Hot Spots: How Manchester Is Fast Becoming A Magnet For International Productions

Screen Manchester/BBC

As the UK production boom shows no sign of letting up and capacity and crew shortages in and around London continue to trouble producers, Manchester is fast becoming an attractive destination for international film and television crews. The city is, as the crow flies, just 163 miles north of the English capital and its high-end 85,000 square foot Space Studios Manchester, a mere five minutes from the city center, has housed prolific productions ranging from Sony/Marvel’s Jared Leto starrer Morbius to Netflix’s Anatomy Of A Scandal to multiple seasons of BBC gangster drama Peaky Blinders.

While the city has a long history of hosting local films like 28 Days Later or East Is East as well as lauded British television shows ranging from Queer As Folk to Shameless and the iconic longstanding soap Coronation Street, the last few years have seen the city really ramp up its efforts to position itself as a global filming destination.

“What we want to do is make sure we are global reaching,” says Screen Manchester film office manager Bobby Cochrane. “We do 15-20 shows a year in the city, ones that many producers may assume are done in London. But we’ve got the chops and the know-how and we’re on a mission to really push the city forward.”

Back in 2014, a few years after the BBC decided to move the bulk of its operations to Greater Manchester’s MediaCityUK in Salford Quays, the council invested £35M ($42.7M) into transforming the 1970s Fujitsu manufacturing halls in West Gorton, Manchester, to what is now Space Studios. The impressive high-spec site spans across six sound stages ranging from 9,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet and it’s recently been granted planning permission to build two more stages at an additional 20,000 square feet each, taking the space to 105,000 square feet. It’s kitted out with production offices, prop storage and workshop space, the full works.

“We’ve created a bit of a one-stop shop in one space,” says Space Studios studio manager for film and TV Dean Sinacola. “There’s nothing that can’t be hired or used, and it works really well that we are just five minutes from the city center.”

Space Studios Manchester

In the last three years, the city has seen 45 major TV dramas and feature films shoot in the region with an estimated £13.7M ($16.7M) on location spend. Additional projects include Sky’s Cobra, Channel 4’ It’s A Sin, season 4 of The Crown with Netflix, Amazon’s Years And Years, the BBC’s World On Fire as well as, more recently, Sky Studios’ supernatural drama The Rising.

“We deal with everything and anything from vox pops to feature films to TV dramas for things like road closures, police assistance, stops on the highway, special effects, that kind of thing,” says Cochrane, whose offices are located at Space Studios. “Our job is to make everything as seamless as possible – we can really do anything.”

It’s this kind of smooth operation that enables the city to revamp its Northern Quarter region into a modern-day New York for Morbius and then quickly transform the same area into 1940s New York for Sky’s World War 2 drama Das Boot.

“That was a massive test,” recalls Cochrane of the week turnaround. “But that’s the point of the film office.”

Indeed, Hollywood and international productions have long been attracted to the UK for its attractive 25% tax rebate, its locations and its highly skilled crews. While the level of investment in the northern regions of the country has paled in comparison to the investment in the Greater London region and southeast, thanks to Manchester’s long-running history of working on local productions, the crews are there, and they are available.

Screen Manchester

One hot button topic in the past year has been the huge crew shortage across the UK, particularly in and around London. But Manchester crews, says Cochrane, are skilled and available.

“It’s not like that London message where it’s fit to burst and we can’t do anything – rather there are still opportunities for producers to bring content in,” he says.

Space Studios sales director Mark Hackett says a big part of his directive is to increase awareness of the capability of Manchester crews, which include makeup artists and costume designers who have worked with the likes of Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Helena Bonham Carter.

“There are crews here, unlike in the southeast where there is a massive shortfall,” says Hackett. “And that’s going to get harder. We have maybe four or five crews capable across all departments with the only HoD’s being brought in, which is the case across the world. For Amazon, Netflix and Apple we’ve done a deep dive into our crew availability and that’s proved really positive.”

Space Studios managing director Rob Page adds, “Skills don’t diminish as you move up the country – we’ve got a world class crew that are here and ready to work on production that can sustain five or six shows at the same time.”

At present, Screen Manchester and Space Studios are compiling a database to show where gaps lie in the industry and once it’s populated, they’ll reach out to the city’s huge university population to try and proactively skill up its infrastructure.

From top left clockwise, Bobby Cochrane, Dean Sinacola, Mark Hackett, Rob Page Screen Manchester/Space Studios

From a cost perspective, Manchester as a city has always been cheaper than London and the southeast. From a stage perspective, Hackett notes that Space Studios’ rate card runs about a quarter to a third of the cost of a London soundstage.

“On top of that, we are able to offer a specific bespoke rate card to production companies based in the region,” he says. “And that’s just to support the community that we have here. But that isn’t specific and unavailable to other productions. We would always look at things on a case-by-case basis in terms of what a production is offering us in return, how long are they staying with us, that kind of thing.”

To boot, the cosmopolitan city offers up a rich and diverse range of locations that can mimic cities around the world. Manchester’s rich industrial history means it’s a city full of original architecture and period buildings. Oscar-winning title The Darkest Hour, for instance, used Manchester’s Town Hall as a double for the Houses of Parliament. In terms of connectivity, Manchester Airport is an international airport that runs direct flights to and from New York.

“The locations are here, the studios are here, the whole infrastructure is here,” says Cochrane. “So, why aren’t you?”

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