Travel for film and TV productions has been particularly challenging for the last two years, but the shows must go on
Film and television kept us occupied during the lockdown months, transporting us from our sofas to Covid-free worlds and allowing us to live vicariously through fictional characters as they sauntered from one location to the next. This manner of escapism was aided by streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus, which provide continuous content.
While we were glued to small screens, the pandemic was thankfully not a showstopper. Film and TV professionals continued to create content, exempt from the UK government’s travel restrictions for most of the pandemic. Strict Covid protocols were in place on site, with masked cast and crew in ‘bubbles’ experiencing daily testing, while Perspex screens and manipulated camera angles allowed for social distancing.
Here we explore how the industry navigated restrictions for the last two years, the growing appeal of the UK as a base for productions, and the challenge of sustainability in a travel-packed itinerary.
Organising travel for production companies is challenging at the best of times, with tight deadlines, last-minute changes to schedules and a need for confidentiality. The pandemic and ever-changing global travel restrictions amplified this task. While production companies deal with on-the-ground issues, travel management companies (TMCs) arrange the whole end-to-end travel experience – from pre-departure testing to travel locator forms, airline bookings and car hire, and accommodation and VIP meet and greets – while providing a bespoke service which caters to individual demands.
“Travel for productions is very different to corporate travel. It’s not straightforward. You could be moving up to 100 people, if not more,” says Helen Williams, commercial programme manager for media and entertainment at BCD Travel, a company with operations in more than 109 countries and an impressive client list that includes Amazon, Disney, Netflix, Marvel Studios and HBO.
Travel becomes all the more complicated when aircraft are grounded and airlines suspend routes due to border closures. Williams recounts an instance of a production in Malta, where a large unit landed only to learn the following day that restrictions had changed, forcing them to return to the UK.
A representative from Beyond Business Travel, a TMC which organises travel for major productions including Line of Duty and Game of Thrones, explains: “It was challenging with the lack of flights because a lot of airlines started to cancel services. The demand obviously wasn’t there because of the restrictions in place.”
That’s when TMCs needed to get creative. This included organising charter or private jet flights, working with airline partners to convert cargo aircraft for passengers, or chartering entire trains to accommodate large groups while ensuring Covid safety. When it comes to excess baggage, TMCs often have discounts with airlines for media bags or can work with production companies on shipping the equipment or using cargo if there are very heavyweight issues.
TMCs need to consider travel at each point of the journey, including transit points – which may have more restrictive policies than the end destination. “This has an impact on the decision by the production company on which route to provide,” says Beyond Business Travel.
Guidance during the pandemic was key. To navigate the ever-shifting travel restrictions, the British Film Commission (BFC) – a national agency with a remit to maximise and support the production of international feature film and TV in the UK – published ‘Working Safely during Covid-19 in Film and High-end TV Drama Production’ and ‘Travelling to and from the UK for Work in Film or High-end Television Drama Production During Covid-19’.
Adrian Wootton OBE, chief executive of the BFC, says: “The guidance was instrumental in allowing productions to restart swiftly and safely. Our travel guidance kept pace with the often-rapid adjustments to the UK’s border policy, noting, for example, the implications of an individual’s vaccination status and the government’s ‘traffic light’ system on those arriving in the country to work on film and TV productions.”
Beyond Business Travel invested in technology with global risk companies to get up-to-date information and to send alerts directly to travellers involved. BCD Travel, meanwhile, can track travellers in the event of unforeseen issues when they are abroad and has a Covid-19 info hub which is updated regularly.
Challenges beyond Covid
While travel restrictions have eased and airlines have increased their frequencies, flexibility remains key. “A lot of the production schedules, putting Covid aside, change. Scenes have to be chopped and changed at the last minute. A lot of that involves last-minute travel and getting people with pretty much no notice from A to B,” Beyond Business Travel says. TMCs therefore need to offer 24-hour assistance to match the production companies’ hectic schedules.
“It’s not a 9-to-5 job; it’s very fast-paced. Our consultants almost become friends with the production coordinator because they are talking to them so regularly throughout the whole period of the production,” adds BCD Travel’s Williams. The timeframe varies depending on the production – usually the larger the feature, the longer the shoot.
