Even before the pandemic, home streaming of films and TV shows was growing rapidly, feeding demand for new facilities that can create compelling material for these platforms. Aecom’s Paul Davis, Laura Jevons, Ben Hooker and Tim Jackson examine the key cost drivers of building a new studio or sound stage
01 / Overview
Home to many of the world’s leading film studios and sound stages, the UK is becoming a key location for global media players seeking to increase their output and make the most of the rise in online streaming.
In September 2019 Disney took a long-term lease on stages and production accommodation at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. A few months earlier Netflix entered a long-term deal with Shepperton Studios in Surrey to create a dedicated production hub there. Such long‑term leases, while great for the UK TV and film industry, have led to a shortage of studio space.
Developers and larger media networks are responding by creating new facilities – with Sky’s £3bn investment at Elstree being complemented by council-led studio developments in Kent and Essex that hope to stimulate regeneration in their respective regions.
In general, clients – whether media networks or developers – will seek out one of four main types of studio or sound stage facility:
- New-build or purpose-built These tend to be used for large-scale, high‑end film and TV work, and are typically established on a large site, with extensive external works for the accommodation gallery vans, trailers and other production facilities. There are currently only a handful of these in the UK at present – notably Pinewood, Shepperton and the Warner Bros studio in Leavesden – and so it is unsurprising that these locations have seen an increase in demand over recent years.
- Refurbished or formally repurposed These are buildings that have been refurbished to create studio space. Depending on their previous uses, they may require additional soundproofing to enable a suitable sound and light lock.
- Flat-floor TV Super-flat floor or shiny floor studios are generally used for TV studios. They contain laser-levelled resin floors to enable smooth multi‑camera tracking, giving them a shiny, black-glass finish.
- Industrial or blank canvas These are similar to repurposed spaces but without the formal soundproofing requirements. They tend to be former industrial units that are stripped out for use as production spaces. With very little construction work required, they can be leased as blank canvases for production teams to fit out themselves, although creating enough space for production support can be a challenge.
02 / Cost drivers
Own or rent?
An important factor is whether the space is intended for a network to use for its in-house productions or whether it (or a developer) plans to lease the space to a production company. Where a space is to be leased, the developer or network may complete works only to the level of providing the necessary sound and light lock, within a structure that is adequate to support an internal and technical fit-out provided by the tenant.
If the network intends to use the space itself, it will ensure the necessary acoustic isolation is achieved and will provide: acoustic reverberation treatment; a flat or shiny floor for camera tracking; a gantry, in the form of either a walkway or a tensioned grid; power flying or rigging as required; and production technical cabling or broadcast cabling.
TV or film?
For TV studios, there may be a need for live broadcasting, in which case power resilience for broadcast continuity is required via a generator or uninterrupted power supply (UPS), or through an infrastructure upgrade that brings multiple electrical connections to site. The use of multi-camera tracking within TV studios means that a super-flat or shiny floor is another necessity.
With TV studios, there may also be visiting audiences. If so, designs must specify additional spaces for waiting audiences, as well as a secure check‑in, with metal detector arches and bag scanners. Additional front‑of‑house provisions such as catering, toilets and cloakrooms should also be considered.
For both film and TV, there will be a requirement to create a sound and a light lock for filming. Thus, designs should include construction of a box-in-box structure or application of additional soundproofing to the building envelope.
Location and site
As with any construction development, the size of the site influences the cost of the scheme. With film studios, there is often a large area of external works with significant areas of hardstanding adjacent to the studios for production companies to bring in their own production support gallery vans and trailers.
TV studios running long-term productions will need to create permanent space for actors, presenters and other on-screen personnel, such as dressing rooms, catering facilities and green rooms, as well as production spaces such as editing suites, galleries and control rooms.
The location of the site may also have a bearing on the level of acoustic isolation required. With many new developments being situated in out-of-town industrial areas, it may be necessary to upgrade the acoustic isolation to avoid bleed into the space from nearby traffic or industrial activity.
03 / Masterplanning
Media developments generally contain specific buildings each to be used for either pre-production, production or post-production purposes.
- Pre-production Pre-production covers activities that prepare for the production. These may include set design and set building, costume planning and script writing. Office accommodation can generally be used for most pre-production activities (except for set building, which may require more space). Facilities can be concentrated in a single location or be spread across the development, adjacent to individual studios or stages.
For set building, workshops are an essential requirement. Ideally, they will be located next to the studio or stage they are supporting. Interconnectivity between these spaces is essential during set building in preparation for filming.
