Why Hollywood franchises like ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘Star Wars’ treat London as a second home
When Tom Cruise rushes to the peak of the iconic rooftop of the Tate Modern in “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” it’s not just one of the film’s many thrilling action set pieces, it’s also a prime showcase for Hollywood’s latest home away from home.
As U.S. film production continues to shift beyond the Los Angeles-based movie studios, several top franchises — including cornerstones of the “Star Wars” and DC cinematic universes — have recently found a central hub in London and elsewhere in the U.K. And they’re bringing big Hollywood budgets with them.
In 2017, 18 U.S. studio films were produced in the U.K. and accounted for 71% (roughly 1.78 million in today’s dollars) of the total spent on filmmaking in the country, according to the British Film Institute (BFI). There are several factors that drive this increase in film production outside the U.S., most notably a valuable tax credit that can help studios do more with less.
“The U.K. tax incentive is reliable and consistent,” says Lee Rosenthal, president of physical production at Paramount, who recently produced “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” in London. “One of the challenges with those incentives in the United States, for instance, is that they can vary, or they can come and go based on local governments. In the U.K., the government is always looking to improve its incentives and reinvest into the film community.”
The U.K. Film Tax Relief, which was enacted in 2007, offers producers a payable cash rebate of up to 25% for qualifying expenditures in the U.K. While there are specific qualifying factors for a production, all aspects of filmmaking, including post-production and visual effects services, can be applied to the tax credit. Most productions are able to claim the rebate within three months.
This credit, along with subsequent government credits added in 2013 and 2014, have spurred growth in the U.K. film and television industry both for domestic and international productions.
“What’s happened particularly over the last 10 to 15 years — and accelerated in the last five — is that we’ve reached a certain critical mass,” says Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission and Film London. “We wanted to make sure we were a competitive place for people to make film and television. The government listened to the arguments that were made by the film community to introduce competitive fiscal incentives ... [and] we shaped them in a way that’s very good for the production process.”
The access to qualified, locally based film crews also encourages productions to travel to the U.K. The BFI is actively working to identify and train new crews with its BFI Film Academy Future Skills program.
Recently, the BFI partnered with Lucasfilm, which produces the Star Wars movies out of London’s Pinewood Studios, on a program that will place 30 paid trainees in production roles on “Star Wars: Episode IX,” which recently began production. The program previously placed 28 trainees on the production of “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”
“We’ve got film and television coming in from all over the world, so we need to grow that crew base,” says BFI Chief Executive Amanda Nevill. “One of the biggest things we’re doing is to really evangelize about how we can open the door for anybody who wants to get into the film world. We are putting huge amounts of money into diversity and inclusion because we know that in order to (a) find the best people and (b) find the quantity, we need we have to be opening doors and making the industry really easy to enter for people from backgrounds who might never have thought about it.”
The existence of trained crews in the U.K. is both a practical and a financial consideration for Hollywood studios.
“We’re charged with making the biggest possible movie at the best possible price,” say Bill Draper, president of physical production at Warner Bros. “The tax credit is one piece of that, but you can’t underestimate the talent that’s there. We make movies in many places — we made ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ in Namibia and South Africa, and we had to bring a whole bunch of people. But if you go to the U.K., the technicians, the craftspeople, the artisans are all there. So you don’t have that expense and they’re fantastic.”
“You can make an entire movie with a local crew,” adds Jeff LaPlante, president of physical production at Universal, who recently completed “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” out of Pinewood. “It’s just a very efficient place. The tax credit and the exchange rate are making it very lucrative to make a movie in the U.K.”
The production studios and facilities benefit from the filmmaking boom. Shepperton Studios, owned by Pinewood Studio Group, recently announced an expansion plan to add new soundstages, workshops and backlots to its existing 14 stages. Shepperton, outside London, has recently been home to the productions of “Mary Poppins Returns” for Disney and Universal’s “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.”
Pinewood, which operates as home base for “Star Wars” and numerous Disney productions — including the upcoming “Maleficent” sequel — as well as the James Bond franchise, recently completed five new stages and will shortly begin construction on six more.
