The UK’s £6bn film and TV production boom faces being derailed as an acute skills shortage – from set decorators and special effects experts to accountants – causes delays to shooting schedules and drives up the cost of productions for the big and small screen.
The streaming wars have fuelled an unprecedented boom in demand for content in the battle to attract new subscribers and viewers, with a record £5.6bn spent making blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible 7, big-budget dramas including Bridgerton and reality shows such as MasterChef in the UK last year.
The huge increase in spending – double the figure for pandemic-hit 2020 and £1.3bn more than in 2019 – has put pressure on the deep-pocketed Hollywood studios and streaming giants to fight for studio space to make sure the production pipeline continues to flow freely.
Last week, Amazon’s Prime Video struck a record-breaking deal to lease space at Shepperton Studios, home to productions ranging from Alien to Mary Poppins, in the company’s first long-term commitment to making TV programmes and films in the UK.
The streaming giant joins Disney and Netflix, which already have deals in place with Pinewood, home to the James Bond and Star Wars franchises, and Shepperton, as the race for space continues.
However, behind the scenes of the British production boom a crisis is looming: sources suggest that a shortage of as many as 40,000 workers will have arisen by 2025 – with shooting schedules already affected.
“We are absolutely back and flying,” said Paul Golding, the chief executive of Pinewood Studios, which is also the owner of Shepperton Studios. “I have not in my time seen the studios being used as intensively as they are currently. However, the biggest challenge the industry is facing is crew. Building infrastructure, studio space – that can be done relatively quickly when it is needed. But crew, that is much, much harder. We have been talking about this for a long time.”
The British Film Institute (BFI) is in the process of assessing the scale of the skills shortage, at the behest of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and sources say its report will detail an industry facing a crisis when it is published in April.
The skills shortage is not just creating delays to some shooting schedules, it is also fuelling wage inflation as productions fight to secure in-demand crew.
ScreenSkills, the body that represents workers in the UK film and TV industry, says there is a particular shortage in the “squeezed middle” of experienced crew.
“The really pressing problems are at the experienced mid-level, and that is our big focus in the coming year because shortages there are hitting production schedules, causing delays and creating wage inflation,” said Seetha Kumar, chief executive at ScreenSkills.
“All the research we do, and the regular feedback from industry who sit on our skills councils and working groups, [tells] of skills gaps and shortages across the board – from production coordinators and managers to editors, script supervisors and accountants.”
There is rising concern that the skills shortage could have an impact on the quality of British-made productions. ScreenSkills’ research has found that crew are being promoted to meet demand before they are ready to handle a more senior role.
There is also the growing practice of what is termed “show-jumping”, where crew that are in particularly hot demand leave a production before it is finished because of the offer of better-paid work.
For now, the growing skills shortage has not led the UK to lose out to other countries as a location for making Hollywood blockbusters and crown-jewel content for the streaming giants. Amazon is due to start shooting the second series of its $1bn-plus small-screen adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings in the UK in the coming months. Amazon made the surprise decision to move filming from New Zealand, the home of all previous Lord of the Rings and Hobbit productions, to the UK last August.
“It is great that the UK continues to be seen as a great place to make film and television and that there has been such growth, not just in production spend but in the scale and ambition of what is being made,” said Kumar. “But skills shortages are the biggest risk to continued growth and we think there is an urgent need for an injection of funding. There is no quick fix to this.”