Magazine article Screen International

The Stage Is Set

Magazine article Screen International

The Stage Is Set

Article excerpt

EXCLUSIVE: Warner Bros Studios Leavesden is set to become both a major production centre and a huge tourist attraction when it opens for business this year. Screen editor Mike Goodridge took an exclusive tour of the site and spoke to studio managing director Dan Dark and Warner Bros UK chief Josh Berger about the transformation of Leavesden into a world-class production facility for hire.

A five-minute drive from Watford Junction station, 20 minutes from central London, the massive Warner Bros Studios Leavesden (WBSL) site is bustling with construction activity. Covering 170 acres, the site will house a wide portfolio -- nine soundstages, offices, workshops, mill, production-rentals outfit and extensive backlot when it opens this summer. Before that, on March 31, two soundstages will open to the public as the Warner Bros Studio Tour London -- The Making Of Harry Potter, a permanent showcase of the sets, props and secrets behind the movie franchise that shot at Leavesden for a decade.

This massive development marks the first time a US studio has set up a permanent production base in the UK, but Warner Bros has no plans to operate Leavesden as a facility exclusively for its own productions. WBSL SVP and managing director Dan Dark is already courting and fielding interest from other companies and producers. With the Potter franchise now complete, the redeveloped Leavesden is set to become the UK's next major go-to production facility alongside Pinewood, Shepperton and Elstree. In fact, had the land been abandoned or sold after Potter, the country could have lost 35% of its production capacity -- a potential disaster at a time when the UK has never attracted more US production.

Dark has been involved with the site since 1994 when he oversaw the conversion of the disused Rolls Royce factory at Leavesden Aerodrome into a soundstage for Eon Productions' GoldenEye. Eon leased the buildings from Rolls Royce and the site was subsequently bought by Malaysian consortium Millennium which had plans to expand it into a working studio, theme park and studio tour. While these plans languished, Dark accommodated several productions, notably Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace, Sleepy Hollow and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Eventually Millennium sold to UK-based property development company MEPC in 1999.

Around the time of the sale, Roy Button, EVP and managing director of Warner Bros Productions, approached Dark about using Leavesden to house a potential multiple-film series. "Roy could really see the value in having a dedicated facility for Harry Potter," he recalls, "especially when you're dealing with kids and animals, which he was faced with on this show. It was very much Roy's idea to find an environment where we were in control and didn't have to worry about another film coming in." Warner Bros hired Dark, and MEPC and the studio agreed on a potential long-term lease for Potter -- should the first film spawn a second or third.

The rest, of course, is history. As Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone soared into the record books and JK Rowling's follow-up books flew off the shelves, it became clear Warner Bros would be renting Leavesden for some years to come. And then, when the series ended in 2010, the studio decided to buy the site entirely and redevelop it from scratch at a cost of some $200m.

"The completely ironic thing about this is that we rented it for the whole duration of Potter and then bought it when it was over," explains Josh Berger, president and managing director of Warner Bros UK, Ireland and Spain. "We had conversations over time about buying the facility as well but it was like renting a house -- you're always talking to the owner about buying the house because you know you love it, but you just keep renting." All the time Potter was shooting, Warner Bros Pictures was also using the other UK studios for its movies -- and there were many from The Dark Knight to Clash Of The Titans to Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. …

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