FOCUS 2017 report: looking back at the global production event
From high-end TV dramas such as The Night Manager, The Crown and Game of Thrones to big budget movies such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Justice League, there has been a well-documented boom in international production in recent years.
Money has poured into film and TV production, with tech giants such as Netflix and Amazon backing lavish shows that are shot all over the world. It’s not just scripted content though; video production of all kinds is on the up, whether factual TV, commercials or branded content, as consumers around the world embrace new ways of viewing content on mobile platforms. Demand for talent and crew as well as production services and facilities has shot up as a result.
The impact of this global production boom was the big talking point at FOCUS 2017, the annual show for the creative screen industries held at the Business Design Centre in London.
Exhibitors at the show included film commissions, location providers, service companies and production technology outfits from over 60 countries. They were all there to tap into this production boom, looking to attract the interest of hundreds of attendees, such as producers, directors, location managers, unit managers, financiers and writers for films, TV, commercials and branded content. (Delegates this year included Spectre executive producer Callum McDougall and Star Wars: The Last Jedi supervising location manager Martin Joy).
One of the reasons so many exhibitors from around the world were there is that the rewards for attracting a high-profile project are greater than ever in this era of big budget production. Securing a location shoot for a show like Game of Thrones, with its reported budget of USD10 million an episode, is a major prize and can significantly boost a local economy, providing spillover employment and spend throughout a region.
All this explains why there was, for example, a large contingent of Sri Lankan companies at the show. One of them, production service outfit Asian Film Location Services, was keen to explain the merits of shooting in a film-friendly country that in the past hosted features such as The Bridge on the River Kwai or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but lost out as a result of the Civil War which finally ended in 2009. “We’re now going out to tell the world that Sri Lanka is operating as normal,” says director Jayantha Jayatilaka.
So too was Uganda’s Talking Film Productions, which has worked on features such as Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe and Marvel Studio’s Black Panther. Derrick Kibisi’s company offers a full range of services from securing locations to casting and moving gear in and out of the country. For a long time, Uganda was known as Idi Amin country, he explains. But that’s changing, and more productions are drawn by Uganda’s landscape, security, good weather, friendly people and competitive prices. “The only thing it lacks is incentives, but it is still the cheapest place to shoot in East Africa.”
Even Film LA, based right at the heart of the global film industry, was at FOCUS. The Los Angeles region is vying to win back many of the Hollywood films that shoot outside the state, attracted by generous government incentives and cheaper labour rates. “We’re here to let people know that California is competitive again,” says Film LA’s Paul Audley, citing its tax credit and a single shooting permit that covers 20 cities in the state. It’s Audley’s third year at FOCUS; in his first year he says he attracted a USD30m film to Los Angeles. “It’s my only foray into Europe and a good place to be and to meet people.”
Other stands showed off the latest in new production technology from around the world, explaining how they can help film-makers. Netherlands-based WeMakeVR was at the show, displaying its virtual reality experiences. VR, says lead producer Diede Bron, is great for showing locations and saving on travel costs. Because it is seen as so cutting edge, VR is also gaining popularity for commercial shoots, for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger.
There were plenty of financial and tech companies at FOCUS too, offering clever solutions to help make productions more efficient. Fair FX, for example, is an expenses management platform; it allows productions to hand out pre-paid debit cards to travelling cast and crew, instead of cash. “It’s the most cost-effective way of doing expenses,” says chief commercial officer James Hickman. Tripgrid, meanwhile, uses technology to help productions to organise complex international travel schedules. “It means you never need get a call from a crew member saying, ‘Help, what time is my flight?” explains Tripgrid’s Bartek Podkowa.
There was also a strong UK presence at FOCUS, with companies selling specialist services to the film and TV industry such as logistics, security, legal advice and travel expenses management through to locations, temporary studios, drone filming and lighting gear.
Many of them agreed that the industry is enjoying a purple patch and that they have benefitted as a result. Tony Scott, operations director of logistics provider Dynamic International, says it’s the busiest period in his company’s 30-year history. It sent out a convoy of 56 vehicles to Tenerife for the movie Jason Bourne. It has also been shipping and arranging customs clearance for kit and equipment for the last six seasons of Game of Thrones, which shoots in Northern Ireland, Croatia, Iceland, Morocco and Spain. “It’s a boom period,” says Scott, citing the rise of the streaming platforms and explaining that terrestrial channels have upped their game too as a result.
The boom has also rippled through to companies such as Above the Line, which offers security for film and TV productions in studios and on location. The company had 150 security guards a day working on Jurassic World. Its offer extends from traffic management through to terrorist training management control. “It’s very busy because there are so many films coming over here,” says Above the Line’s Lamorna O’Toole. “And next year is shaping up to be very good too,” she adds, citing features such as the next Star Wars.
The pros and cons of this boom was explored in depth at FOCUS’s programme of seminars and keynotes.
