BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
Why Scotland would benefit from a film studio
As far back as 1935 there were calls made for a Scottish film studio and in the intervening years, every time there has been a burst of film activity here, the cry goes up yet again.
In recent times, actor Sir Sean Connery backed by David Murray, then the Rangers Football Club chairman, and Sony drew up plans for a £60-90m studio at Hermiston Gait which were vetoed by Edinburgh city council in 1997. Then there was the £225m Gleneagles Film Studio complex comprising sound stages, a hotel, IMAX cinema, golf course, movie museum, drama school, shops, restaurants and bars mooted in 1999. A few years later in 2002 on the back of the Mel Gibson blockbuster Braveheart, backers, including Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics and actor James Cosmo, put forward a proposal for a £20m Highland Studio, complete with wooden Braveheart fort, studio, retail outlet and restaurant in Inverness. Despite being granted planning permission nothing happened.
The project may well have been scuppered by a Scottish Enterprise (SE) report that year concluding that a national film studio in Scotland was not viable. It’s indicative of how little understanding the Scottish Government and its agencies have of the film industry that only two years later SE announced that MTP were the preferred party to develop a studio at Erskine Bridge. That didn’t happen either.
So, here we are in 2017 with film production spend in Scotland at an all time high – £52.7m in 2015, an increase of £30m over the last 10 years – and still Scotland has no purpose-built commercial film studio. If the money spent on consultants’ reports over the decades had been put into a studio facility instead, Scotland’s film industry would now be in a different league.
Productions in Scotland currently fall into two categories: low-impact productions, which include commercials, corporates, short films and promotions; and high-impact productions, which are feature films and TV dramas. If you
take Edinburgh as an example, the city benefits on average by £5m a year from incoming productions, which increased to £6.6m in 2015 due to three high-impact productions not only filming in the capital, but basing their production offices there too. It is worth noting that while high-impact productions only account for 4% of the total number of productions filming in Edinburgh, they account for 82% of the total economic impact.
The number of films and television series shooting in Scotland recently – Outlander, Trainspotting 2, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Whisky Galore to name but a few – have put Scotland back on the map, generating several serious proposals for purpose-built studios.
Attracting t he most column inches, and controversy over its green belt location, is the Pentland Studios proposal in Midlothian. This £200m privately-funded mixed-use development, which includes a film and TV studio facility with eight sound stages and a large back lot complex, would provide a world class facility at no cost to the public purse. Over 3,000 supporters have signed a petition and Film Edinburgh has backed the project.
Although Creative Scotland has various incentives to support filming in Scotland, the missing link is the studio and the government’s Film Studio Delivery Group (FSDG), set up in 2013 with the sole purpose of delivering a studio, has conspicuously failed to deliver.
Three years on, the government has still not made a decision on whether to give Pentland the green light despite receiving a planning report before Christmas. It’s unlikely a decision will be made before the May elections, prompting fears that the investors behind the development will lose interest and go elsewhere. It is imperative that the government support this project so that Scotland can capitalise on the shortage of studio space in the UK, the huge interest in Scotland as a location, and the surge in demand for high-quality television production. There is also scope to tap into Scotland’s fast-growing, vibrant games industry.
In the meantime, the lack of studio, or build space, is the main reason many high-impact productions don’t base themselves in Edinburgh. In 2015 the capital lost 17 high value productions because of this. If all 17 productions had filmed for one day each, the total economic impact would have been £344,000 per day.
The UK’s lucrative tax credit for film attracted £1.47bn in production money to the UK in 2014, but only £40m – 3% of the total – made its way to Scotland because we don’t have any studio facilities. Last year was a bumper year for film in Britain with 90% of the £726m spend coming from American productions. Given the
‘£ 1.47bn was spent on film production in the UK in 2014, but only 3% made its way to Scotland’
current exchange rates the Americans get a lot of bang for their buck in the UK. Scotland’s figures for this year are not yet published, but at least a third or more of the £52.7m figure for 2015 is accounted for by Outlander.
A wasted opportunity
This is why the Pentland scheme, or one like it, is urgently needed. Scotland does have various ‘spaces’ that have been pressed into use due to the lack of any other facilities. Ward Park in Cumbernauld, for instance, where Sony’s Outlander is shot, was originally a shed. It was announced recently that £4m of public money, comprising a £1.5m Scottish Enterprise grant and loan of £2.5m, will go towards the expansion of its facilities to include six sound stages, production offices, ancillary spaces and a back lot. The owner of an Ayrshire facility where the television series The Loch was shot, is also in a position to invest for the long-term by expanding and making permanent its studio offering.
Although all the London studios are currently full, Scotland is losing out, primarily to Northern Ireland – Game of Thrones went to the Titanic Studios. Indeed whilst Wales has 51,000 sq ft of purpose-built studio space and Northern Ireland has 42,000 sq ft, Scotland has a meagre 5,800 sq ft.
One producer shooting a four-part TV series in Spain could have shot the studio requirements in Scotland or Wales, but chose Wales because there is an additional 8% incentive for shooting there and using the local pool of talent and resources. If Scotland was to match or better that incentive, it could attract even more productions as well as provide more work for the talent pool which has the potential to expand significantly if a studio was built.
Along with the jobs and film spend, the spinoffs for the tourism industry could be huge. Research confirms that film tourists spend more than non-film tourists, and that 40% of visitors to the UK want to visit locations they’ve seen on screen. Taking just one film, Outlander, the footfall at Doune Castle, where it is shot, increased by 47% in the first six months of the year, with associated merchandise flying off visitor centre shelves.
Even movie mogul David Puttnam, who was lukewarm on a studio in 2002, has recently expressed dismay at the low level of growth in the Scottish screen industry compared with the rest of the UK. He now believes that ‘if we build it they will come’.
Given that oil and gas is no longer the cash cow it once was in Scotland, there is an opportunity here for the Scottish economy to benefit from the lucrative film studio industry, but the government needs to act now.
Above: Whisky Galore is just one of the major films to have been made in Scotland recently – but there could be so many more if we had a film studio.