Charge of the LA brigade

Is Britain becoming the new Hollywood? Xan Brooks looks at the soaring number of US films being made here

Monday January 5, 2004

The Guardian

Hollywood is not an address so much as a state of mind, a portable industry. Those silent-screen pioneers settled on California only because it was - back then - the cheapest and most convenient place to shoot their movies. A century on, their descendants are scouting out a new Hollywood for the same reasons. Increasingly, that new Hollywood is turning out to be Britain.

This year looks set to be a bumper year for foreign film production in the UK. According to the Film Council, investment over the previous 12 months has topped £900m, beating the previous annus mirabilis of 2000 (when the likes of Pearl Harbor, Tomb Raider and The Mummy Returns were shot at UK studios). But a boom time for British-based film-making does not necessarily mean a boom time for British film. Many homegrown productions, forced out by the new arrivals, have begun migrating to cheaper locations in eastern Europe. Last year was the first time that the number of international co-productions shot in the UK (43) edged ahead of pureblood British movies (just 42).

There are two reasons for this Hollywood influx. The first is creative, and has to do with the lofty reputation enjoyed both by British film technicians and by such home counties studios as Pinewood, Shepperton and Leavesden (home to the Harry Potter franchise).

But the second is commercial. British crews and facilities traditionally come cheaper than their US counterparts, so shooting in the UK keeps the budget down. Central to this is the government's Section 42 tax relief scheme. Specifically tailored to big-budget productions, it allows investments of more than £15m to be written off over three years and can shave as much as 12% off the cost of a blockbuster. Over the past few years, Section 42 has effectively turned the domestic film industry into a Hollywood tax haven. This accounts for the unprecedented number of major motion pictures playing in a street or studio near you.


Director: Oliver Stone

Budget: $100m

Company: Warner Bros

Oliver Stone's epic biography of Alexander the Great is entering the final stretch of production at Pinewood studios. Irish actor Colin Farrell headlines as the Macedonian warrior, while Angelina Jolie (despite being only one year older than the star) co-stars as his feisty mum, Olympias, and Anthony Hopkins makes an appearance as Ptolemy. Recent weeks have found Farrell based at a suite at the Savoy Hotel in London, with Jolie installed at the nearby Dorchester. Inevitably, this arrangement hasn't stopped the tabloid press from insisting that the pair are embroiled in a torrid Oedipal fling.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Director: Beeban Kidron

Budget: $30m

Companies: Working Title, Miramax, Studio Canal, Universal

The sequel to 2001's first Bridget Jones outing again features Texas-born Renée Zellweger as the skittish London singleton, and reunites her with original suitors Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. Richard Curtis was reportedly drafted in at the 11th hour to rewrite the script, and there are rumours that Helen Fielding's title will be changed to the more snappy, US-friendly Bridget Jones: On the Edge. Filming got underway in November with exterior work in London's Hyde Park, Primrose Hill and Borough Market.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Director: Tim Burton

Budget: $80m

Company: Warner Bros

Pre-production is already underway on Tim Burton's eagerly anticipated adaptation, converting a portion of Pinewood into Roald Dahl's fantastical confectioners (lakes of chocolate, oompa-loompas and all). Principal photography is scheduled to begin imminently. Burton has signed up his longtime leading man Johnny Depp (Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands) for the role of the mercurial factory boss who tests, teases and tantalises a cross-section of greedy young 'uns.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Budget: $130m

Company: Warner Bros

The biggest production of the lot also boasts the most multicultural pedigree. Author JK Rowling is Scottish, the cast mainly British, the director Mexican and the cash American. The third instalment in the Potter franchise is now receiving its final touches at Leavesden studios after shooting across a range of locations from Northumberland to Scotland to Virginia Water to Green Lanes. It hasn't always been plain sailing. In May, the film union BECTU stepped in to settle a pay dispute between the UK technicians and Hollywood executives. Later, the decision to build Hagrid's hut beside a public right of way in Glencoe resulted in a stream of unwelcome visitors. Looters were reported to have vandalised the set and made off with a collection of "plastic rocks and polystyrene pumpkins".

King Arthur

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Budget: $80m

Company: Warner Bros

After shooting in Ireland, Hollywood's Arthurian romp is now in post-production at Pinewood. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, King Arthur balances US financial muscle with a UK cast and crew. Clive Owen stars as the king and Keira Knightley is his Guinevere, while Ioan Gruffud (aka Hornblower) smoulders as Lancelot. But Bruckheimer's quest for historical realism may have tripped him up, leading to his revelation that, "like, Arthur was really Roman and the Knights of the Round Table were actually Russian".


Director: John Madden

Budget: $25m

Company: Miramax

Proof converts last year's London production of the David Auburn stage play into an Oscar-tipped American motion picture. Gwyneth Paltrow reprises her Donmar Warehouse performance as the depressive daughter of a demented maths genius; also from the Donmar is the director, Shakespeare in Love's John Madden. But there are a few changes: Anthony Hopkins is on hand to play Paltrow's father, while the play has received a screen polish from writer Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur). Then there is the fact that it's being shot at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire - mocked up to look like contemporary Chicago.

The Jacket

Director: John Maybury

Budget: $30m

Companies: Mandalay Pictures, Section 8 Productions

Produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh's Section 8, The Jacket stars Oscar-winning Adrien Brody as a Gulf war veteran accused of murder. It starts shooting this month at locations in Glasgow and a former mental hospital in West Lothian, and is predicted to funnel some £6m into the local economy. "There are many spin-offs associated with this film," explains culture minister Frank McAveety. "A large crew recruited in Scotland will be employed for this production. Hotels in shoot locations will feel the benefits, as will local shops and restaurants."

The Phantom of the Opera

Director: Joel Schumacher

Budget: $40m

Companies: Warner Bros (US), Really Useful Films (UK)

No doubt prompted by the Oscar-winning success of Chicago, Andrew Lloyd Webber's excitable 1980s musical is now cutting a dash around the sound stages of Pinewood. Joel Schumacher is in the director's chair, while the supporting cast includes Simon Callow, Miranda Richardson and Minnie Driver. The decision to dump original stage phantom Michael Crawford in favour of 33-year-old Gerard Butler has provoked howls of dismay from the fans, but Schumacher insists that the choice was "Andrew Lloyd Webber's and his alone".