- Production Design teams need to understand the facility’s intended market to ensure the space and services are appropriate. For example, a TV studio used for audience and live recording will require a different approach from a sound stage used predominantly for non-live filming on sets.
The number and size of studios and stages within the facility should be defined in the development business case. As well as actual filming space, support accommodation to enable the production to run smoothly is required. This includes dressing rooms, hair and make-up areas, green rooms, and catering and laundry facilities. These all need to be appropriately distributed across the development to minimise travel requirements during filming.
Consideration must also be given to general parking as well as space for production vehicles. Space allocation adjacent to studios and stages for production and broadcast vehicles is preferable and must include arrangements for the interfacing of these vehicles with studios and stages.
- Post-production Post-production activities include editing facilities and dubbing suites, used after the main production and recording activities. They tend to be used for TV recording but not so much for sound stage facilities and will be dependent on the client brief and target market.
Phasing of works
Masterplanners should assess whether the facility will be delivered in a single phase or several. Once the development has established itself as a reliable location in the industry, how will it grow and expand?
For a multiple-phase scheme, the impact of the second and further phases must be considered. It is likely that all elements listed in the masterplan (pre-production, production and post-production) will be required from day one. Developers and clients need to think about how these will be expanded or duplicated as the development grows, how construction will affect recording activities, and how future phases will integrate with services and MEP. Although these services could be sized for the greater masterplan from day one, an alternative is to capture the capital cost of expansion in each phase.
Base build and fit-out
There are several options for studio or stage fit-out, depending on the intended market and network requirements. These are as follows:
- A – recording space with power and structural capability for set building and lighting
- B – as option A plus background heating
- C – as option B plus cooling
- D – as option C plus full lighting rigs and super-flat floor.
TV shows with audiences and live broadcasting tend to require option D. Facilities where networks build full sets (usually for films, taking up to 12 months) often favour option C, where they provide their own lighting. Some networks also prefer to provide their own cooling systems (option B).
Live broadcasting requires a resilient power supply. The base build can provide full low-voltage generator back-up and UPS or provide facilities to connect resilient power supplies to main switchboards. In this case, network operators would provide their own generators or UPS.
For non-live productions, a resilient power supply is not always required. If the power goes out, the crew simply start recording again once the power is back on.
04 / Design drivers
Studios and sound stages are essentially acoustic boxes, so creating visual appeal is a challenge. Brand identity across a development plays an important role in the architectural design of each building. Support accommodation and office blocks can be designed with features that complement brand identity.
Building height is defined by function. It must be adequate for sets, lighting rigs, scenery rigs and so on. Positioning of stages must be mindful of adjacent properties and potential overshadowing.
Cladding must be cost‑effective and thermally efficient, as studios and stages have extensive facades. Ideally these would be made visually interesting rather than simply deploying block colours.
Daylighting in a studio or stage is generally not appropriate, but provision of daylight for adjoining support accommodation should be factored into the design. This may be a challenge if adjacent stages are overshadowing the space.
Plant should be screened from general view. Ideally, it would be located at ground floor for ease of access but this may take up valuable space. Locating it on the roofs of stages may cause issues with access and maintenance. The rooftops of support accommodation may offer a feasible alternative.
Sound insulation between studios and other spaces inside and outside the building is critical to prevent activities unrelated to the recording being audible. Sound insulation performance needs to be carefully matched to the intended use and internal ambient sound levels of each space.
Careful control of the character and level of the ambient sound inside studios is necessary to allow editing together of content from different locations. Tuning of building services systems will create sound levels within a desired range of parameters.
Other challenges include the control of vibration in studio floors to avoid visible movement of cameras. This can be particularly challenging in spaces with lightweight or raised access flooring.05 / Site infrastructure and MEP services
There is generally a high demand for power in production stages and TV studios, usually for lighting. Power demand can be up to 1MW in a standard 30,000ft2 production stage. The power should be provided in a dimmer room and duplicated within the stages. Power connectivity is typically delivered via a combination of various sized “commando” type sockets and Powerlock 400A connectors.
Given the high electrical loads anticipated, a high-voltage (HV) power network is likely to be required. This allows a network of high- and low-voltage (HV/LV) transformers and switch rooms to be located close to the power demand to minimise LV cable runs. The capacity of electrical distribution equipment is generally sized for peak electrical loads, with the load profile tending to be extremely varied over the day.
A utility-owned HV substation would be the point of connection to the site. Given the high electrical loads anticipated, utility providers may request funding from the developer towards infrastructure or network upgrading. This cost can vary significantly but could be in excess of £1m, depending on the required works.
