From Harry Potter to Jack Bauer, London rises as film studio hub

Film production in the United Kingdom soared 35 percent to almost 1.5 billion pounds ($2.3 billion) during 2014 as tax breaks lured stars from Tom Cruise to Scarlett Johansson to the city.

London alone accounted for 1 billion pounds of production spending, eclipsing France’s 994 million euros ($1.1 billion), or Italy, where 400 million euros was spent in 2013, the latest figure available.

“We’ve suddenly become this really massive center for global content production,” said Adrian Wootton, chief executive officer of Film London, a nonprofit that promotes the industry in Europe’s biggest city.

Government officials across Europe are competing for investment from the creative industries by offering tax breaks to filmmakers and videogame developers. Seventeen movies with budgets of at least 30 million pounds accounted for 89 percent of British film production spending during the year, according to Film London. Fifty crews are shooting on the streets of the city each day, according to the Greater London Authority.

“The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game,” which both won Oscars, and “Paddington” featured local sights from Buckingham Palace to the Law Society. “Mission Impossible 5” and the latest James Bond feature, “Spectre,” are in the works.

The tax credits “have given us a seat at the table to be able to compete internationally,” said Wootton “We’ve had more large-scale American finance feature film shooting in the U.K. than anywhere in the world outside of North America.”

About three quarters of Britain’s film industry is based in and around London. That portion is growing as the studios in the suburbs expand. The Warner Bros. studio in Leavesden, where the Harry Potter series was shot, along with “Inception” and “The Dark Knight,” built three new soundstages and 100,000 square feet of office space.

At Pinewood Studios, where “Spectre” is being filmed, a 200 million-pound expansion is under way. Conservative Secretary of State Eric Pickles overruled opposition from the local council to approve the project — a move reserved for projects of “national significance.”

While London has always had a film industry — afficionados may recall the Ealing comedies of the 1940s and 1950s with players including Alec Guiness ) the introduction of tax relief by Gordon Brown set the stage for today’s boom.

Now, companies that produce films costing more than 20 million pounds can claim a cash rebate of up to 20 percent. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne plans to increase that to 25 percent and extend relief to high-end television — shows that typically cost more than a million pounds an hour to produce.

Those shows are a growing feature in London as councils become more open to closing roads and hosting stars. Last year, 24’s action hero Jack Bauer — played by Kiefer Sutherland — fought off a fictional drone attack that took in scenes from Wembley Stadium to the London Eye.

“The producers wanted to reboot the franchise with an exotic feel and London became the place that could give them that,” said Iain Smith, chairman of the British Film Commission and a producer on “24: Live Another Day.” “Councils used to just say ‘no forget it,’ now they will listen and understand, so London gets a great showing.”

It’s not just the famous landmarks either. Two purpose- built soundstages serve as standins for a fictional Arctic settlement in crime series “Fortitude” starring Christopher Eccleston, Michael Gambon and Sofie Gråbøl.

Elsewhere in the suburbs, the latest installment of the “Star Wars” saga is coming to fruition, and Hugh Jackman will become Blackbeard in the remake of “Peter Pan.”

For now, the fastest growth is coming from special-effects studios like Double Negative, winner of an Oscar for its work on “Interstellar,” according to Wootton.

“It’s the busiest time for film production here since records began,” said Wootton.

“This is an extraordinary period for the U.K. film industry.”

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