After a brief period out of the limelight, one of British cinema’s most famous film studios is making a comeback. Elstree Studios chief Roger Morris talks to Dan Stephens.
Roger Morris, the forty-year veteran of the film and television industry, became managing director of Elstree Studios in 2008 with a view to putting it back on the map.
Over the last three years he has overseen the return of big budget major film productions to the famous British studios following a period of dominance by the television industry. Recently, X-Men director Bryan Singer has been working on new fantasy film Jack the Giant Killer, while Brad Pitt completed production on post-apocalyptic horror World War Z. Elsewhere, Bill Murray and Laura Linney have made an appearance starring in historical drama Hyde Park on Hudson, and Scarlett Johansson has just finished shooting science-fiction horror Under The Skin.
“I think what The King’s Speech did was put British filmmaking back on the map. Of course, British film has produced some fine work over its century-old history but we tend to make films for other people – namely, the Americans.” – Roger Morris
“We’ve had a record year this year,” acknowledges Roger with relish. “Elstree had dropped off the radar a little bit in the 2000s, I hope we have managed to put it back on the map. Having the right mix of television and film production has aided our record year, as Elstree had drifted more towards television. But we’ve also got around a fifth of our facilities devoted to other film projects like commercials, pop promos, music videos. So we are very busy.”
Elstree Studios has also established a production village where companies specialising in everything from prosthetics, make-up and special-effects to radio microphones, ADR, casting, script services, set building, lighting and post-production are housed.
“We’ve built up a stable of about forty to fifty important clients that live onsite who all support the productions that take place here,” explains Roger.
This emphasis on encouraging major film productions to choose Elstree Studios over rivals such as Pinewood and Warner Bros, has seen British film particularly benefit. Significantly, 2010 saw Elstree host the production of the multi-Academy Award winning film The King’s Speech.
“I think what The King’s Speech did was put British filmmaking back on the map. Of course, British film has produced some fine work over its century-old history but we tend to make films for other people – namely, for the Americans. But there was once a thriving British film industry and while we are great supporters of the concept of working with international clients (we recently worked with Warner Bros on Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes sequel) we actively encourage the production of British films,” says Roger.
Elstree’s chief is acutely aware of the cyclic nature of the film industry. Despite a record year for British filmmaking in 2010 he isn’t about to rest on his laurels. A key component of the success is foreign investment, facilitated through continued tax incentives making film production in the UK attractive to investors. In addition, many saw the demise of the UK Film Council as a backward step but Roger believes there have already been proactive steps taken to resolve the issues.
“The key is if you can’t be one hundred percent dependent on this major influx of money coming in every year then you should ensure you cover some of the other bases. That is why it is important to have a mix of film and television, and I also try to encourage other lower budget productions in as well so that one has a larger spread of clients.”
Currently, for television, Elstree is hosting ITV1’s Dancing On Ice, Channel 5’s Celebrity Big Brother, and will host later in the year the BBC’s The Voice. These programmes fit in alongside a number of other programmes from children’s dramas to entertainment shows. Significantly, just as the legendary film studios have embraced television, the UK Screen Association, once the leading trade body within the television-based post-production profession, has invited the film studios to join its ranks.
Roger is pleased the UK Screen Association has allowed film studios to become members. “It is about having a common voice and I think it is very important,” he says, highlighting the good work carried out by the organisation.
“The UK Screen Association is exercising its muscles about how the education system can better tailor the curriculum to bring the right skills into our industry. It is exercising its voice in terms of fiscal matters, capital expenditure and things like that, while it highlights the importance of the technical industries and how vital to the economy things like video effects can be. So I think it is very effective as a collective.
“There’s not many studios around. There’s only about a dozen and I would include the BBC and ITV in that – so ten independents. Unlike small post-production facilities that might be located in a room in Soho, the studios have huge spaces of land with buildings on the land that need to be kept full. I am very glad the UK Screen Association has embraced bringing studios into the organisation because otherwise I can’t see us all sitting down round a table. It also allows people to better understand the studio business.”
“From Alfred Hitchcock to George Lucas, from Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg there has been an ever-presence of filmmaking talent.”
It is little surprise Elstree Studios is enjoying one of its busiest and most lucrative periods. With strong management made up of industry professionals, first-class facilities and access to a production village housing the cream of British creative, technical and industry talent, it is clear why film and television productions from the UK, continental Europe and the USA are choosing Elstree to house their projects.
Of course, much of the work in running one of British cinema’s most famous studios is maintaining its already great reputation. Dating back to the 1920s when silent films were produced at Elstree, some of the world’s most renowned filmmakers have stepped through its doors over its long and varied history. From Alfred Hitchcock to George Lucas, from Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg there has been an ever-presence of filmmaking talent. Films such as Star Wars, The Shining, Indiana Jones, The Dam Busters, Moby Dick, Monty Python, and James Bond’s Never Say Never Again highlight an illustrious past. But that reputation remains with recent films such as The King’s Speech, Kick-Ass and Harry Brown highlighting the studio’s long-term commitment to quality and ongoing ability to attract encourage and develop the biggest and best films of the modern era.
Written by Dan Stephens