Bristol has cemented its place as the UK’s third largest hub of film and television production after London and Manchester.
Figures from the Bristol Film Office show that film and TV production in the city contributed £18.3 million to Bristol’s economy over the last financial year, up 11 percent from £16.6m in 2014–15.
Film permits were issued for 484 productions in the city, a 31 percent increase compared to the previous year, and the number of filming days also increased 83 percent on last year for a total of 1,050. Much of this was down to hit dramas like Broadchurch (ITV), Poldark (BBC) and Doctor Who (BBC) returning to be filmed in the city.
So what is it about Bristol?
There’s the harbourside, green spaces and period architecture. There are experienced, efficient and friendly crews who make it a great place to work. There’s its proximity to London. And there are facilities like the Bottle Yard Studios with its eight stages, green screen and onsite business community that help Bristol cater comprehensively for producers’ needs.
“Bristol always had an impressive track record with drama, but perhaps hasn’t shouted about it,” says Fiona Francombe, the studios director. “Productions don’t come for one thing, like the studios or the locations or the crew. They come because Bristol has the amalgamation of all those things.”
Things weren’t looking so rosy when Casualty went to Cardiff after being filmed for a quarter of a century in Bristol. The behemoth, which was in production for 48 weeks of the year, took £22m out of the local economy when it left. But its departure fuelled the council’s decision to set up the Bottle Yard Studios in 2010.
“It’s easy to say with hindsight but I think Casualty going was the kick that Bristol needed,” comments Francombe. “Out of that seeming crisis has come the Bottle Yard and all this amazing work that perhaps Bristol couldn’t have accommodated if Casualty was still in full production.”
UWE research shows the city’s vibrant production scene now comprises of BBC Bristol and 131 private companies which provides employment to an estimated 3,700 people across BBC Bristol (1,000), independent companies (1,200) and freelancers (1,500). Much of its revenue comes from the overseas sales of nature programmes, mainly to Europe and US.
The city’s six key specialisms span animation, factual, post-production, corporate, facilities, and natural history, and according to the BBC, Bristol makes a whopping 40 percent of the world’s total TV and film input for wildlife films.
But it’s widely regarded that for Bristol to keep punching above its weight, it must address the lack of feature filmmaking (aside from Aardman’s animated features) and of a regional drama production company.
“We suffer from is not having an indigenous regional drama production company,” says Francombe. “Manchester has Red who are incredibly prolific and ensure work stays in the city. The blocker is that Wales has seen such a rise in drama production recently that everyone looks past Bristol.”
According to the UWE study, a further issue is that production graduates are not ‘work-ready’, a concern echoed by Paul Appleby, director of Bristol Media. In an article on OpenDemocracy, he wrote that “students and advisors lack awareness of the careers available within the industry,” something Francombe agrees with.
“Universities need to make sure their courses are relevant. I think students are promised something that perhaps isn’t always deliverable,” she says, noting she often receives CVs from 21 year olds saying they are producers. “There is some sort of disconnect there in terms of the expectations of jobs that students can walk into.”
The barrier of entry may be high, but Francombe can list department after department affected by skills gaps. For those with transferable skills, from builders and electricians to make-up artists and accountants, the choice is simply between working in an office or on a film set.
“There is a demand for all sorts of people in the industry. But a lot of it comes down to the regularity of work, and whether you want a nine-to-five or something a bit more exciting.”