TCT Film: Screen Yorkshire
BY Daniel Chapman
On the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, Oakworth Station has been a destination for film fans for over forty years; Jenny Agutter and co waving their bright red petticoats to save a train from disaster at the end of The Railway Children is a classic cinema, and Yorkshire, moment.
Today, it’s Screen Yorkshire that makes sure places like Oakworth Station aren’t only relics of cinema’s past, but a part of the film industry’s future.
“The Great Train Robbery was one of the biggest productions at Oakworth since the days of films like The Railway Children and Yanks,” said Sally Joynson, Screen Yorkshire’s chief executive. “The railway’s filming liaison manager told me about the sheer number of cast and crew they’d had on location there – most of them staying locally, being fed and watered locally – it had obviously had a big impact on the local economy and given everyone a real lift.
“That kind of feedback is often far more satisfying than premieres or big city screenings − seeing the local impact of our work, hearing the stories”.
Screen Yorkshire has been bringing film production to the region since 2002, originally as one of nine regional screen agencies responsible for distributing funds on behalf of the UK Film Council, and then with support from Regional Development Agency Yorkshire Forward, supporting the wider TV, games and digital industries to help foster growth. The production credits from Screen Yorkshire’s first decade show the scale and quality of the films it helped to make: The Damned United, starring Colm Meaney and Michael Sheen as Don Revie and Brian Clough, wasn’t just about Leeds United, but used Leeds as a location throughout; as did another David Peace adaptation, Red Riding; Brideshead Revisited and Wuthering Heights updated classic tales for new audiences; and Shane Meadows’ This is England was one of several films that showed the cutting edge of Warp Films of Sheffield.
Add crew and location support on big budget productions like The King’s Speech, which featured integral crowd scenes filmed at Elland Road, and Screen Yorkshire was not just an artistic success story for the region, but an economic success. In 2009, Yorkshire was the second largest region outside London for media industry employment, with Screen Yorkshire responsible for creating 900 jobs and £82.9m of investment.
“When these productions shoot, they generate a considerable amount of spend in the region,” said Sally. “We’re talking millions of pounds here; it’s very big business, and that’s why it is such a competitive business globally. People recognise the value of having production set in their region. There are benefits for the workforce, the supply chain, for trainees, as well as for the profile of the region and tourism associated with particular projects; there are massive economic benefits to having a strong media production sector in the region and they can last for decades.”
Those economic and artistic arguments, however, weren’t enough to protect Screen Yorkshire when government funding cuts began to make themselves felt in 2010. The closure of Yorkshire Forward removed a major source of funding, while other projects and funding sources ended or changed, and the landscape for regional screen agencies changed after the formation of Creative England in 2011.
“It was an incredibly challenging time,” said Sally. “There was a period when Screen Yorkshire’s existence and its future role and remit were very uncertain. We lost 20 of our 26 staff, and that was hard. Leading the organisation through that was at times extremely difficult, though we were obviously not the only business facing these kinds of challenges. It was a tough time but we were able to turn ourselves around and survive. We have been very lucky – but we worked extremely hard over an intense period to make it happen.”
One of the challenges Screen Yorkshire faced as a company, and Sally as chief executive, was that their work was far from done; and while the passion remained, the means and the focus had to be refound.
A change of direction for Screen Yorkshire had already been part of the agency’s thinking. “We were beginning to feel instinctively that Screen Yorkshire was ready to take the next step. We were ready for at least a degree of change, and we’d been exploring options and new models as far back as 2009. Despite the challenges, the enforced changes that came our way did catapult us into the next phase. For the first time in our history we were entirely responsible for our destiny, we could make our own decisions about which route to follow, and in many ways that turned out to be very liberating.
“It was quite disorientating at first, but it wasn’t long before we understood the advantages. We still manage public funds but we invest in a very different way, and operate in a very different way, without any public subsidy towards overheads. We work with new partners and that is stimulating and challenging and keeps us on our toes.”
Screen Yorkshire’s new primary function is a financier, responsible for matching £7.5m from the European Regional Development Fund with private sector investment, to part finance films, television programmes, games and digital media. Investments are made on market rate commercial terms, so the returns on investments will allow the Yorkshire Content Fund to continue to grow and support production in Yorkshire.
“When production levels are high there’s a whole set of associated spin offs. It’s not just specialist services like studios, kit hire and crew that benefit, but also a whole diverse supply chain – everything from locations, hotels and b&bs, catering suppliers, transport, and security, to local moulding companies who work on set builds, animal trainers, specialist surfacing companies. The list is endless. And we try to get local trainees on all our productions. Training is still something we take very seriously and we run bespoke schemes such as Triangle, which supports writer-producer-director teams.
