s never been a moment when the UK film and television industry, anchored in London, has been in a better place. Nobody’s eyeballs are switching off. They are wanting more entertainment and I believe we have a unique opportunity to grab that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to go from £3.5bn to over £6bn within five years.”


But that, says Wootton, relies on building the infrastructure. Part of this grand expansion plan is Eastbrook Studios – Barking and Dagenham Council’s east London regeneration project that both Film London and the Greater London Authority have been heavily involved in. LA-based real-estate investor Hackman Capital Partners has recently come on board for development.


“A feature film may be in a studio for six months, but if a high-end TV series gets past the first season, it might be there for years – as we saw with The Crown at Elstree and Downton Abbey at Ealing,” he says. “You have anchor tenants going into those studio spaces providing you with occupancy for years and a consistent revenue flow. So investors suddenly start thinking that studios are a better bet than the default things they might have thought they could earn more from before Covid, like a retail development or office block.”


Set to become London’s largest TV and film production centre, Eastbrook Studios will take two or three years to build, but Wootton says: “I would like to think we will see temporary stages up and running as early as next year.”


While a vaccine should mean some of the more restrictive ways of working will fall away, Wootton is certain we won’t go back to what was normal before.


“Filmmakers like to use big canvases – particularly for epic movies and television series – but virtual studio production is here to stay. Demand is such that we need more studio space and hand-in-hand with building more is that digital virtual production within that studio space is going to become a key component.


“We are going to see more people building virtual location libraries, and locations around the UK building up their own virtual location libraries.


“For issues of sustainability, cost, practicality and health and safety, filmmakers will make sharper choices about how much they move. A likely trend is companies coming from the States to make something, then staying to do everything here.”


Wootton’s focus is to keep on promoting “the real assets of the UK.”


“We’ve got this incredible creative and talented community, the best visual effects in the world, some of the best studio spaces and locations in the world, and the support. I just have to keep reaffirming that it’s all open and we are ready for business,” he says.


“We are this ray of light because we genuinely have jobs, we are generating revenue and people want that content. In the context of Content London, we’ve got a fantastic story to tell.”