Given their high-profile clients, TMCs must also sign non-disclosure agreements to ensure that travel itineraries and data are kept secure and not leaked into the public domain. “We cannot reveal where people are shooting or what’s going on, as some of these are top-secret confidential projects,” says Williams. This might involve booking people under pseudonyms or aliases, and it helps when the actor’s stage name differs from their official one.
“We don’t confirm names until about a day out of travel as we don’t want that to be leaked,” she adds. With well-known clients, rider requests (a list of requirements or conditions) also need to be accommodated. Williams explains that “this can be as easy as discreet entry into a property for security; they could be allergic to a scent so can’t have drivers wearing fragrance; they may want certain types of pillows; or want their pets or families to travel with them.”
A growing demand
TMCs tell me that production has largely continued throughout the pandemic. “We’ve been busy the whole way through. As you can imagine, everybody was sat at home wanting content, so they had to film it,” says Williams. “The industry is booming. The global demand for content has never been greater, with people consuming ever increasing amounts of content on streaming platforms, and the rate of subscriptions continuing to rise significantly. Rather than halt this demand for content, the pandemic has accelerated it,” says Wootton.
“The UK continues to attract major international investment through a film-friendly landscape,” he adds. Aside from world-class facilities, the tax reliefs in the UK are appealing, with companies able to claim a cash rebate of up to 25 per cent on qualifying expenditure.
Support for the sector has also been boosted by the £500 million government-backed insurance scheme, the Film and TV Production Restart Scheme, which was open until the end of last month and successfully restarted more than 1,000 productions to date across 1,588 locations – including Peaky Blinders and Killing Eve.
Looking ahead, Wootton tells me that “the demand for new studio capacity, services and facilities has never been greater, as international enquiries to base productions in the UK continue to increase”. At the start of the year the Pinewood-owned Shepperton Studios in Surrey signed a multimillion-pound deal with Amazon Prime Video for exclusive use of its new production facilities, while last year Netflix announced plans to double the size of its base at Shepperton. In March Warner Bros also submitted plans to expand its studios in Leavesden – famously the home of The Making of Harry Potter studio tour.
Will Brexit derail the demand? Beyond Business Travel tells me that it has not yet experienced a huge impact but, like many other industries, sees its clients affected by staffing and supply chain issues. Wootton explains that the BFC is “committed to continued work with European and global partners, and exploring new ways of working together in the future”. It has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Spain Film Commission to enhance collaboration to facilitate film and high-end TV productions between the UK and Spain, and there are MoUs with other countries also in the pipeline.
A major challenge facing the industry is the impact of travel on emissions. That’s where Bafta’s environmental organisation Albert comes in. Founded in 2011, Albert supports the global film and TV industry in reducing the environmental impacts of production through research, education partnerships and, most importantly, its carbon calculator tool which measures a production’s carbon footprint. The latter is used by approximately 700 companies in 60 countries.
“We are trying to break away from being UK-centric. It’s such an international industry in that people are travelling all over the world,” sustainability analyst Will Bourns says.
In reviewing the industry’s impact, Albert examines the tons of emissions per hour of broadcast TV. In 2019 the UK’s film and TV industry produced 9 tons of emissions per hour, halving in 2020 to 4.2 tons. “In 2021 we were expecting it to jump back up, but it’s remained pretty low at around 5 tons,” adds Bourns. An increase in archive programmes and restrictions on travel contributed to this.
Albert also has a sustainability certification scheme for productions that have actively taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint. At the time of writing there are 2,600 certified productions, with just under half completed in the last year – a clear sign of the spike in interest for environmentally friendly practices. Many productions now have sustainability stewards or coordinators who monitor the environmental impact, while TMCs can also propose carbon-efficient routes, electric car hire and post-travel carbon emission reporting and offsetting options.
The carbon footprint depends on the production. Archive material for instance is low emission while international feature films involve more travel. Bourns explains that companies should look for low-emission transport options where possible – domestic air travel, for instance, would not be a gateway to certification. “People are referencing the use of sustainable aviation fuels. That will help if it’s used widely,” adds Bourns.
