In the kind of pacey development not often associated with the events of Middle Earth, just 10 days elapsed between Amazon wrapping filming on the first mega-season of its Lord of the Rings series in New Zealand and its unexpected announcement that it would be decamping to the UK to make the second.
So long, and thanks for all the scenery: “Untitled Amazon Project” is switching hemispheres. Never mind the comprehensive tax sweeteners. It turns out this is something massive job-spinning, economy-investing screen productions can just do.
New Zealand's opposition economic development spokesman Todd McClay said Amazon Studios' exit read "like a comedy". UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden seemed as surprised as everybody else. Elijah Wood, star of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, gave his verdict in the form of a face-palm emoji, which was a lot more succinct, to be fair, than anything that happened in The Return of the King.
One intriguing line was that Amazon’s departure could have been influenced by New Zealand’s strict Covid-era border rules, with an anonymous crew member telling Kiwi news site Stuff that the ongoing requirement for international cast and crew to spend 14 days in a “managed isolation facility” on their arrival was part of the problem.
Amazon Studios, for its part, talked about its "strategy of expanding its production footprint and investing in studio space across the UK". But the idea that border restrictions played a role raises a question about which Covid-era working conditions major international productions like Untitled Amazon Project and its cousins Untitled Netflix Project and Untitled Disney Project would choose, all other considerations equal.
Filming in a country with a hermetically sealed border that reduces workforce flexibility and guarantees extra cost? Or, opting for one with conveniently leaky borders but a much higher risk of Covid making an unwelcome appearance on set?
When production of another Amazon show – young-adult dystopia The Wilds – moved to Queensland in April, Australia's federal arts minister Paul Fletcher hailed "careful management of Covid-19 risks" as one reason why Australia was regarded as an attractive destination for international studios. And yet low Covid rates couldn't have been a critical factor in that one case: just like the Lord of the Rings series, The Wilds had jumped ship from Covid-light New Zealand.
In the UK, despite stringent on-set Covid-safety practices, shows such as Netflix’s Bridgerton and HBO’s Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon have recently had to endure production pauses thanks to everybody’s least favourite 2021 villain, the Delta variant.
But these high-profile shows can absorb the risk of a shutdown or two. Overall, there is little sign of the UK’s Covid rates deterring projects from going into production: quite the opposite. The combination of the streamers’ deep pockets and its government-backed industry insurance scheme has made it a production hotspot, prompting a scramble for key technicians, equipment and studio space.
In Ireland, too, the hedges are also crawling with Untitled Projects (and titled ones). Cameras are rolling up the mountains and down the pier. After the interruptions and delays of 2020, the industry finds itself embroiled in frenzied backlog-clearing and a surge in new production, with Screen Ireland signalling in July that the State is on track to see "potentially record levels" of activity in 2021.
Some 37 Irish and international film, television and animation projects were in production in the Republic in the first half of the year, with shooting locations including (but not limited to) counties Dublin, Wicklow, Cork, Kerry, Clare, Offaly, Galway, Mayo and Donegal. Olivia Colman has been tearing up Kerry; Florence Pugh is busy spreading awareness of Hollywood, Co Wicklow; and Amy Adams has familiarised herself with the magic of the RDS.
Indeed, the sight of Disney erecting turrets in Enniskerry for the Adams-starring fantasy comedy sequel Disenchanted has helped seal the impression that this is a fairy-tale recovery, though like all fairy-tales, there are darker elements to the plot, most of them cost-related.
Nowhere, "bar an operating theatre", is safer than a screen production right now, according to Ed Guiney of Element Pictures. The high standard of Covid protocols add an estimated 13-17 per cent to a budget, swelling expenses at a time when set construction costs are unhelpfully soaring thanks to "shocking" increases in the price of raw materials like wood and steel.
Insurance also remains "a real thing", he says. Some productions, such as Element's RTÉ One comedy drama The Dry, have been able to avail of Screen Ireland's Production Continuation Fund to cover the cost of unexpected shutdowns and restarts, while the big streamers and studios can typically insure their own productions. Other projects, however, fall through a gap, unable to find someone to underwrite the uncertainties of filming during a pandemic.
Then there’s possibly the biggest sign of all that the current level of global demand for screen content is unprecedented: a shortage of skilled crew.
Post-lockdown catch-ups, which were forecast to trigger a labour crunch, are one cause. The race for subscribers is undoubtedly another. In their push to outshine the competition, streamers are releasing money for projects faster than the industry can train people up to work on them. As far as new studio construction goes, meanwhile, the mantra has moved on from “if we build it, they will come” to “they’re coming, quick, we better build it”.
Last week's sale of Ardmore and Troy Studios to an experienced American consortium – Hackman Capital Partners, its studio operator affiliate MBS Group and investment house Square Mile Capital Partners – suggests that some very serious business interests believe this production boom will last a long time. It should outlast the pandemic. It could even prove longer than Lord of the Rings.
Already this is a story with winners and losers, as New Zealand has discovered to its embarrassment. Somehow it’s hard to escape the feeling that its truncated Middle Earth saga won’t be the last face-palm we see before the streaming wars are out.