Many of the speakers acknowledged that TV appears to be supplanting film, once considered the highest of the screen artforms. Producer Robert Jones (The Usual Suspects, Dirty Pretty Things, Babylon) said: “TV has matured and developed in a way that is easily comparable to film in terms of its scope and ambition and its production values. It represents an enormous creative playground and challenge.” Writer/producer Dominic Minghella (Knightfall, Doc Martin) added: “Great movie talent is moving into television, and the distinction between film and TV is becoming blurred.” It was a point picked up by David Shepherd, the director of the Vancouver Film Commission: “Feature film was the Holy Grail, but that has now flipped. Now high end TV is the bedrock of the industry. For us, it is all about building the crews and multiplying the resources to take care of what they need.”
All were quick to acknowledge that demand for content is booming. “There is an absolute insatiable demand for content which doesn’t seem to be waning at all, as more and more platforms are opening up,” noted agent Elaine Steel.
As a result, there are more opportunities for producers to create and sell new projects to a host of new buyers, such as Apple, Facebook, Hulu and YouTube Red. Some even acknowledged that they were struggling to keep up with demand. Einar Sveinn Thordarson, partner at Icelandic production services outfit Pegasus Pictures, has worked on shows such as Game of Thrones and Fortitude in recent years. Citing Iceland’s population of 320,000, he said that if more than three big TV projects shot in the country, “we are depleted.”
But competition has intensified as more companies look to tap into the production boom, with many film indies pushing into the TV market. Scott Free Films executive producer Carlo Dusi said the TV drama boom had pushed up prices for crew, talent and facilities, making it harder to produce independent films. Many speakers warned that the boom was only benefiting top level talent, particularly writers, stars and showrunners, whose names can help sell a project in such a crowded marketplace. Others feared that big scale projects were drowning out innovative, local dramas which struggle to stand out. “I feel like everyone has been hunting for projects like The Night Manager as far as UK broadcasters are concerned,” noted Katie Spence (Peaky Blinders, Luther), the managing director of Fifty Fathoms. Nicolas Brown, the director of film and TV at Neal Street Productions (Penny Dreadful, The Hollow Crown) added that very few shows are now made for a budget of less than GBP1 million an hour.
There was also an undercurrent of fear that the tech giants are slowly but surely disrupting local broadcast ecologies with their big spending ways. “Eventually they will commission direct and own everything. The UK is in grave danger of becoming a service industry for them,” said agent Elaine Steel.
Other speakers stressed that the content boom isn’t just confined to film and TV. Lindsey Clay, the chief executive of TV advertising body ThinkboxUK, noted that TV advertising revenues had increased in each of the seven years leading up to Brexit, when growth had ground to a halt. But the outlook for next year is more positive, she said. “I’m cautiously optimistic for 2018,” said Clay. Meanwhile, Steve Garvey, the founder of Moving Image, talked about the growing demand for corporate film and branded video in recent years.
This content boom has, however, revealed shortcomings in the skill bases in lots of countries, with many productions struggling to find experienced and trained crew. Rob Alcock, head of training at the BBC Academy, cited key skills shortages in four specific areas: digital, production leaders such as executive producers, craft based skills and broadcast engineering. “This is an industry marred by dependency on short term contracts, which impacts on training,” said Alcock. “Where in the system is the time and money being spent on training people?”
His point was picked up by Magnus Temple, chief executive of The Garden (24 Hours in A&E), who said that attracting and retaining talented staff is a major challenge for his TV indie. “Rarely a day goes by without some conversation about retraining or developing talent.”
The chief executive of Directors UK, Andrew Chowns, said the film and TV employment market is malfunctioning, citing long hours, job insecurity and lack of diversity. The industry, he said, was fortunate to be trying to deal with this during a boom time. “Every studio, warehouse and airbase is full – demand is exceeding supply,” he said. Despite this, hirers were reluctant to move out of the circle of people they trust to search for new talent. “There is a lack of confidence in trying people who are new or unfamiliar.”
Inevitably, Brexit was also a key talking point, although views were split on what it means for production.
Dan Films producer Julie Baines said that all producers are desperately worried about Brexit. “It impacts right across the board, from development through to distribution.” Others, however, said Brexit had not affected business – yet. Rob Stapledon, director commercial banking at Arbuthnot Latham & Co, who acts for many media companies, said: “From my perspective, in all honesty, I haven’t seen that much impact to my UK clients. Everybody has just been getting on with it.” Ben Barrett, the joint managing director of programme funding outfit Drive, said “Day to day, we’re not seeing any differences.”
Looking ahead, though, there was concern from many producers that Brexit would affect the free movement of people and the ability of the UK to attract talent from Europe to work on projects.
This is rightly a worry for the British industry, and one that is made all the more stark at a show like FOCUS where so many countries and companies compete to attract footloose, big-spending international productions.
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