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Barbie, Bridgerton and billions of pounds: how streaming – and tax breaks – fuelled the UK’s ‘Brollywood’ screen boom


Great locations, experienced crews and juicy incentives have made UK studios increasingly attractive, and brought Hollywood stars to the unlikeliest locations. But with budgets falling and a lack of skills training, could the bubble be about to burst?


When Peter Vardy joined Calderdale council 46 years ago, his job mostly involved maintaining local parks and, later, organising the occasional firework display. But these days Vardy’s CV can truthfully boast that he has shut down roads to stage car crashes and found the perfect bridge for a fictional detective’s (fictional) suicide. The West Yorkshire borough where the 64-year-old works has become a filming hotspot, home to big-budget productions such as the Disney+ superhero series Secret Invasion and the Paramount Plus period drama A Gentleman in Moscow. Residents have spotted Hollywood stars relaxing in local restaurants – Samuel L Jackson is apparently partial to fried seafood, lemonade and tiramisu.


Peter Vardy at the filming of the BBC thriller series Boat Story on location in Westgate Arcade, Halifax. Photograph: Courtesy of Peter Vardy

Since 2013, Vardy has acted as the council’s film officer; he manages applications for shoots, which back then were “few and far between”. A decade on, 2023 saw a total of 31 productions and 100 days of filming – partly because the BBC’s Happy Valley put Calderdale on the map in 2014, but largely because Hollywood has a new home. Generous tax breaks, the rise of streaming services and an ever-increasing demand for high-end TV have suddenly collided to make the UK a very attractive place to film.

“We try and watch them,” Vardy says of the shows he’s helped get made, which also include Netflix’s Fool Me Once and The English Game, “but of course there’s that many streaming channels now, it’s difficult keeping up.”


Vardy prides himself on securing speedy road closures and it’s “very, very, very rare” he’ll push back on filming requests. That, he says, is because productions benefit the local area – visits to the historic house Shibden Hall tripled after the BBC and HBO aired Gentleman Jack, while schoolchildren have been able to act as extras. The council estimates that filming added £856,000 to the regional economy last year.

Across the UK, high-end TV and film productions spent a record £6.27bn in 2022 – the Barbie movie alone added more than £80m to the economy when filming took place in Hertfordshire. Some have nicknamed us “Brollywood”. Local newspapers are stuffed with headlines like “Ryan Reynolds spotted filming Deadpool 3 on Norfolk beach” and “Dog from Flintshire among the cast in new Wonka film”. New studios have been built and continue to be built – there is now 6.9m sq ft of stage space in the country, with further studios planned in Sunderland, Hull, Birmingham and Hartlepool, among others.


What exactly caused this boom and how is it affecting people up and down the UK? The stats paint a pretty picture, but is everything quite so sparkly behind the scenes?


 

It’s important not to disclose the undisclosed location, because otherwise fans will swarm the studio. It’s the summer of 2022 and season three of Netflix’s Bridgerton is filming somewhere I can’t say – somewhere suburban, with the same churches and war memorials and 500-year-old pubs you find in much of the UK. Inside an old factory sit several sets, including a teashop, ballroom, hat emporium and a grand house guarded by stone (read: polystyrene) lions. Outside, cast Winnebagos and a dog-friendly makeup cabin fill an industrial-looking car park. A sign on the costume trailer warns guests to shut the door: “You’re letting bugs in, including moths, and that is not OK!”


Here, glamour and brutal pragmatism walk hand in hand; Polly Walker, who plays Lady Featherington, holds up the skirts of her elaborate chiffon dress, her pink Adidas sliders visible below. About 200 extras wait in a marquee, ready to film a pivotal ball scene; a man in full Regency garb vapes out of a pink pen in front of a studio door with a red light on. There’s lots of MDF, scaffolding, wires and tape behind the scenes, but the sets themselves are glorious – like stepping through a wardrobe into Narnia. Foliage fills an elaborate golden ballroom, where tables are laden with glistening cakes and eclairs. The only evidence they’re fake is that they’re not melting in the heat.


 

The UK screen boom: facts and figures


754

Number of local businesses that Warner Bros. said benefited from the filming of Barbie in Hertfordshire.

£13.5bn

Money generated for the economy by screen tax reliefs between 2016 and 2019.

£4.8bn

Film tax relief paid out to productions between 2007 and 2022.

415

Number of films and high-end TV shows that went into production in the UK in 2022; this number dropped to 394 in 2023.

1m sq ft

Amount of studio space built in the UK in 2022, bringing the total to 6.9m sq ft.

£450m

Money planned to be spent on a new development, Crown Works Studios in Sunderland. The studios will have 20 sound stages and will generate more than 8,000 jobs.