After producing the Harry Potter franchise on its soundstages, Warner Bros. purchased what is now known as Warner Bros Studios Leavesden in 2010. The studio uses its space for films including “Justice League,” “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” and “Wonder Woman 1984” but also rents to other productions. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” and last year’s “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” used the facilities, and Sony is in production on an upcoming project there. Leavesden also owns a post-production facility in London where 50% of the business is third-party.
The demand for filmmaking infrastructure is immense.
“It’s definitely very, very busy,” says Rosie Alison, a producer at Heyday Films who is currently working on “The Secret Garden” out of Pinewood. “You have to book ahead and fight to get your studio space. Without question, if somebody opened another studio here they’d do well.”
That’s exactly what’s happening. In June, Twickenham Studios announced a partnership with the property development firm Capital & Centric to create Littlewoods Studios in Liverpool, an up-and-coming hub for film and TV production. Because Twickenham isn’t able to grow in its current London facilities, expanding to a larger space will help meet the demand.
“The goal is to be less London-centric and to generate opportunities for people and businesses in the surrounding Liverpool area,” says Chief Operating Officer Maria Walker. “It’s definitely exciting and has generated a lot of buzz for the area, which is great. People have been very supportive of us joining the community.”
“There’s already demand [for the studio space],” says Tim Heatley, co-founder of Capital & Centric, which owns the Littlewoods building. “The Liverpool Film Office has inquiry after inquiry and could fill the space tomorrow with productions from the U.S. and elsewhere. As property developers, it’s our job to deliver a destination that people in California hear about and actively want to be a part of.”
Production in the U.K. isn’t expanding only in England. Northern Ireland has seen significantly increased interest since the success of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and as a result, the Belfast Harbor Studios opened in the capital city last year. The Starz series “Outlander” currently shoots outside Glasgow at Wardpark Studios, and Terry Thomson, chairman and owner of Wardpark, has announced plans to build more stages to become a dedicated film production complex. Bristol and areas of Wales are seeing similar growth.
Still, London remains a major draw for producers and filmmakers. “Fallout” also shot scenes inside St. Paul’s Cathedral and across Blackfriars Bridge.
“‘Mission: Impossible - Fallout’ is the sixth of the series, and it’s the third that’s had London as its hub,” Rosenthal says. “After the success of ‘Rogue Nation,’ which was also centered in the U.K., it became somewhat of homebase for ‘Mission: Impossible.’ The crew became our family, and it became important for Tom Cruise and [writer-director] Chris McQuarrie to come back to London and the U.K. They really wanted the city of London to be featured in a big, impactful way. We could do it because we have this tremendous support from the film community there and from the authorities.”
For now there’s not much concern in Hollywood about the impending impact of Brexit, although much of the tangible effects of the U.K.’s separation from the European Union are still to be determined. Since it was announced, Brexit has actually caused a favorable shift in the exchange rate between the dollar and the pound, allowing a U.S. filmmaking budget to stretch further in the U.K.
And since the tax credit is part of British law, not E.U. law, the BFI and the BFC are confident that not much will change for U.S. productions. “I genuinely don’t think it will make much difference,” Nevill says.
“Most of the things we’re concerned about with Brexit are to do with domestic production — sales of domestic production to the European marketplace and free movement of labor within in Europe,” Wootton says. “What we’ve said to the government and what we’ve campaigned about is very particular — it’s about visual effects and post-production and animation where there are a significant number of employees working for those companies who are non-U.K. European nationals. I don’t think it will have a negative impact on U.S. production coming here.”
Numerous U.S. film productions are currently underway (not to mention numerous TV productions as well). These include Universal’s “The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle,” starring Robert Downey Jr.; Legendary’s video game spinoff “Detective Pikachu”; Kenneth Branagh’s fantasy adventure “Artemis Fowl” for Disney; and Paramount’s Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” which plans to double the U.K. for the Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon.
With the British government invested in bringing film production to the country, there’s little reason to believe the boom won’t continue.
“Looking forward for the next five years, it looks to me like the demand around the world is going to continue, and I think it’s very likely to continue with the U.K.,” Wootton says. “The challenge — and it’s a lovely challenge to have — is to ensure that the infrastructure we’ve created and the critical mass we’ve created continues expanding appropriately with public support and private investment. It’s all good news, from our point of view, in terms of the U.K. economy.”
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