Water (potable and fire systems)
Storing cold water for a fluctuating occupancy across a whole facility can be a challenge, so it may be better to assess each building individually. For example, office accommodation may require some degree of water storage whereas TV and sound stages may not. A single point of connection to the site is preferable, which is then distributed across the development.
A fire hydrant network will probably be required to meet fire regulations and could be fed either by a direct connection to the private network from the utility provider (dependant on guaranteed flow rate and pressure) or by an indirect connection to private network via storage tanks and a booster set. Discussions will be required early in the design, process, with utility providers and the fire officer to determine the most acceptable method.
Consideration should be given to whether or not a sprinkler system is required. Sprinklers are not always necessary but can add a significant cost to the project if they are. Discussions will be required with the client’s insurer and the proposed fire strategy across the site must be taken into account.
Heating and cooling
An energy strategy must be developed for the whole site. A key question is whether each building will operate independently or if a heating and cooling network will be provided. The fluctuating loads of the development are a consideration. For example, recording will see demand peak for cooling, although this may occur for only a small percentage of time compared with other activities in the stage, such as set building and set dismantling, both of which require very little cooling. Office accommodation may have steady heating and cooling profiles that can be accounted for more easily.
Background heating can be provided for use when stages are not occupied for recording. The industry is still heavily reliant on incandescent or halogen lighting, where the majority of the power demand is heat dissipation – so cooling will be required in the stages during recording, due to high gains from lighting.
TV studios will have an additional cooling demand due to audience occupancy. A large-scale Saturday night entertainment show could have an audience of up to 500 people, adding a further cooling requirement.
The preferred method of ventilating or cooling a production stage is with the use of displacement ventilation, through low-level displacement outlets. Conditioning the occupied space rather than the full stage can risk overheating at a high level, although this space is not usually occupied so may be less of a priority. An alternative is to install additional high-level displacement outlets to introduce top-down cooling into double-height open-top sets.
TV studios often use cyclorama drapes or curtains around the perimeter of the space, with audiences seated on raked seating. Displacement ventilation is rarely ideal for these layouts due to interrupted air flow and occupancy at higher levels in the space, and so a top-down ventilation approach is often preferred.
Data and ICT
The secure provision of a site-wide ICT network that provides sufficient bandwidth and connectivity is important in attracting potential networks to a development. The demands from a network can vary significantly depending on the nature of the site use. For TV studios, secure data storage and live connectivity are paramount. However, for sound stages where productions are shot over a number of weeks or even months, data storage is often provided by the network at the point of filming.
Pre-production and post-production facilities require connectivity, but it is likely that a network will provide its own data storage for such activities. Space allowances should be made in new developments for this facility.
Wifi connectivity across the entire site is required. This can be offered as a free service or provided over a secure connection and charged out to end-users.
Site security is crucial in this industry. The protection of high-profile actors and guests on site and the prevention of intruders into confidential closed sets is a high priority.
As a result, perimeter protection of the site is often required, which must include:
- Secure perimeter fencing, to provide a physical and visual barrier
- Perimeter CCTV to monitor activities around the site boundary
- External lighting to provide secure and safe routes around the development and to provide improved visibility for CCTV monitoring
- Secure and managed entrances and exits to and from the site, to monitor all access.
There are significant opportunities to mitigate capital expenditure through tax reliefs and incentives – primarily via capital allowances, which offer relief of up to 100% for construction expenditure and associated costs on qualifying schemes.
The rate will be driven by the nature of the specific development and plant and machinery (P&M) assets installed. The more comprehensive the level of fit-out and P&M, the quicker the rate at which the tax relief will be realised. Based on our cost model, the P&M could be between £43m and £46m, equating to a cash value of between £8.17m and £8.74m to a UK corporation taxpayer over time.
The P&M benefit will accrue at a variety of rates. Installations qualifying as integral features, such as much of the services installation, will be relieved at 6% per annum on a reducing balance basis. Expenditure on more specialist installations, such as fire detection and alarm systems, CCTV and office fit-out, will be written down at 18% per annum. Other than P&M, the balance of expenditure will qualify for the structures and buildings allowance (SBA), which offers relief at 3% per annum.
The end-user fit-out is likely to attract considerably higher levels, with 60% to 75% of cost incurred potentially attracting relief for P&M, focused on the occupier’s bespoke services installations, fixtures and trade-related equipment. Again, the residual cost would qualify for SBA. Contributions made to an occupier’s costs can also benefit the contributor so it is important to ensure agreements are appropriately structured to protect all available allowances. A variety of specialist reliefs are also available to those undertaking film and television production.