 

The cast are, though – just a little. Walker holds an ice pack to her neck while directing a handheld fan at her face. Nicola Coughlan, who plays her daughter Penelope Featherington, clutches a water bottle and keeps her own fan steadily whirring. (Some extras are clearly pleased that more period-appropriate fans are part of their costumes.)


Netflix first leased this studio space in 2019 and Bridgerton has filmed here since its first season. “It feels like I’m at home, in a way – it’s lovely,” says Coughlan. A few days before we speak, the actor brought childhood friends from County Galway to see the set; everyone was blown away. “There’s such love and effort and care that goes into everything,” she says, “Even on this dress, for example, every rhinestone has been stuck on individually.”


Local newspapers haven’t splashed any stories about spotting the Bridgerton cast – after all, everything here is hidden away indoors. Yet it’s likely that residents have unknowingly been mingling with the “below the line” crew. Five hundred of them are here on set today. “We have an expert in afro hair, an expert in skincare, an expert in hairdressing, an expert in hair-dyeing, an expert in wig-making,” says Erika Ökvist, the show’s makeup artist. “We have an expert in every field.”


Bridgerton is only one of many shows that Netflix has shot on our shores, giving ample opportunities to British and Irish talent. Lee Walters is a London-based chief lighting technician – that is, a gaffer – who has more than 30 years’ experience in the industry. He lit the Netflix fantasy comedy drama The School for Good and Evil and also worked on Barbie and Wonka.


Nicola Coughlan, who plays Penelope Featherington, on the Bridgerton set. Photograph: Netflix

“I’ve had a much wider choice of work in this country as the industry has grown,” he says. The rise of streamers and popularity of big-budget dramas has “pushed the amount of productions shooting and the amount of studios being built to levels I’ve not seen before,” he says. The boom is such that, at times, Walters has even found it difficult to secure enough equipment or crew.


Yet not everyone working on UK-based productions is from Britain; makeup artist Ökvist is Swedish and US-born Jess Brownell, an executive story editor on Bridgerton, says most of the show’s writers are American (although Britons are employed to “make sure we’re putting those extra ‘U’s” in the script). Then, of course, there’s the actors: Bridgerton is set in London and its cast is largely British, but the same can’t be said of Barbie, The Batman, Jurassic World or Wicked, out this year and starring all-American pop star Ariana Grande. How can it possibly be cheaper to fly US actors over to Britain to shoot rather than film in Hollywood itself? Just how good are those tax breaks?


 

Some say that it all started with Harry Potter in 2001 but the fact is that our shared language means US studios have a long history of filming in the UK. Things took a significant step up in 2007, however, when the government introduced film tax relief, which enabled productions to claim back 25% of their qualifying expenditure as a cash rebate. All they needed to do to qualify was ensure their films featured sufficient British characters, scenery and heritage (or failing that, crew). In 2013, high-end TV tax relief was also introduced.


Neil Hatton, chief executive of trade body the UK Screen Alliance, says that these incentives were handily in place at the dawn of the streaming wars, when companies sought to create more and more content to attract subscribers. There are other reasons, too, why the UK has proved popular. “Other territories do have credits which have higher levels of rebate but ours is incredibly predictable – it doesn’t have a cap, it pays out really quickly,” he says. He also notes that the exchange rate has improved significantly for Americans, from about $2 to the pound in 2008 to about $1.25 now. “We’ve also got really good crews, we’ve got good studio infrastructure and then we’ve got all the iconic locations.”


More recently, the latest spring budget introduced a 40% tax relief for UK studios’ business rates, as well as new incentives for keeping post-production visual effects work in the UK. The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, celebrated the rapid building of UK studios in his speech, stating: “At the current rate of expansion, we will be second only to Hollywood globally by the end of 2025.”


That sounds wonderful – but studios are meaningless if they’re not in use. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the government introduced an emergency insurance fund for productions, encouraging studios to rapidly resume filming. With streamers desperate for content to entertain audiences stuck at home, the industry saw an unprecedented boom – that was when gaffer Walters struggled for equipment and crew – but things came to a screeching halt in July 2023. The US Sag-Aftra actors’ strike saw numerous productions put on pause and although the strike ended late last year, filming has been slow to pick up.


A computer-generated image of the proposed Crown Works Studios in Sunderland, a £450m development that will create 8,000 jobs. Photograph: crownworks.co.uk

That is partly because streaming services are now slashing their spending after subscriber losses: Disney will be spending $2bn less on content this year, while Netflix released 16% fewer shows in 2023 than in 2022. Although productions spent a record £6.27bn in the UK in 2022, that figure dropped to £4.23bn in 2023.


