‘Belfast is becoming the Hollywood of Europe’

Game of Thrones put Northern Ireland on the global TV map. Now a Belfast studio is making a Superman prequel series, and, for local producers, the sky’s the limit

 

A former soft drinks factory in east Belfast may not be the most obvious place to find the grandfather of one of the world’s most enduring superheroes. But what was once the Britvic plant in Castlereagh has proved an ideal backdrop to help bring the story of Seg-El, Superman’s grandfather, to life on the small screen for a new generation of superhero fans.

Northern Ireland, in one shape or another, has become a home from home for the last two years to the Man of Steel’s grandfather, who is the central character in the popular Superman prequel Krypton.

Instead of opting for some of the more typical locations where the show could have been shot – such as Vancouver, which has played host to everyone from Supergirl to the Flash to Arrow – the creators of the show chose the North.

When Krypton, which is produced by Phantom Four in association with Warner Horizon Scripted Television for the Syfy Channel, was commissioned for a second series, the Belfast Harbour Studios officially became Seg-El’s home planet. As the star of the show, Cameron Cuffe, puts it, “Belfast is becoming the Hollywood of Europe”.

Attracting Warner Horizon Television to Northern Ireland to follow in the footsteps of HBO, which produced Game of Thrones – frequently described as the “most successful television series ever made” – has helped reinforce Northern Ireland’s reputation on the screen industry’s global stage.

Krypton was the first tenant at Belfast Harbour Studios. Its success and subsequent inquiries from other potential tenants has encouraged Belfast Harbour to move forward with its ambitions to further develop its studio portfolio.

The company initially invested £20 million in an eight-acre studio site, featuring two sound stages, each covering 32,000sq ft. It is now planning to invest an additional £35 million and is seeking planning permission to extend the site to 20 acres. That would see it developing four new studios, totalling 110,000sq ft.

Joe O’Neill, the chief executive of Belfast Harbour, says the proposed development would create a facility in Northern Ireland that would be on the same scale as Shepperton Studios near Heathrow, which is part of the Pinewood group.

“This is a really exciting investment opportunity for Belfast Harbour,” he says. “With Northern Ireland now well established in the global television and film industry, we have some of the biggest international players currently filming or looking at Northern Ireland.

“We’re getting inquiries from high-end television productions all the time and we’re confident the time is right for this substantial development that we are proposing. We’re extremely lucky because, with Belfast Harbour’s business model – the harbour is still an active port as well as a property developer – we can entirely self-fund this project. We hope, depending on planning approval, that it could be operational by 2021.”

Studio portfolio

He says Belfast Harbour’s ambition is to develop its studio portfolio to become the “leading [UK] regional hub for media production outside of London”.

“What we are doing is creating the perfect setting for big blockbuster movies and more high-end, large-scale TV series to be produced at the complex,” O’Neill says.

According to Richard Williams, chief executive of NI Screen, the national screen agency for Northern Ireland, there is “massive global demand” for studio space, and Belfast Harbour’s proposed expansion is more than timely.

“It is easy to see where this growth is coming from, with the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all now producing significant original content,” says Williams. “And there is a huge global appetite for content. Even from a UK and Ireland point of view alone, there are an increasing amount of high-end television projects. In general, industry demand for studio and production space is outstripping what is currently available.

“There is also going to be further pressure in the UK sector following Netflix’s recent decision to create a new production hub at Shepperton Studios that will effectively tie up that space,” he says. “We see a definite trend towards increasing demand for studio space from both old and new players in the industry.”

Northern Ireland could be well placed to benefit. There has been major investment in studio space in the North in recent years – including purpose-built space such as Belfast Harbour Studios and Titanic Studios, which has been the main studio and post-production facility for HBO’s Game of Thrones during all eight seasons.

Based in the Titanic Quarter, which has been developed by Dublin-based Harcourt Developments, Titanic Studios is one of the largest film studios in Europe.

A Game of Thrones prequel is currently shooting at a number of locations across the North, including Titanic Studios, but the facility has also been used in the past by Walden Media for the sci-fi film City of Ember and by Universal Pictures for Your Highness, which starred Natalie Portman.

Not only does it include Harland & Wolff’s former Paint Hall, which has four different square cells each covering an area of 16,000sq ft, it also features two purpose-built sound stages added by Harcourt in 2012. Together, the stages can be used as one large space totalling 42,000sq ft.

NI Screen has also encouraged the imaginative use of sometimes vacant sites, such as the former Britvic facility, which is owned by the Tyrone-headquartered energy group LCC, and disused warehouses and offices as filming and production locations. Many have featured in hit television shows such as BBC’s Line of Duty.

Hard-earned reputation

The screen agency believes more television and film companies will be attracted to locate productions in Northern Ireland because of its hard-earned reputation in the global industry.

“Quite simply, from a market point of view, Game of Thrones put us on the map,” says Williams. “We had 10 years of playing a key role in one of the most significant game-changing TV dramas, and that has driven confidence and investment in the industry here, and it has also created a very strong skills base and supply chain – from construction to production facilities to even film catering.

“There is a real energy here, a real enthusiasm for the screen industry, which has created a lot of momentum. And when you add in very attractive UK tax credits, we believe it is a winning proposition,” says Williams.

The UK currently offers film tax relief at 25 per cent of qualifying film production expenditure, and high-end television tax relief on qualifying UK core production.

NI Screen also offers attractive production funding packages in the form of both recoupable loans or, in some circumstances, a grant. Up to £800,000 is available for feature film and television production funding, but the agency is keen to stress that it only backs productions that can “show a direct economic benefit” to the North.

Five years ago, the agency launched an ambitious strategy called Opening Doors, which was designed to grow the screen industry to a position where it would “stand second only to London”. Latest figures show that, in the four years to 2018, the screen industry contributed £270 million to the North’s economy. That’s £20 million ahead of an initial target of £250 million. Now the agency is hoping to grow the screen industry’s economic performance to a minimum of £300 million between 2018 and 2022.

Return on investment

Landing another project like Game of Thrones would made this a much easier task. The HBO hit series alone directly injected £251 million into the North’s economy, from its pilot episode in 2010 to season 8 in 2018.

For its part, NI Screen supported the series with £15.95 million in production funding. It’s not a bad return on investment by any standards.

HBO may have already brought the prequel to Game of Thrones back to the North, but it is no secret that NI Screen would like to encourage the network to locate more of its new productions in Northern Ireland.

“We have a 10-year relationship with HBO,” says Williams. “Game of Thrones has just received 32 Emmy nominations – the highest number of nominations ever earned in a single season by a drama series – and Northern Ireland has played a part in that. We would like to continue to develop that relationship with HBO.”

But the screen agency could also find itself caught up in the short term in a new drama in which no one can predict an ending – the impact Brexit may have on the entire UK visual sector. The agency has encouraged all-island co-productions and co-funding between media companies and television organisations. That, in turn, has delivered award-winning television series such as The Fall, a co-production between BBC and RTÉ.

According to Williams, the “depressed pound” may have brought some initial benefits to the sector, but there are strong concerns about how Brexit could impact on the industry.

“Like everyone else, we just have to wait and see what Brexit will mean for us,” he says.

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