New studios too small for 'blockbuster' movies, say film-makers

A last chance to build a big film studio in Britain capable of shooting Hollywood blockbusters is being squandered, say film-makers.

Developers have begun work on transforming a site at Leavesden, Hertfordshire, where the Harry Potter movies are made, into a multi-million pound media business park.

The Cine Guilds of Great Britain, which represents film workers from editors to stunt performers, fears that new film studios there will have too little space in a complex shared with a range of media businesses.

They believe Britain needs far bigger studios to compete with rival facilities being built in Romania and South Africa.

Film-makers are particularly concerned because they believe Leavesden to be the best remaining site near London for a major studio.

It has a total of 300 acres of green space with a horizon clear of other buildings. It is ideally situated to attract foreign film-makers because it is near the international airports.

The Cine Guilds also see it as an ideal venue for trainingwould-be film-makers and for media studies tutors, who they claim have too little contact with hands-on film-making at present.

But Joe Dunton, chairman of the Cine Guilds, said he feared that it was the office space, not the film potential, that was driving the Leavesden development. "This is probably the last chance available to build a new studio with that sort of space - with the capacity for major international productions like the Harry Potter films, Batman and Band of Brothers - within easy reach of London," he said.

"There are plenty of places where television can be made because television requires smaller studios by and large.

"But we do need to be able to take major films. Other countries, such as Romania, Spain and South Africa, are building large-scale purpose-built studios and they are cheaper to work in and for accommodation, although their technicians don't yet have our expertise.

"As an industry, we need this facility to be able to compete in the coming decades."

But not everyone in the movie industry agrees. One senior figure, who did not want to be named, said there were good reasons why there had been no major studio developments in Europe since the Second World War: they were expensive and demand for them varied, he said. It was inevitable that studios would be built only as part of a commercial enterprise. "It's the price of doing the development."

He added: "This has been a very sizeable year of production activity in Britain but we haven't had to turn anything down. I'm not convinced we need lots and lots more studio space. There has been substantial investment at Pinewood and Shepperton [film studios]."

The developers, MEPC, hope to capitalise on the Leavesden name which has been associated with movies since the James Bond team took over a former Rolls Royce aerodrome and its large sheds to film Goldeneye on the site in the mid-1990s. The Phantom Menace, Sleepy Hollow and the Harry Potter films followed.

A spokeswoman for MEPC, which bought 99 acres on the site in 1999 and is developing it over 10 years, said the film studios would cover about 200,000 square feet with a further 100,000 square feet for amenities.

A typical-sized film stage in Britain is 20-25,000 square feet. Pinewood and Shepperton have 36 stages and backlots. The spokeswoman said that with other facilities such as the Elstree film and television studios nearby, it was hoped to create a "Soho North" - a hub of film industry creatives in the Leavesden area like the cluster of creative talent in Soho in central London. The aim was to attract television work and medium-sized film production, she said, but that might be expanded "if suddenly the market booms".

The Warner Brothers team making the Harry Potter films on a nearby site at Leavesden, are due to start work on 4 May and will continue filming on their part of the site until September 2005.

There are hopes that Warner Brothers or other film-makers will use the site after that. The MEPC spokeswoman said that the company would be "delighted" if Warner Brothers stayed as neighbours.