How do pop-up film studios operate?
In recent years, cities like Vancouver, New York and London have transformed their film and TV production businesses by offering a combination of attractive tax incentives, great crews and state-of-the-art studio facilities.
In Vancouver, production rose by 40% in 2015 alone while in New York, film and TV revenues are up by 21% to CA$8.7bn since 2011. This does create a challenge in terms of how to keep ahead of booming demand.
With major studios in the biggest production hubs often booked up well in advance, the risk is that a lack of space will force productions to take their work to rival locations.
The response to this situation tends to segment into four main areas. The first is the expansion of existing flagship studios.
Pete Mitchell is head of Vancouver Film Studios in British Columbia - which has hosted shoots like Fifty Shades of Grey (pictured above) - and says his company has tripled its filming since 2006, now offering 60,000 sq ft over 12 stages. In New York, meanwhile, Steiner Studios, the biggest US studio outside Hollywood, is in the midst of a 179,000 sq ft expansion at its Brooklyn base.
It’s similar in the UK, where Pinewood Studios near London is in the midst of a £200m expansion that will “significantly expand the studio’s capacity to accommodate major feature films, television programmes, commercials and other screen-based productions,” according to the studio.
The second response has been the creation of new studios to absorb the extra work. In Vancouver there is a very entrepreneurial feel to this development – as evidenced by Ironwood Studios. Launched in 2015 on the site of a former steel manufacturing warehouse in south Vancouver, Ironwood is currently a seven-stage operation stretched across 177,000 sq ft of space. As soon as it opened, it booked in a new TV version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
In New York, Cine Magic’s Riverfront Studios is a recent addition – as is Mount Vernon-based Haven Studios. The latter, built on the site of a warehouse and manufacturing facility, has hosted HBO’s acclaimed series The Leftovers (pictured left) and Hulu’s The Path. In the UK there is talk of a world-class studio complex being constructed in the East London borough of Barking and Dagenham.
The mayor of London Sadiq Khan is backing the proposed scheme and says: “To sustain and grow [London’s] success story, it is critical the capital gets significantly more studio and production capacity to maximise opportunities for filmmaking.”
Expansion of studio space comes alongside policies that encourage filmmakers to travel a little further afield but not so far that they fall into the arms of a different jurisdiction. New York State is keen to stimulate production outside Manhattan so it has increased the state’s 30% tax credit for productions with budgets over $500,000 that are produced in upstate areas.
British Columbia similarly offers an increased incentive for productions that choose to film beyond the boundaries of metropolitan Vancouver.
There has also been a rise in the number of so-called ‘pop-up’ studios in major production hubs – unused buildings converted into a filming space with a specific production in mind. In Burnaby, near Vancouver, Fox’s reboot of TV drama Prison Break was partly shot in a former supermarket.
Helena Mackenzie is head of inward investment and business development for Film London and views pop-up studios as an important part of a flexible offering to incoming producers.
“Our established studios are expanding and there is the prospect of the studio in Dagenham,” she tells KFTV. “But having alternative studio spaces is a useful additional option for producers – especially if timing is an issue and other sites are booked.”
Mackenzie says Film London first explored this option around four years ago: “We got help from City Hall to open up discussions with property developers who were renovating buildings.
"Our basic argument was it’s going to be six to 12 months before you start work, so why not let producers use the site as studio space in the interim? It’s a way to make money while only having a temporary commitment.”
These days, Mackenzie says the process is generally driven by the film offices in local London boroughs and by on-the-ground location managers.
“The local film offices have a good knowledge of what is happening locally while the location managers are like truffle hunters. They’re always out looking for ideas. Their activities are then supported by the London Filming Partnership, a network of around 250 bodies that are engaged in constant dialogue about filming in London.”
The tick list for adapted studios includes access, parking and space to build production offices and sets. They are unlikely ever to match the facilities at purpose-built studios but the good ones do tend to get reused once location managers are aware of what they have to offer.
“Ultimately, the decision whether to go with them is really down to the production team,” says Mackenzie. “We can present them with opportunities but it’s their call.”
Other London examples cited by Mackenzie include the use of a converted warehouse for the interior scenes of Sky Atlantic drama Fortitude and west London’s Gillette Building for 24: Live Another Day.
The site now under consideration for the new studio in east London is a former pharmaceutical park that has been serving as a pop-up studio for the UK TV dramas Humans and New Blood. So there are situations where temporary sites can become fixed.
This chimes with the experience in Vancouver, where Prem Gill, CEO of BC Creative, has seen a number of adapted spaces evolve into fully-fledged studio spaces.
“We do get pop-up studios here – mainly for smaller or lower budget productions. But I think the bigger agenda for us right now is people setting up studios with a longer-term, more sustainable approach.”
Skydance Studios is a prominent recent example in a suburb of Vancouver.
“Initially, the studio has been set up to house the new Netflix series Altered Carbon, hopefully for a number of seasons,” says Gill. “But the ambition is for the studio, which is built on the site of a former newspaper printing press, to become a permanent feature on the BC production scene.”
The catch, however, is that many of these adapted studio spaces are being established on prime commercial land so there’s growing development pressure from outside the production industry. Vancouver’s old Canada Post building has been used as a filming space for both TV dramas and films but its developers are aiming to transform the site into a retail/residential complex by 2021. “Clearly the sites outside of the city centre are not subject to the same pressures,” says Gill.
For the most part the film and TV sectors in Vancouver, New York and London are comfortable with pop ups. With factors like exchange rates and tax incentive regimes influencing the final decision about where to shoot, pop-ups are a way of satisfying production demand, if only as a temporary solution.
Fifty Shade of Grey image: Chuck Zlotnick/Universal Pictures. The Leftovers image: HBO. Prison Break and 24 images: Fox.