The 2019 American-British war film 1917 was the first large-scale UK film to gain Albert certification – environmental assistants monitored the team and measures included banning plastic cups and water bottles, providing sustainably sourced food and compostable plates to cast and crew, using generators that utilise waste vegetable oil and opting for train travel where possible. The production also worked with London-based Bio Collectors to convert waste into biogas, electricity, and high-grade fertiliser for agriculture, while sets, costume and prosthetics were sold on to other productions.
On a smaller scale, Albert-certified Springwatch from BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit made history last year by becoming the first programme to use a hydrogen generator, with all 12 of its live broadcasts powered by green hydrogen. “All this is encouraging best practice in the industry. It has a domino effect. People are nervous that any significant change in production techniques might also impact the final TV. But if someone can see that they’ve still been able to produce the same quality content, that’s no bad thing,” adds Bourns.
While this pandemic has been unprecedented in terms of impact on travel, TMCs’ work in the media and entertainment industry has always been about managing risk. “You can’t forecast anything but we all like a challenge,” says Williams. After all, the show must go on. Now that restrictions have eased, let’s head to the cinema, crack open the popcorn and enjoy the big screen.
- The British Film Commission has received £4.8 million over three years to promote the UK as a destination for studio space investment. (BFC)
- The UK boasts seven production hubs with stage space, crew and infrastructure to support major inward investment for high-end TV and feature film. (BFC)
- The combined spend on UK film and high-end TV production in 2021 reached a record-breaking £5.6 billion – £1.27 billion higher than in 2019 (BFI).
- Total box office generated by all films on release in the UK and the Republic
of Ireland in 2021 was £602 million, a 144 per cent increase on the £247 million generated in 2020. (BFI)
- The Bond film No Time To Die was the highest grossing film of 2021 in the UK earning £96.6 million. (BFI)
- In 2019 (the last year for which data are available), the UK film industry’s direct contribution to GDP was £8 billion. Turnover was £18.8 billion in 2019. (BFI)
LOCATION SCOUT: LORI BALTON
Lori Balton is a location scout and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Television Academy. She has worked on films such as Inception, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and the forthcoming Top Gun: Maverick.
How has the pandemic affected your work?
Scouting was tricky with property owners fearful of Covid. I am triple vaccinated and was quick to assure them that we would be masked and follow all safety requirements. At the height of the pandemic, our normally large footprint grew exponentially, as multiple segregated areas for feeding, bathrooms, etc, were needed to accommodate the different level groups. The Ebell of Los Angeles building served us well on [Amazon Studios’] film Being the Ricardos as it offered a variety of looks with ample parking. The theory was (and it seems to have worked for the most part) if someone got sick, their group would quarantine, rather than shutting down the entire production. As a scout, I interact with only a few crew members, and need to be tested regularly to access producers, directors and production designers.
How many times a year do you normally travel for work?
Every job is different, which is one thing I love about what I do.
Pre-pandemic I was travelling maybe four to ten times a year. There were a few years where I was away more often than I was home. Since the pandemic I have scouted in New Orleans, Connecticut and mostly California, but have also been on “familiarisation trips” sponsored by film commissions in Spain and the country of Georgia.
How long do you stay in a location?
It varies. Sometimes I move daily, photographing locations and moving on if visuals just aren’t right. Sometimes a place is chosen in advance, for a variety of reasons, usually hingeing on film incentives. I have to find a way to make it work, thinking outside the box and looking around every corner.
How do you travel with large equipment?
Fortunately, I don’t. I have my camera equipment and my computer. I’ve come up with a system for fitting everything I can’t do without in my carry on.
Do you work with the location?
I am a big fan of regional film commissions that function to familiarise us with local locations, permit processes, etc. Most have location libraries – an important tool for planning my scout in advance. Many times, film commissions fall under tourism as the entertainment industry is widely recognised as a key economic driver of tourism dollars. The terms “film tourism” and “set jetting” are borne of fans wanting to see where their favourite films were shot (The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are the best examples).
See our Air Miles interview with Lori Balton from 2019 here.