Regions Become Rising Stars in Film World

1 February 2011


When BBC television viewers watch United later this year, a drama about the death of eight “Busby Babes” in the 1958 Munich air crash, they will be unaware of one key player in the filming – innovative finance.


The drama about Manchester United, starring David Tennant, who formerly played the lead role in the Doctor Who sci-fi series, is one of numerous television and cinema productions filmed in north-east England during the past 18 months.


While the area’s beautiful scenery and characterful urban locations have enduring appeal, there are strong financial reasons for the region’s burst of film-making.


As in every English region, its screen industry faces big challenges due to shrinking public-sector funding and loss of regional development agency support. But the area has been boosted by its £2.4m North East Creative Content Fund, the UK’s first public-private investment partnership in the creative industries outside London.


The role of venture capital in the region’s film-making success was highlighted on Wednesday at The Production Show, a leading film and television production sector event in London.


The fund, launched last February by Northstar Ventures, a Newcastle-based venture capital company, with the involvement of Northern Film & Media, the region’s publicly funded screen agency, has invested £1.2m in eight projects.


Together with an earlier £1m pilot project, this has helped trigger the region’s wave of filming, which includes Inspector George Gently, a television detective series, and “indie” films such as One Night in Turin, the best-selling cinema documentary in 2010.


There are more to come, from mainstream TV series and indie films to Geordie Shore, a TV show modelled on MTV’s US hit Jersey Shore, and, possibly, scenes in the next James Bond movie, for which locations are being assessed.


The fund, backed by the European Regional Development Fund, expects to invest in 18 projects in film, television, digital media, games and music. A similar venture capital fund has recently been set up in the north-west.


The north-east fund’s latest deal is a £250,000 investment in the Masher web application. Originally developed by BBC Motion Gallery, the video archive unit of BBC Worldwide, Masher enables users to create a video within seconds by “mashing” together different types of digital content.


The company, also backed by £300,000 from outside the region, is setting up a Gateshead base due to the fund’s investment.


Other fund investments include £150,000 for World Productions, to support the filming of United in the region.


The fund managers’ approach is explicitly commercial. “The question we ask an entrepreneur is: how is it going to make a return on our investment?” says Marion Bernard, Northstar Ventures’ chief executive.


Tom Harvey, NFM’s chief executive, applauds this stance. He has just issued a report, “Why grants don’t work to build growth in the creative industries”.


England’s nine regional screen agencies are facing dwindling public funding and uncertainty; regional development agencies, which supported them, are being wound up and the UK Film Council abolished in favour of a new structure under Creative England.


But, Mr Harvey argues that grant aid for regionally based creative companies has, too often, been for “carrying on” at regional level rather than for focusing, with an explicitly commercial approach, on building networks and contact with the “critical mass” of London, and globally.


Regionally based screen companies face the constant difficulty that London is the UK focus of much of the commissioning activity vital for a continuous stream of work. Without this, business survival can be hand-to-mouth.


The London-centric nature of the business means heavy outlay in travel costs and time, says Judith Holder, of Newcastle-based Northern Upstarts, who is well-known for programmes including Grumpy Old Women. “There’s so little freelance work in the area; we’re all waiting for commissions.”


But, Mr Harvey argues in his report: “New digital technologies, with their weightless distribution, decreasing production costs and growing ability to be distributed direct to homes all over the world, offer regions like the north-east the best chance of growth since the industrial revolution.”