Impact of the reel economy

The beach in Edge of Tomorrow was created in the backlot at Warner Bros

The beach in Edge of Tomorrow was created in the backlot at Warner Bros - Credit: Archant

With the winning of a £100m contract for a major Netflix biopic of the Queen, the creation of new and old worlds for Hollywood blockbusters and schemes to nurture the next generation of filmmakers, Herts is having a major impact on the film industry as well as supporting thousands of local jobs. Lucy Gravatt of the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership looks at the latest developments

In the Heart of the Sea, filmed at Leavesden, using its massive water tank and backlot

In the Heart of the Sea, filmed at Leavesden, using its massive water tank and backlot - Credit: Archant

The creative industries are now worth £76.9bn per year to the UK economy, according to recent government figures, and Hertfordshire is playing a leading role. The county is fast becoming the core of the UK’s media industry. Its location in the ‘super-region’ of south-east England and London now accounts for approximately 60 per cent of the UK’s film and TV production, according to Creative England.

There are more than 1,000 companies in the film and TV cluster in Herts. At its core are the twin peaks of film and TV production just seven miles apart at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood and Warner Bros Studios in Leavesden.

Over in Hatfield at the University of Hertfordshire (UH), the next generation of filmmakers is being nurtured thanks to its film and media school. It has close ties with the local industry and its animation school is ranked in the top 20 in the world. In Borehamwood, Elstree University Technical College has led the way in offering full-time industry-related courses, in association with UH and Meller Educational Trust, to 600-plus students aged 14-19 since 2013.

The industry is also benefiting from substantial tax incentives for the sector which is making the UK an increasingly attractive location for filmmakers. Recent statistics released by the British Film Institute show that US studios are filming an increasing number of multi-million pound blockbusters in the UK, generating more than £1.4bn in 2014.

Elstree Studios

Elstree Studios - Credit: Archant

Warner Bros is the only Hollywood studio to own a production facility in the UK, basing such forthcoming big hitters as Joe Wright’s epic fantasy Pan, action adventure Tarzan: The Untamed and Nantucket whaling thriller In the Heart of the Sea there.

Elstree Studios has also benefited from tax incentives. It has just announced it has secured the contract for the £100m biopic The Crown, which is due to premiere on Netflix in 2016. Directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) and produced by Left Bank Pictures, the 10-part drama about the interplay between the Queen and successive British prime ministers is a major coup for the county. It will be based at Elstree Studios for at least two years.

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Elstree managing director Roger Morris said the result was important for the studios and the local economy, adding, ‘This is just the start of more high-end dramas coming here. It was our ambition to exploit fully everything Elstree Studios could offer to this part of the market. Now it feels we have arrived. The government’s tax incentives for high-end television drama are a success in attracting these major international productions to the UK.’

The county’s towns, stately homes and green spaces have also contributed to the local economy thanks to tourists visiting film locations. The latest of them is Hatfield House, used in the critically-acclaimed Paddington.

Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne is starring in Elstree production The Danish Girl

Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne is starring in Elstree production The Danish Girl - Credit: Archant

Since April 2012, Creative England, which has its East of England base at Elstree Studios, has supported 170 productions to film on location in Hertfordshire, equating to 851 shoot-days and an £18m estimated spend here. The county has also signed up to Creative England’s Film Friendly Partnership charter, signalling to movie-makers that Herts is firmly on the map for future film locations. In a bid to encourage further investment, the county council has gained legal powers via a Bill in Parliament to speed up the process of closing roads for filming.

The buoyancy of the market is reflected in the pace of development. At the Warner Bros studios, investment has led to the launch this year of three new sound stages. This follows an original £100m investment by the company to rebuild and expand the complex, which reopened in 2012.

The studio has great assets for filmmakers, including one of the largest heated underwater filming tanks in Europe, while half its 200-acre site is given over to a backlot. This area was transformed into a vast beach for the Tom Cruise hit Edge of Tomorrow and was the location of a Nantucket harbour for Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea. The site also has a rentals arm, which provides the industry with lighting, scaffolding and production supplies.

The studio employs 600 people, with a substantial amount pulled from the surrounding area. When productions are at their peak, this number increases to around 2,500 with cast and crews. Warner Bros also offers a mix of bursaries, scholarships and apprenticeships through its Creative Talent programme, with strong links to Watford Palace Theatre, West Herts College and the University of Hertfordshire.

The Warner Bros complex

The Warner Bros complex - Credit: Archant

Studio managing director Dan Dark, said, ‘A lot of people have grown up with what we are doing here. We have one employee who used to look out of his bedroom window at the studios. He got a job here as a runner and has never looked back. We also find that people who have visited the Studio Tour are inspired to come and work at the attraction. Staff get a fantastic set of skills as we invest so heavily in training and customer service.’

After securing The Crown contract, the mood at Elstree Studios is jubilant. The high-end drama adds to its varied production portfolio which encompasses reality and prime-time TV shows such as Big Brother and The Voice as well as feature films such as The Danish Girl, currently in production and starring Eddie Redmayne, who won this year’s best actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything.

Elstree has undergone a major £4.5m expansion project to clear four acres of land and construct new production facilities after owner Hertsmere Borough Council received a £2m loan from Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership’s Growing Places Fund, with the remaining £2.5m provided by the council.

Roger Morris said the new contract reflected the need for further growth, ‘We beat off stiff industry competition to win the contract for The Crown and now need to develop the site further to take on all the extra work that now flows into the studios,’ he says.

Morris Bright, leader of Hertsmere Borough Council and chairman of the board of directors at Elstree Studios, said the studio’s long-running reputation as the British Hollywood has a big impact on the area, its people and businesses. ‘It’s not just about spotting famous actors in the high street; our booming film and television industry has a huge knock-on effect on our local and regional economy. As well as creating hundreds of jobs – many of them local – the profits from the studios subsidise the council tax for residents across the whole borough to the tune of 20 per cent.’

Watford mayor Dorothy Thornhill said Warner Bros has a similar economic impact on the town, which is just to the south of the Leavesden site, as a direct employer and through its wider supply chain. ‘We have seen new companies locate to the town to be on the doorstep of WBSL, and take advantage of Watford’s skilled workers and wider investment in the industry,’ she says.

‘Being on the doorstep of London, coupled with excellent transport links, ensures Watford will benefit from further investment and we are working with Warner Bros to make this happen.’