“The business of film financing is incredibly complicated, and the timescale and complexity involved in putting together a film financing package is enormous – it’s not a question of weeks, but frequently months or years, before you get a project to the point where it actually goes into production. There is limited finance around for creative content, and that’s part of the reason we were able to secure the Yorkshire Content Fund, – it addresses a gap in the market. There are far more film ideas out there than there is money to support them, so we look for the very best projects to support, and for those projects and producers to be based in Yorkshire.”
The natural advantages of filming in Yorkshire are augmented not only by the funding Screen Yorkshire can offer, but by the support network and reputation Screen Yorkshire has built over a decade of work.
“Screen Yorkshire’s name and brand is incredibly important,” said Sally. “Someone did once suggest that we should have changed our name. That was not going to happen! I am incredibly proud of the name, and the contribution the business has made in some small way to the industry in this region and to developing talent in this region. So the name means a lot to me personally, and it means an enormous amount to the team here.
“In terms of doing business, our name is a strong brand, with a reputation and credibility, and that means that when we’re working with new partners we don’t have to start explaining from scratch what Screen Yorkshire is, what it has done. Producers understand how the financing model works and have confidence in it. And while they may not know a lot of the detail behind Screen Yorkshire, they tend to know our name and associate it with good productions. That’s a good place to start when you are negotiating on projects. And of course, we’re proud to have Yorkshire as part of our name.
“Yorkshire is really fortunate in that it has really fantastic and diverse locations, so you can shoot almost anything you want here. You can have pretty seaside villages or rugged coastlines, the moors and the Dales, historic houses or highly contemporary cityscapes, as well as real urban grit – Yorkshire has the whole package, and within easy travelling distance. So it’s very strong in terms of its location offer.
“We worked very hard over ten years to build relationships with all the local authorities to make them film friendly, and it is great that work is continuing under Creative England. It’s about ensuring that when productions get underway in Yorkshire they get the right kind of welcome and the practical support they need on the ground – and of course we want out of region producers to enjoy the experience of being based in Yorkshire so they come back again with other projects. The feedback we get is that local communities are helpful and interested, local authorities very co-operative, hotels do their very best to support production crews and cast, even if it means welcoming them back in the early hours after hectic night shoots with bacon sandwiches and coffee. It all contributes to an attractive environment for production.”
Screen Yorkshire will soon sign off on the Yorkshire Content Fund’s 20th investment, “Which, given that the fund has only been going for about 18 months, is a huge achievement,” said Sally. Warp Films’ thriller ’71, BBC drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Death Comes to Pemberley and two feature length dramas marking the 50th anniversary of The Great Train Robbery are all part of the current slate. The acclaimed series Peaky Blinders is another recent high profile success that was funded by the Yorkshire Content Fund and filmed on locations in Leeds and Yorkshire. Jamaica Inn, and Screen Yorkshire’s first venture into children’s television comedy drama, Hank Zipzer, are all underway, the last having the distinction of bringing its co-writer and star, Henry ‘The Fonz’ Winkler, to film in Halifax.
“At the moment Screen Yorkshire is in good form, very focused on the job and working hard. We have been very fortunate to get to this point,” said Sally. “But it has been the result of a lot of hard work by the staff and directors. The future is looking good for Screen Yorkshire, and if that helps contribute to a good future for the industry and for talent in the region then it is worthwhile.
“We talk to producers regularly about new projects and when something really special is pitched to us you can almost feel the excitement in the air. I enjoy almost every aspect of what we do now. The negotiations can be hard work but when the deal is done, the contract signed, that’s really good news; and when it goes into production, and the cast and crew is in on location or in the studio, well it’s just fabulous.
“Seeing the finished product on screen is probably the proudest moment, knowing it was made here as a direct result of our work. It’s a privilege to be involved with dramas like Peaky Blinders, which was absolutely exceptional – I can’t remember having seen something that was scripted, cast, designed and shot so beautifully and with a superb soundtrack – just outstanding British TV drama. To be associated with that gives our whole team an enormous sense of pride and achievement. It’s not just about Screen Yorkshire, it’s the fact that it took place here, and that it was shot in Leeds.”
There’s a survival story in the recent history of Screen Yorkshire, and it would probably make a good film; but a film about the past is not a film anyone at Screen Yorkshire would want to make. “Yes, we’ve been through some tough times, but the focus is now on the present and the future. We’ve taken control of our future, we enjoy what we do and, I think, we help make a difference,” said Sally.
“It’s an overused phrase to say that you believe passionately in something, but we are passionate about what we do. That passion has always been part of the strength of Screen Yorkshire, along with having a great team. But above all it’s about getting the job done and doing it well. And as to the future, we know where we are heading, but we’ll need to be flexible and continue to adapt to new challenges and opportunities. But one thing is pretty certain, Screen Yorkshire will never stand still.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 08