7 May 2015

Britain is winning the star wars


What more could a chancellor have wanted on the eve of an election? No wonder George Osborne looked so pleased when he trucked along to Ealing Studios on Monday to reveal the next Star Wars would be filmed in Britain. For this dream announcement allowed him to announce the creation of another 3,000 jobs, underlining his core economic message, while also tapping into looming excitement over the eighth edition of an epic film franchise.

Yet Osborne had every right to be pleased. For this proves yet again that the force is most definitely with the British film industry, which has slowly eclipsed Hollywood when it comes to making the big film franchises. While California laments the gradual loss of its most iconic industry, business in booming in Britain as blockbusters follow the trail blazed by James Bond and Harry Potter – and this is leading to exploding profits, expanding studios, soaring salaries and scores of new jobs.

Think of the major franchises and chances are they were made in Britain. The seventh Star Wars has just finished filming at Pinewood, where Spectre – the latest James Bond – is currently being shot. Mission Impossible, Iron Man and the Marvel series were also produced in this country, as were recent blockbusters such as Brad Pitt’s Fury and his wife Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, plus scores of successful television series including 24 and the all-conquering Game of Thrones.

This is big business, since blockbusters can cost £160m to produce and promote. The British Film Institute reported that £1.47bn was spent shooting movies in the UK last year, the bulk of this coming from 36 inward investment titles. This marked a rise of more than one-third on 2013 and was the highest figure since statistics started being recorded two decades ago. The industry now supports 117,000 jobs in the UK, with demand for British expertise so high that the Warner Brothers studio at Leavesden recently expanded while Pinewood is doubling in size. Spin-offs from special effects to catering and make-up are also thriving; no wonder British talent had 39 nominations at this year’s Oscars.

Compare this with California, where latest figures show a 15 per cent fall in one year for feature film production in Los Angeles while the special effects industry has collapsed. Movie bosses talk of ‘catastrophe’ and the mayor of Los Angeles even declared a ‘state of emergency’. They can only look with envy at a film such as Guardians of the Galaxy, which cost £110m to make at Shepperton and became the second-highest grossing US film last year. Inevitably, half its Oscar-nominated visual effects crew were British.

Given the transient nature of the film business and fierce competition from rival locations around the globe, there will always be fears this is a bubble for Britain. But insiders believe such is the strength of the emerging industry this is a sustainable trend – although it would be good to see the making of more British films as well as churning out Hollywood’s hits.

There are two unlikely heroes in this positive story. The first is the author JK Rowling, a figure using her fame and wealth to quietly impressive ends. She insisted her beloved Harry Potter series was filmed in Britain, forcing Warner Brothers to upgrade their sprawling studios on a former aircraft factory near Watford. The eight films were mega-successful – and the entertainment behemoth was left so impressed by British technicians it became the first Hollywood house to create a permanent base in Europe for 70 years.

The other group deserving plaudits are our much-maligned politicians, who have used a series of tax breaks to foster this industry in a welcome example of cross-party consensus. This began in 2007 when Gordon Brown gave in to pressure and granted assistance for blockbusters, and has since been extended by the coalition to animation, video games, theatre and top-end television series. These moves were aided by cuts in corporation tax, which boosted the country’s attractiveness to multinational businesses, then fanned by a promotional campaign involving everyone from the Prime Minister to Keira Knightley.

Just as with the car industry, this shows how targetted government intervention, combined with sensible taxes, can transform stuttering British industries. Taxpayers paid £220m to film-makers in 2013 and 2014 – but the 327 films supported spent more than £3bn in return. Those on the right that question any state aid, and those on the left that loathe lower taxes, should walk around Soho and look at those world-beating special effects companies such as Framestore, the Oscar-winning magicians behind Gravity. But it is not just London doing well: the entire country is benefitting with the expanding Titanic studio in Belfast, a new Pinewood centre in Cardiff and television production thriving in Scotland. Indeed, Britain now exports more television formats than any other country.

This country can be slow to herald its successes, especially in the creative industries, while politicians are more likely to get abuse than praise. But as the country goes to vote, it is worth reflecting on the unlikely transformation of the film sector, a story as surprising as some of those epic tales seen on screen. Britain is, quite simply, winning the star wars.

Ian Birrell is Contributing Editor at the Mail on Sunday