Charlie Chaplin is said to have described it as the “home of the British film industry”, a British Hollywood where Alfred Hitchcock directed the UK’s first “talkie” and screen legends Errol Flynn and Gregory Peck made classics such as Moby Dick.
Now Elstree Studios, in Hertfordshire just north of London, is undergoing a multimillion-pound development to extend its 15-acre site by a quarter and potentially double its profits – vital expansion for a studio that is so overbooked it regularly turns away prospective productions.
By Easter, diggers will have cleared a four-acre site behind the studios, once a set for Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film The Shining. A “dead piece of land” for 30 years, it will soon accommodate productions for the big and small screen.
In a curious plot twist, its expansion will help the local council cope with central government funding cutbacks.
What makes Elstree unique is that the studios and the limited company that runs them is owned by the local borough council, which bought the site in 1996 after a “save our studios” campaign. The studios typically generate £1m a year in rental income, which the council uses to fund local services. It secured £2m from a Local Enterprise Partnership to fund the £4.5m project, with the remaining funds coming from the council’s own reserves. It hopes this could double its annual contribution to £2m.
“With continuing cuts in government grants, it’s the entrepreneurial councils that have a chance of survival,” said Morris Bright, chairman of the Elstree Studios board and leader of Hertsmere Borough Council, adding that the studios’ present profit equates to 20 per cent of the borough’s annual council tax take. “The shareholders are the residents,” he added.
Although Hollywood blockbusters such as instalments of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises were made at Elstree, the studios were derelict by the time the council acquired the site after a lengthy legal battle. Reopened in 1999, the studios have since hosted Oscar-winning films such as The King’s Speech, and live television shows including the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice.
Chancellor George Osborne’s extension of film tax relief to the visual effects industry was a further boost to UK film production, which generated £1.07bn in 2013 according to Oxford Economics, a 14 per cent rise on the previous year.
Films now being shot at Elstree include Suffragette, which will chronicle the Votes for Women campaign, its set recreating 1912 London. Its A-list cast includes Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. Last weekend, it became the first feature film allowed to shoot in the Houses of Parliament. The film’s producer Faye Ward, of Ruby Films, said that part of what makes Elstree special was its small size: “You feel it’s yours … you’re one of three productions, not 10.”
Elstree’s location – 12 miles from Soho, the film world’s favoured post-production centre – was also crucial, she added. “It works perfectly for us because a lot of our locations are either in the City of London or north London. We’re constructing a lot of our interior builds [at Elstree].”
The council receives further revenue from filming in the surrounding area – most recently Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth shooting Before I go to Sleep, a psychological thriller. The £20m a year raised from filming days in the borough is expected to rise. In January, Hertfordshire county council – of which Hertsmere is one of 10 districts – became the second authority outside London to gain legal powers to facilitate filming on public highways. Until now, producers had to negotiate a complex procedure that could take weeks without any guarantee of roads being closed.
Mr Bright estimates that in the past three years, Elstree has been forced to turned away productions worth some £4m in revenue. Its larger rival, Pinewood Shepperton – which has drawn Hollywood blockbusters including the Harry Potter films, and is about to start shooting the new Star Wars film – warned last year that it was “perilously close” to running out of capacity as it battled to obtain planning permission to expand.
Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission and Film London, said: “Elstree is bursting at the seams with projects. That’s reflecting the incredible success that we’re enjoying at the moment.”