“We’ve gone through a really volatile patch,” says Hatton. “And we’re really not yet recovering from that.” A February report by Bectu, the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union, found that 68% of UK film and TV workers were out of work, with 88% concerned about their finances and 75% struggling with their mental health. Unable to find employment, numerous crew members have left the industry; Walters says it has been a “devastating” time. “It is perhaps a sign of some vulnerability to have so much reliance on the US productions,” he adds.


As Sunak cuts funding for creative courses, who does he imagine will make the movies in the new studios he celebrates?

Charlotte Sewell is a London-based assistant costume designer who has been working on the Mission: Impossible franchise for the past four years. While she isn’t currently struggling for work (this spring, numerous headlines have celebrated Tom Cruise dining in Derbyshire and sprinting through London’s Natural History Museum), she is troubled by the experiences of her peers. “It’s been devastating; people who’ve had good careers lost their jobs overnight,” says the fiftysomething Sewell. “A lot of people have gone back to theatre, people are going into hospitality.”


But she is encouraged by the spring budget – particularly the new measure that at last offers a higher tax relief (up to 40%) for lower-budget independent British movies. “There is hope on the horizon,” she says. Still, the costume designer would like to see better government support for freelancers, the backbone of the British film industry. “We do bring in billions into the economy, and that’s not to be ignored.”


Amid all this uncertainty, many new studios are still being built. The Littlewoods building in Liverpool is being transformed into a production space. Last month, Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt visited Sunderland to discuss the development of Crown Works Studios, with Hunt declaring: “If we’re going to become one of the most prosperous countries in Europe and indeed the world we can’t just have wealth concentrated in London and the south-east.” A virtual production studio, Studio Ulster, is due to open in Belfast later this year, while plans were recently unveiled for a “Hullywood” film complex with a new 19,700 sq ft soundstage in the east Yorkshire city. Yet even before post-strike job exoduses, research from the British Film Institute (BFI) found that the UK would need about 21,000 additional crew members to meet demand by 2025. At the same time as investing in new studio space,the government is planning to cut funding for performing and creative arts courses at English universities – just the latest move in a decade of defunding. Who does Sunak imagine will make the movies in the new studios he celebrates?


John Higgins, 70, a gaffer with 40 years’ experience in the industry, says he’s “always trying to push for more trainees”. In a way, he adds, it is a blessing that all the studios in the UK aren’t currently fully booked – there wouldn’t be enough crew to fill them. “Training is a haphazard sort of setup,” he says. “I don’t know whether the industry will fund it or whether they’ll have to get tax breaks from the government… [but] they’re going to have to ramp up training fairly quickly.”



The 21,000 crew members the BFI estimates the industry will need encompass not just technicians but cameramen, editors, assistant directors, location managers, construction workers, set directors and costume supervisors – the list goes on and on.


Emily Stillman, senior vice-president at Warner Bros studios in Leavesden, Hertfordshire, believes that apart from the “blip” of the strike action, “the industry is very strong”. There is, she says of the UK, “great talent here, great facilities here and a great tax incentive here” but she acknowledges that not everything has been expanding equally across the board. “Part of the industry being so strong is our workforce hasn’t quite grown at the rate that everything else has,” she says.


The Warner Bros studios in Leavesden, Hertfordshire, is launching CrewHQ, an on-site industry training programme. Photograph: Warner Bros

Leavesden has been Warner Bros’ permanent home in the UK since refurbishment was completed in 2012. The studio is expanding, building 10 new stages, which will increase production capacity by more than 50%. This year, the company is also launching CrewHQ, an on-site training programme that will teach everything from set etiquette to how to use radios, after which trainees will be able to work on a production. Such opportunities attract everyone from school leavers to retired firefighters (one of whom became a locations marshal after Warner Bros launched a test training programme last year).


Lots of young people coming out of university or finance-type qualifications wouldn’t even think of the film industry

Stillman says CrewHQ aims not only to support new entrants to the industry, but also upskill the current workforce. “Something we’ve seen in the last five years is people moving up too fast, particularly because of the skills gap,” she says. She hopes the programme will increase diversity in the industry, improve crew mental health and enable project leaders to invest long-term in their teams.


The brains behind the initiative is Rico Johnson-Sinclair, a training and skills director for CrewHQ. “There’s never been a clear pipeline into the industry,” he says, “There’s so much mystery surrounding getting into production.” CrewHQ, Johnson-Sinclair says, is about creating that pipeline – this year, 1,470 people applied for 20 places on the first round of training in May.


While there are skills gaps across the board, Stillman also points to a less expected shortage productions are struggling with – accountants. “Lots of young people coming out of university or finance-type qualifications, most of them just wouldn’t even think of the film industry,” she says. “People don’t even realise that there are hundreds and hundreds of accountants on films.” She emphasises that it’s a “full career pathway” with progression, opportunity and good remuneration: “You can spend your life doing it.”


