This article was origainlly published by the Estates Gazette
A few weeks ago, members of Wokingham Borough Council’s planning committee green lit a planning permission for a major film studio complex to be constructed by Shinfield Studios at University of Reading’s Thames Valley Science Park. The moment marked a significant step towards the creation of a new “cine valley” in the Thames Valley region and the realisation of Reading’s dream of someday rivalling Hollywood.
With this exciting news comes a likely ground swell of occupier interest as well as curiosity as to which star names might first set foot on to the sound stages. Having advised international investor Commonwealth Asset Management on this transaction, however, it has become clear that there is more to Shinfield Studios than just sound stages and stars; at its heart, the deal is the creation of a place in Reading and in UK film. The current buzzword in many sectors, successful “placemaking” is likely to be a key component in the success of this project.
Beyond the bright lights
Despite the intrigue over which blockbusters Reading could be home to, Shinfield Studios presents so much more than a place for cameras. In addition to the sound stages to be built, it will host: considerable workshop space for the creation of bespoke costumes and props; a post-production hub, including a cinema; and substantial office buildings. In total, it should deliver a combined studio, office and workshop footprint of over 900,000 sq. ft to market.
Beyond the workspaces, and the attendant myriad opportunities for the creative industries, there will also be a substantial boost for retail and hospitality. After all, DiCaprio and his following will need to find morning coffee, well-earned rest and all the trappings of modern life somewhere.
Locations like Hollywood have long retained their spot at the top because of their surrounding infrastructure that accommodates rolling film populations. They have the capacity to both lodge and support entire casts and crews – from junior runners to the big names in lights.
This placemaking mentality features heavily in the thinking of Shinfield Studios, and it is a key component of the scheme’s wider narrative. The realisation of such retail, hospitality and workspace opportunities will incentivise production companies to fly in, de-camp and take a production from inception to silver screen, rather than just coming in to shoot a scene or two. By incorporating these amenities, the developers are seeking to deliver more than a simple film studio and to create a sustainable film hub.
Not only does this approach ensure that the UK is in the running for the location of choice, it also yields great returns for the local economy. Some forecasts show that non-film opportunities will outsize the actual studio space at the site and it is projected that the scheme will provide a considerable boost for local employment.
Detail is in the deal
Indeed, the importance of the synergy between the film studios and the local community has been in evidence from the start of the project. Given its depth and breadth, the realisation of the vision of the founders of Shinfield Studios was (and needed to be) down to a meeting of minds, and several diverse minds at that. Negotiations for the site were concluded at the end of 2020 and brought together a major land-owning educational institution with a massive footprint in the local area and a global investor with expertise in film studio development in a complex, multi-party structure. The long lease deal was crafted to foster a long-term relationship between the University of Reading and the studio developers, inviting further opportunity for complimentary businesses and infrastructure to accommodate the student and film population. At its core, the transaction was about placemaking.
Happily, the complexity seems to have been well worth it and the vision is fast becoming a reality. The grant of temporary planning permission in March was a crucial first step, and the subsequent erection of the first phase of the project on the southern section of the campus has excited considerable interest. Now the parties are looking towards the main scheme, which is anticipated to generate £500 million of inward investment for the UK; together with other similar projects, the success of Shinfield Studios could lay the groundwork for new tax regimes in British film, as well as associated industries, as the UK creative sector picks up post Brexit.
Place marries film
It seems clear that Shinfield Studios has the potential to do great things for UK film. What is perhaps the real blockbuster revelation, though, is that Shinfield Studios helps to illustrate that UK film can, and indeed must, do more than just create places to film; it must construct places to live, work and breathe film. Although the complexities inherent in the transaction have presented certain challenges, Shinfield Studios has proven that carefully constructed multi-party deals can go a long way in creating industry-specific, creative hubs.
In the light of the pre-eminence of many aspects of the UK film industry and the UK’s increasing appeal for global production companies and the big streamers, the reported c.1.8million sq. ft film studio space deficit means that more projects like Shinfield Studios are required. Studio deals are hard to achieve, requiring large areas of land in prime locations, highly specialist expertise and significant up-front investment. In the UK’s race to keep pace with Hollywood, and possibly overtake it, perhaps its secret weapon is its ability to unite place and film.
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© Farrer & Co LLP, January 2022