No lights, no camera: UK TV producers face equipment shortage

Film and television industry struggles with surge in demand for high-end shows fuelled by lockdown binge viewing

Britain’s high-end film and television producers are facing a shortage of cameras and other key equipment as the industry struggles to keep up with unprecedented demand for new shows caused by lockdown-induced drama binges.

The public’s seemingly insatiable desire for new content to watch – and a backlog of filming that was delayed because of the pandemic – has led to a chronic lack of trained crew members and the kit they require, with global giants such as Amazon and Netflix able to outbid independent rivals.

“There’s a massive shortage of equipment,” said Guy Heeley, the producer of Stephen Daldry’s forthcoming BBC film Together. “At one point we were looking to bring in our electrical package from eastern Europe because there was not a single lamp or generator in London or anywhere near London.”

The UK’s already booming film and television industry was boosted last year by a government-backed insurance scheme to guarantee against the financial impact of production being shut down by a Covid-19 outbreak – as happened last week on the set of the forthcoming Mission: Impossible film, which is being shot around the country.

This guarantee has turned Britain into a relative haven for companies wanting to shoot material at a time when global streaming companies are also looking to take advantage of the UK’s generous tax credits.

“It’s a perfect storm – you’ve got production that was supposed to happen that’s now finally happening, you’ve got demand skyrocketing, and the UK is a fantastic place to make content,” said Kaye Elliott, the director of high-end television at ScreenSkills, the industry training organisation.

The British film industry relies heavily on freelance employees, who were hit hard when Covid shut down all productions last March. Many people in the industry saw their income collapse as they found they were unable to access government furlough schemes or self-employed support schemes.

However, Heeley said the industry has already rebounded. This, combined with continuing investment in high-end drama series by deep-pocketed streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, has left smaller filmmakers struggling to find any staff for some roles.

“Salaries are shooting up. It’s a workers’ market. If you do find someone that is able to start on a project tomorrow they are able to name their price because they’ve got multiple options.”

Despite billions of pounds being invested in building new film studios across the UK, finding a location to shoot is also a challenge, according to Rory Aitken, a founder partner of production company 42.

“It was busier than it’s ever been before the pandemic, and now it’s twice as busy as that,” he said. “The big issue for most productions and our biggest issue is studio space which is just at an absolute premium.”

Aitken said films were having to delay shooting because they could not secure the crew, studio space and equipment they needed. “This would have been unthinkable just ten years ago.”

Equipment used to shoot high-end films and television, such as expensive cameras, is usually rented by production teams but some crew said there had been shortages at leading supplies.

Jannine van Wyk of the movie equipment rental business ARRI said there was an “unprecedented” demand for resources in the UK film industry, with manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand.

He said the lack of kit and studio space had prompted his company to invest in new technology during the pandemic. “One of these innovations has seen the creation of virtual studios where several scenes can be shot using LED screens behind, above and in front of camera and computer gaming software is used to create locations that the production would have previously just flown to as part of the production.”

Yet while it’s easy to imagine issues caused by a shortage of crew to work on sets, voices across the industry also raised concerns about a desperate shortage of accountants to keep an eye on production budgets and manage wages. The problem has got so severe that Netflix has been forced to set up its own accountancy training scheme to supply behind-the-scenes staff for its UK productions.

Elliott said that making television dramas such as The Crown look truly luscious on-screen involved ever-bigger multimillion-pound budgets – and this required lots of people to keep track of the spending. She implored people working in finance to quit their jobs and retrain in the film industry: “All those salaries and payments for locations have to be sorted. It’s exciting but also full on. Come on over, accountants!”

Contributor

Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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