Other opportunities aren’t full-time but are rewarding, nonetheless. Johnson-Sinclair mentions a blacksmith who made swords for House of the Dragon alongside his regular work. Indeed, people don’t have to work directly on sets to benefit from the UK’s production boom. The BFI Screen Business report in 2021 found that every £1 of film tax relief given to productions generated £8.30 for the UK economy. “I know that there will be people who say: ‘Why do we give tax relief to film and television when the country is crying out for doctors and nurses and schools and hospitals?’” says Hatton. “The fact is, this doesn’t cost the country anything because the exchequer gets it all back. It stimulates growth, it creates jobs, and those employees pay taxes and also go and spend their wages in the local economy.”


Steve Thomas, landlord at the Rising Sun pub in Middleton, Derbyshire, had one of his busiest Mondays ever this March. The latest Mission: Impossiblefilm was shooting at a nearby mine; one day, he says, “there was a noticeable increase in traffic, heavy lorries, generators and cabins and things like that, so it was pretty obvious that something was up”. Over the coming weeks, crew started trickling into the pub, grabbing something to eat after their shifts. On the Monday they finished filming, Thomas’s pub was packed. The 57-year-old landlord has not only benefited from the increased trade, but he now also knows the nickname that crew members bestowed upon a certain actor (which Thomas insisted was kept off the record).


Then there’s Rachel Hanretty, the 34-year-old owner of the Edinburgh-based bakery Mademoiselle Macaron. In 2022, she received a surprise email from the Barbie set designer, asking for 300 macarons to be featured in the film. “We just didn’t think it was true. It just felt so cool,” Hanretty says. Although you’d have to have an eagle eye to spot the macarons in the final cut – “You can see them for, like, 0.02 seconds” – Hanretty’s business has nonetheless benefited as she went on to sell Barbie-branded macarons to the public. “They really took off,” she says, and the increased social media attention meant other big brands such as Spotify and Lancôme began ordering branded macarons. “It’s kept us busy ever since.”


 

“The big question that I think people are asking is: is there a studio bubble that’s about to burst?” says Tony Franks, founder of 25-year-old company Pocket Films, which publishes The Studio Map, a booklet and website for industry professionals.


In February, film-maker Tyler Perry paused the expansion of his Atlanta studios after getting spooked by the rapidly developing capabilities of artificial intelligence. In July 2023, Hollywood’s Sunset Studios delayed the development of a new £600m site in Hertfordshire; the new studio’s website promises: “We have been assessing the current climate and intend to continue once market rates and construction financing stabilise.”


Pinewood Studios. Photograph: Tony Watson/Alamy

Franks believes there’s “been a danger” of the studio bubble bursting but he is feeling encouraged by the spring budget. Like many, he believes independent film production has been “horribly ignored” during the recent boom, but he is confident that the new tax credits for indies will encourage “homegrown, lower-budget films” to use studio space.


And the Americans are still interested. Franks’s website hosts a list of forthcoming studio developments and he can tell from the page views that this is “closely watched” within the industry. “It’s an encouraging sign that people want to know where the next concentrations of studios are,” he says. Recently, Franks held a mixer night for the heads of studios to meet each other. At the first event in January, at the Chiswick Cinema in west London, he was encouraged to see that studios didn’t seem to view each other as competition and instead the atmosphere was collaborative. “I overheard people saying: ‘Well, this production wasn’t quite right for us, so I recommended other studios.’ That’s a very good sign.”


Although the sting of the strike action is still keenly felt, those within the industry who can hang on are still reasonably positive about the future. “The promise is that they’ll be making fewer but bigger and better projects,” says Hatton of the streamers. “There’s a rebalancing going on.”


Ryan Gosling, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig on the set of Barbie, filmed at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire. Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk/AP

Calderdale remained a popular location with UK productions during the strike action and council film officer Vardy has stayed hard at work. “There doesn’t seem to be a decrease at all,” he says, adding that he never uses “the Q-word” – “quiet” – because “then normally the phone starts ringing”.


And while Bridgerton season three hasn’t yet hit our screens, the filming for season four could be under way by the summer, with its glitz and glamour hidden inside sprawling industrial warehouses. While uncertainties loom in the industry at large, it’s hard to deny the thrill when things do work out.


“You do have a weird moment where you’re like: ‘It’s magic and it’s all real,’” Coughlan says of the cast reuniting each season to dance in grand dresses and ballrooms. “If you got jaded from this, I’d really worry about you.”


PASTED FROM THE GUARDIAN


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