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Why the UK? Interview with Adrian Wootton OBE

Posted on Oct 8, 2021 by Alex Fice

We talk to British film commissioner Adrian Wootton OBE, to find out why international production companies are capitalising in the UK – and explore the impact it is having on the country’s infrastructure

Interview Chelsea Fearnley

Production in the UK is thriving, and it’s having a big impression on infrastructure, with new studios cropping up every day. Why is this?

ADRIAN WOOTTON: The demand for making film and TV in the UK has gone through the roof. It’s having a huge impact on infrastructure, because the only way we can continue to welcome it is by building more studios and providing more skills. What we’re seeing is the result of two things. First, it’s the work that the UK film and TV industry – in partnership with the government – have been doing to create the conditions that make the UK so attractive for international production. And this coincides with a boom in content – which shows no signs of abating. With the battle of the streamers and, quite frankly, the world’s eyeballs wanting more programming, it’s only the beginning.

What has the UK done to make the country so attractive to international production companies?

AW: We put together a critical package that has meant we’ve been able to take advantage of this demand. At its heart was getting the government to understand that there was an opportunity for billions of pounds of revenue to come into the UK, and to create and sustain thousands upon thousands of jobs. And we won the financial argument. It was never the glamour; it was always about hard economic facts and being able to show the government how the UK would benefit. The tax relief that the government has given to the country’s film and TV industry has gifted us a seat at the table.

Lots of other nations want the economic benefits of production, but unless you have a fiscal incentive to prompt the companies to choose you over other territories, then you’re not going to reap the rewards. The UK has an effective and intelligible process – one that isn’t like other regions, where the tax relief is capped at a certain level, is reviewed by state legislators every six months, or only has a certain amount of money given to it each year. There’s usually a whole bunch of restrictions, and no matter how much other countries rave about their tax relief, the UK has proved time and time again that its system works for the industry.

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It was never the glamour; it was always about hard economic facts

How does the tax relief affect taxpayers in the UK?

AW: The fact is, production can claim up to 25% of their expenditure on qualifying budgets, and for every pound that is spent by the exchequer, the UK gets £8 back from the production company. So, it’s almost not costing us anything. For everything we spend, we get it back – that’s why the investment levels are in the billions. In 2019, we saw a record-breaking £4bn spent on production, as high-end TV drove growth. Even last year, when production stopped for four months while we put health and safety procedures in place, we still achieved one of the highest levels of output on record in the last quarter. Now, we’re back up to levels beyond 2019.

The UK tax relief has been a crucial component in inward investment. It’s transparent, tough, and very fraud proof. It doesn’t involve a lot of middlemen: companies just have to pass a cultural test saying that they will use British talent, British stories and British locations.

Adrian Wootton OBE
Adrian Wootton OBE

Are these incentives muscling out British production companies?

AW: Without the tax relief, which was introduced in 2007, nothing would get made in the UK. Every film – independent or domestic – is supported through this incentive. And then when we introduced the high-end TV tax relief in 2013. That really supercharged things, because it supported the broadcasters, the international TV and satellite channels, and now the streamers. But I wouldn’t say this muscles out British production companies. There’s more production going on in the UK than there ever has been – and that benefits everybody.

TV production is not just based in London, it’s all over the country: in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; it’s in Yorkshire, Manchester and Bristol. It’s driving our industry forward in such a way that we’re going to need an extra 20-30,000 people coming in over the next five years. How many other industries can say that?

This sounds great, but how do we avoid being complacent?

AW: We did a series of confidential surveys with private investors, that essentially asked: if skills and studio shortages weren’t a problem, how much money would you want to spend and bring into the UK economy? They told us that if we provided the space and crew, they would double their spending in the next five years. And it’s not just investment from our industry, either; it’s from landowners, private developers, and international investors who wouldn’t have thought about film and TV previously, because it was a risky business. Now, with the rise of streamers and high-end TV, there’s longevity to productions. Take Game of Thrones, for example, that occupied space in Belfast for nearly ten years. Investors in studios there got revenue from that production the whole time. It’s big business… bigger than the oil and gas industry combined – which is extraordinary.

At the same time, and this is hugely important, we must ensure that people are getting trained. It’s also crucial to us that we’re encouraging more young and diverse communities to get involved. There are fantastic initiatives all across the country. Film London run an equal access network that’s currently got 2500 young people engaged, and it’s placing between 40 and 50 individuals on productions every month.

There’s a lot of work going on which isn’t just in infrastructure. When you build a new studio, you’re creating thousands of new jobs. And there’s a massive effort going on all around the UK – from the BFI, Film London and ScreenSkills – to train new talent. Basically, we are going to need thousands and thousands of people coming into these positions.

To continue reading this interview, head over to our October issue of Definition magazine.

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