Hollywood big shots return to British studios: Pinewood and Shepperton end years of decline

FOR THE first time in years, Britain's two major surviving film studios - Pinewood and Shepperton - are busy making a succession of feature films for Hollywood companies with some of the world's most successful stars.

Shooting has just begun on Mary Reilly, starring Julia Roberts, at Pinewood. Next month, filming will get under way on Judge Dredd, with Sylvester Stallone, at Shepperton.

Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein, with Robert DeNiro and Helena Bonham Carter in the cast, is in post-production at Shepperton, and First Knight, starring Sean Connery and Richard Gere, is in pre-production at Pinewood.

Only a few years ago Pinewood and Shepperton found it very hard to compete with other European studios and persuade American companies to film in Britain. With an exchange rate of dollars 2 to the pound, Britain had become too expensive.

The decline in the number of Hollywood films being made here was also hastened by the removal in 1985 of 100 per cent capital allowances for production companies filming in the UK and the end of the levy on cinema takings which used to help fund British films. There were fears that top British directors and designers were being lost to Hollywood and that cameramen and technicians were leaving the industry.

Now the Americans are back, and there are hopes that they are here to stay.

Denis Carrigan, managing director of Shepperton Studios, believes big feature films are returning to this country, thanks to the favourable (and stable) pound/dollar exchange rate of dollars 1.50 to the pound - making American films shot in Britain 25 per cent cheaper than in the late Eighties. Costs are also lower here, regardless of the exchange rate, he says.

Steve Jaggs, managing director of Pinewood Studios, says the upturn began last summer. He points out that many of the pictures being shot here - for example, Interview with a Vampire starring Tom Cruise, as well as Mary Reilly and First Knight - are period pieces requiring British or European locations. A third factor, both men say, is the excellence of the creative, technical and special- effects talent in this country.

Oscar Moore, editor of Screen International, says the fact that English is the lingua franca also features in American producers' preference for London. British actors are also fashionable and a valuable asset in cameo and support roles.

Roy Lockett, deputy general secretary of Bectu, the union representing 38,000 technicians, film workers and directors, says that Britain still has one of the 'best, richest, most extensive, comprehensive skills base in Europe, probably in the world' and excellent film-processing laboratories and dubbing suites.

He suggests that damage to studios caused by the recent Los Angeles earthquake may also have reduced the number of films that can be made in Hollywood.

Mr Lockett said: 'There is a revival of some kind, but in a sense there would have to be, wouldn't there? Investment in features last year was only pounds 40m - the lowest figure for many a year for British features.'

Andrew Patrick, chief executive of the British Film Commission, says his organisation - formed to promote Britain as a film-making venue - has played a part in attracting foreign film companies. But he warns that the movie-making revival is still fragile - 'The exchange rate is a fickle beast and can just as easily work against us as for us in the future' - and says the secret of fostering a viable film industry is to offer foreign movie-makers tax incentives like those of France, Germany and Ireland.

He and others also recommend imposing a special levy on the British revenue of major Hollywood studios to set up a production fund to finance future British films.

Earlier this year the British film industry was given a considerable jolt by Mel Gibson's decision to move the pounds 35m medieval epic Braveheart from Shepperton to Ardmore Studios near Dublin to take advantage of Irish tax incentives and the government's offer of 1,600 members of the Irish army as extras.

Mr Moore said: 'We are now most heavily in competition with Ireland. In terms of attracting productions, Ireland is easily winning. Fortunately for us it only has one studio and not a huge crew pool, so there's a point at which Ireland becomes saturated. It is booked up for the next 18 months.'

Since the introduction of Ireland's tax incentives to visiting film-makers a year ago, the total amount spent on shooting feature films there has trebled, from pounds 31.4m to pounds 97.1m. Eleven feature films are being made in the Republic this year.

Many think there is a lesson here for the British government.

Julia Roberts profile, page 17

THEY'RE BACK

AT PINEWOOD:

Mary Reilly (TriStar Pictures) starring Julia Roberts, John Malkovich and Glenn Close. Shooting started last week. It is based on the story of Jekyll and Hyde. Director: Stephen Frears (British). Producer: Norma Heyman (British).

First Knight (Columbia) starring Sean Connery and Richard Gere. The legend of King Arthur. In pre-production. Director: Jerry Zucker (US). Producer: Hunt Lowry (US). Shooting starts at the end of July.

AT SHEPPERTON

Frankenstein (Zoetrope/ TriStar Pictures, American) starring Robert DeNiro, Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter. Producer: Fred Fuchs (US). Director: Kenneth Branagh (UK). In post- production.

Judge Dredd (Cinergi Productions NV), starring Sylvester Stallone. Director: Danny Cannon (British), Producer: Andy Vajna (US). Filming starts at the end of July.

(Photograph omitted)

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