The thriving UK studio sector, which has seen numerous new facilities announced and opened across the country in recent years to cope with growing demand and ongoing expansions at those already established sites, could be under serious threat if the SAG-AFTRA strike is not resolved soon.
So warns one studio chief, who says the UK’s space reliance on Hollywood productions (internal investment, almost entirely from US studios and broadcasters, accounted for 86 per cent of the record $7.8bn spent in 2022 on high-end TV and film production in 2022) has put many facilities in the line of fire.
“I think it’s potentially a disaster,” says Nick Smith, deputy managing director of the recently opened Shinfield Studios, which currently has nine of 18 planned soundstages open (and expected to be the UK’s fourth-biggest when fully operational in early 2024). Disney+’ Star Wars series the acolyte recently finished at Shinfield, where it took over the first four stages that opened, but while a major new studio project would usually be waiting and booked to fill that slot right away, Smith says fears leading up to the writers’ strike and now the actors’ strike mean it’s now empty.
“It really kicked in from April, when everyone said there was going to be some action, so we started pushing the schedules back over and over again,” he says. “And now, even for things that were delayed, people are saying that they may not happen.”
Along with Shinfield, Smith says that other UK facilities such as Ealing and Elstree, studios that work largely on a project-by-project basis, are also likely to be “significantly” affected. But he says established studios like Pinewood and Shepperton, which have long-term leases for much of their sites (Pinewood with Disney and Shepperton with Netflix), should be “largely unaffected.”
Even before the actors’ strike, there had been a noticeable wobble in the upward trajectory of the UK studio market, with Blackstone and Hudson’s $900m development of Pacific Sunset Studios in Hertfordshire, an expansion of their California facility, being put on hold. Nothing was formally announced, but Smith cites uncertainty over UK business tax rates, plus construction inflation and rising utility costs, and now both writers and actors are on strike.
“You put all these factors in the crucible and I think you have a lot of very nervous people about to write a very big check that says: is this really the best time to build new infrastructure in the UK?”
As for the continued development of Shinfield, Smith says the plan is to use the downtime during the strike to focus on building the nine additional stages due to open next year. But he remains certain that the demand will still be there to fill them.
“There is nothing to really suggest that the UK is not going to be attractive for production in the future,” he says. “So if anything, I think we’re going to have something like the COVID effect, where everything stops and there’s a massive race, and I want to be ready with as many stages as possible when that race comes.”