Q+A with Lisa Dee, Head of Film at LBBD and Stephen Hursthouse Senior Development Manager at Be First
Barking and Dagenham Council unanimously approved a GBP110 million proposal for Dagenham Film Studios. Lisa Dee, Head of Film at Barking and Dagenham Council, and Stephen Hursthouse Senior Development Manager at Be First speak to TLG about what this means for the borough, why an east London film studio will work and what Covid-19 means for film and TV in the borough.
How long has the studio been in the works?
Stephen: Sites Camera Action, a report by LSH identified a lack of around 2million feet of stage space in the UK and the council did their own study in 2017 which identified that there was a need, and that a studio at the former pharmaceutical site in Dagenham had the potential to meet this need.
The more we have gone through the process the more we have gained confidence that this is the right thing to do. A lot of people have talked about doing this in lots of different boroughs, but the difference is that the council have backed this 100% and put resources into delivering it.
The development with original investors didn’t work out as planned, as they had issues because Brexit affected funding. But for us, we were getting more and more confident that demand is increasing, and the project should progress so the Council decided to take it to the next stage themselves.
What does the approval from the council mean for the project?
Stephen: For the industry, there is risk and uncertainty when studio conversions or building is promised. Delays happen which costs production companies money and planning is considered a risk because you may not get permission. We put forward some money to pull together a design team to deliver a planning application. This week, the planning committee has resolved to grant planning permission for the studios. Now it just needs to be signed off by the Greater London Authority (GLA).
I think it is very rare that there were no objections from local residents and the public, and the decision by the planning committee was unanimous, there was no dissenting voice and everyone was absolutely positive at the committee. When you consider how controversial planning can be, it has been great to get the response that it is incredibly important and a game changer for the borough. It can deliver on a permanent home for filming in the borough and to help generate employment, training and education opportunities for both adults and kids. That has always been the drive, to create an opportunity for the borough to grow.
What productions have recently filmed in the borough & what impact has filming like this had?
Lisa: Most recently, Black Widow and Morbius have been in the borough and we have had people from the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Idris Elba, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jared Leto, Tom Hardy, Richard Gere, Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and David Harbour filming here.
Location managers are occasionally the unsung heroes of productions. When I originally started the film office in 2012, I had some exemplary location managers who really stuck their neck out to get producers and directors on board with Dagenham and east London. In my first year of opening the film office I had gone to a networking event at Film London. One location manager said to me, “we really don’t have any business for there”. A week later he called me and told me he had to eat humble pie and ended up bringing one of the biggest films of the year to us because of the locations we had. We have built up that rapport, and those long-standing relationships have made a lot of this possible, with them returning with productions year on year to the borough, so am very thankful to the location teams for the work that they do.
Traditionally, production and studios has been seen to be centred in west London, is there an eastwards move happening?
Lisa: We recently conducted a Rapid Skills Report with the support of Film London, which found that of the data accessed that there is very little geographical evidence why a new site in Dagenham should face any worse or different crewing and recruitment issues from our colleagues with studios to the west of London, which slightly de-myths the perceived residential ‘clustering’ around studios, instead links it more to the proximity to central London. Dagenham is sixteen miles from Central London, so we are ideally located. And as London is moving a lot of work east, we are finding more crew and production workers are actually living in east, south-east and north London areas, so we’re on their door step, which makes Dagenham studios such a great geographical fit for existing and the next-generation of crew and creatives.
Stephen: It was about exploding that myth. We felt it was a myth but until we could disprove it, it still existed. From an industry perspective I understand why it is perpetuated because the studios are mostly to the west. It has been a useful piece of hard data to prove that crew are everywhere.
As we move forward with Dagenham studios, it is about bringing new people into the industry, creating more diversity within an industry which isn’t known for that. We believe we are a borough who can deliver this. Dagenham’s history where the principal of equal pay for women originated - showcased in Made in Dagenham – is the kind of key philosophy of the borough that Lisa has really championed and pushed forward.
What sort of infrastructure & connections to the industry has the film office built up in previous years that makes the Dagenham Studio possible?
Lisa: We are one of the youngest boroughs in the country – so we have a massive responsibility to ensure that the next generation of young people get their foot in the door. We are going out to lots of local schools and colleges and speaking to students and getting them to think about what careers might match up with the studios – it may not be what they think are traditional creative roles. We have recently completed a Skills Mapping report with ScreenSkills to lay the foundations on which Barking & Dagenham will build and implement a strategic plan to strengthen the borough’s offer to screen industries, at a time of local – and national – shortage, which is a big piece of work to make sure there is the right ecosystem in place to get people from the local education institutions and trades through the studio doors and creating tangible pathways and opportunities for that to happen.
We have both Coventry University and Barking and Dagenham College whose portfolios do a lot within the arts like makeup, animation and digital aspects as well as things like accountancy, which a lot of the production houses are crying out for. Leadership courses are important too for production management and security, catering, carpentry, electricians all fit very neatly into the film and TV industry. It is about us being able to diversify some of those existing courses and disciplines and moving and encouraging them into film.
Stephen: We have also had a look around the country and met with people such as Fiona Francombe at Bottle Yard Studios who have been developing an education programme which brings the kids from a working class part of Bristol on site to give them invaluable experience and achieve industry related qualifications.
There is also a culture of community support here. When Secret Cinema was doing their Casino Royale immersive experience production here they said that the public consultation had no negatives and local residents were positive. They did a successful community engagement and some fantastic programmes with local kids.
Lisa: They did a two week filmmaking course with 30 local students, some of whom later went into fulltime employment, they were overwhelmed by the creativity and appetite from young people in the borough.
One of the young people part of that was Inam Choudhury. I took him on when Black Widow was filming in the borough. He started off as a Marshall and by day three he was a production assistant and they took him on for the rest of the shoot and he has continued to work in the industry. Those are the gems that we are doing on a micro level, but we can do on a macro level once the studio is in place.
Covid-19 has put the brakes on production, is LBBD open for filming what is the impact of the pandemic on the studio project?
Lisa: We are open and have been taking in loads of enquiries, it has been extraordinarily busy which is really positive. We had the first shoot yesterday which was a photography stills shoot in one of our buildings.
We have some really cool spaces at the moment, that have been used as alternative studio space. There’s a 100,000 sqft foot building available for filming temporarily as well as some existing buildings on the site where the studio will be for temporary hire. There is obviously quite a big backlog of content which needs to get out and we have loads of shoots booked in for the autumn.
LBBD have additional terms and conditions that productions have to sign up to as well as adhering to all of the latest policies that are out. Crews have been fantastic with ensuring temperature checks are done when they arrive for recce, everyone is social distancing and wearing masks. It has moved really quickly and we have been given quite a lot of confidence in terms of policies and what productions are signing up to and we have allowed for filming to happen as a result of that.
Stephen: In terms of Dagenham Studio, a lot of the end users and developers have had to deal with covid-19. We have been liaising with Film London a lot and their response has been all that this is going to do is compound the need for stage space now there is a backlog. Studios need to be built and producers need certainty to know when things will be open and able to operate from. We will be determining with the Council the best delivery route and how we will get them delivered as quickly as possible.
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