The plight of Midlands’ film industry

John West writes more on the failure of Birmingham’s burghers to capitalise on the potential of a Midlands film industry.

One of the few buildings in the Birmingham area that would be big enough for use as a ready-made film studio, the historic Flight Shed at Longbridge, is now being demolished.

Longbridge Flight Shed

Longbridge Flight Shed

The reasons this is happening are;

  • English Heritage is hopelessly out of touch with reality and prefers to “list” buildings in London and neglect the rest of the country. (They “listed” the mediocre Duchess Theatre in London – despite warnings that it could damage its commercial viability – but failed to protect the arguably much better Dudley Hippodrome)
  • Screen WM (the now-defunct screen organisation that has been managing the decline in local film and TV) failed to realise the Flight Shed’s film potential
  • Birmingham City Council failed to take advice from film professionals and gave permission to demolish six months after members of the Council’s Planning Department had been told about its potential
  • St. Modwen had not been informed of its film-making potential and started to plan demolition to avoid paying rates

In short; the people who should have been protecting and investing in our industrial past and the future prosperity of the region never got their act together.

Longbridge Flight Shed

Longbridge Flight Shed

It appears that Birmingham City Council’s Planning Department were under the impression that you could have a film industry based in small rooms in Digbeth.

Were they unaware that film studios are often converted aircraft hangers and that most film studios are about 50 x 30 meters with a height of 14 meters; most TV studios are 23 x 30 meters with a minimum height of 10 meters?

Nothing in the Custard Factory, or similar premises, is that big and most is about the size of retail units. At least four sound stages plus workshops, stores, offices and dressing rooms are needed for efficient filming.

Staff from Screen WM took some producers to the National Exhibition Centre and unhelpfully suggested that the halls (full of pillars) could be used as film studios; despite the cost of hiring the spaces and temporarily converting them being much greater than hiring purpose-built facilities at Pinewood or Shepperton!

There were assertions that Creative England was to keep a base in Birmingham but apparently plan to leave when the lease on their Regent Place premises (formerly used by Screen WM) comes to an end.

It seems to me that all the screen agencies have done more harm than good because:-

  • The big TV productions have left the region.
  • The smaller “factual” programmes are now going, assuming the BBC’s plans are completed.
  • Neither the BBC nor the ITV companies now commission local productions in the Midlands – despite the local citizens paying their share of the costs of national television.
  • Those productions that are made here are small-scale and do not generate employment on the scale the region needs.

If local businesses and politicians talked to the Producers Forum they would be told what was really required.

Bringing in production companies with their cronies from London, as Screen WM used to, provides few local jobs, thus most of any production grants was spent in London.

Making shoe-string productions with volunteer cast and crew is unlikely to produce anything like a major commercial hit. It is like comparing the Royal Shakespeare Company with an amateur dramatic society; both do good work in their own spheres but they are not the same thing and do not produce equal benefits.

It costs $30m to promote and distribute a film world-wide, so spending anything less than this on making the film is considered to be “low budget”. Having three or four films with this sort of budget filmed in the Midlands every year would bring much work, would stimulate the economy and bring prestige to the region. The present uncoordinated structure does the region and its industries no good at all.”

In order to procure good commercial film industry work in the Midlands there needs to be local enterprise partnerships, local film people and politicians all working together. This is how Salford Quays came to be created in Greater Manchester. Birmingham needs the same amount of investment, work and publicity. Birmingham needs champions who will drive plans forward.