Where elements of the design or construction involve innovative solutions to overcome specific site challenges or use improved material technologies, the relevant staffing costs may generate an R&D credit. Qualifying expenditure is relieved at either 230% or a 13% above-the-line credit. Capital projects can also benefit from 100% relief for R&D allowances where the expenditure is trade related.
Finally, for brownfield sites, UK companies carrying out site remediation works may be able to benefit from land remediation relief, which provides a 150% super-deduction against corporation tax (provided the taxpayer is not the polluter). Loss-making entities can surrender this for a 16% payable credit.
06 / Procurement
Clients across the media industry are looking for a quality product, cost certainty and delivery within a defined programme. These requirements can pull in different directions, so it is usual for a client to emphasise one or two. The balance of these requirements, coupled with the client’s attitude to risk and the current construction marketplace, defines the procurement strategy.
The streaming-driven demand for sound stage space has increased pressure on delivery speed. Clients will push for an ambitious programme that gets their facility up and running quickly, so they can start broadcasting before their competitors or maximise rental returns.
If the client is fitting out the spaces, early subcontractor input into the design is invaluable for specialist elements such as the acoustic isolation, acoustic reverberation treatments, specialist flat floors, broadcast resilience and stage engineering.
The commercial nature of many media clients means they tend to require cost certainty at contract to enable them to enter development agreements that support their business case or to solidify their return on investment. The size and value of these projects means that the cost of tendering makes contractors and suppliers are less interested in single-stage opportunities, at the time of writing.
This market therefore leans towards two-stage procurement. It is used to allow early engagement of a contractor, before finalisation of the information required to obtain a fixed price. The main contractor can provide input into the tender design, improving buildability and reducing co-ordination issues, while specialist subcontractors can feed in relevant information and advice in a timely and efficient way.
The main contractor can also advise on logistics, sequencing and phasing, to improve on-site delivery and potentially shorten programme durations. That functionality takes priority over aesthetics in this market points towards a design and build approach with a well-defined output specification for specialist areas such as acoustic requirements.
07 / Sustainability
Building regs and local planning policies
Carbon reduction plays a significant role on most developments, partly as a result of local authority planning policies. It is not uncommon, for example, to see requirements for new-builds to meet a 15% carbon reduction in the “be lean” category and up to 35% reductions overall.
- Meeting these targets requires careful consideration during design to ensure energy efficiency is embedded in areas such as:
- Building fabric (U-values)
- Heat recovery and low specific fan power (SFP) for air-handling units
- Efficient lighting design.
Implementing such measures can increase development costs and must be accounted for early in the design.
There are also challenges for the contractor in achieving building fabric and airtightness targets. Attention to detail during construction will ensure the building is thermally as well as acoustically sealed.
Consideration should be given to the use of photovoltaics and air- or ground-source heat pumps in order to achieve planning policy requirements for overall carbon savings.
Industry BREEAM standards
Although implementation of BREEAM in the TV and film industry has historically not been a priority, sustainability and carbon reduction have now become a design driver. The challenges are complex, as studios and sound stages are often large-volume spaces, designed for high lighting and occupancy loads, resulting in significant heat gains and the need for cooling.
The key areas on which to focus include:
- Thermal comfort, reduction in carbon emissions and low-carbon design
- Indoor air quality and acoustic performance
- Minimising water use and reducing wastewater through recycling rainwater and/or greywater.
The provision of efficient heating and cooling strategies, minimised electrical consumption and thoughtful water services management is necessary. Costs associated with energy-efficient technology and water services management should form part of the cost plan from the concept design.
08 / About the cost model
This cost model is based on a new-build, sound stage style development in greater London. It comprises a mix of studio and sound stage sizes to accommodate a variety of productions and includes two 10,000ft² stages, two 20,000ft² stages, a single 25,000 ft² stage and a single 30,000ft² stage, alongside 62,650ft² of production support warehouse space and 89,000ft2 of offices for production staff. The site area is 4.5ha.
The model excludes site-related costs such as the demolition of existing structures, services diversions, infrastructure reinforcement, utilities and highways alterations. It also excludes technical fit-out for production (which was by the tenant/production company in this instance) and any broadcast resilience requirements (also by the tenant). Wider exclusions include professional fees, client direct costs and resources and VAT.
The unit rates were current at May 2020. The model assumes the works are competitively procured using a two-stage design and build procurement route.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Aecom colleagues to the development of this article.
Download the cost model using the link below
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