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How Screen Suffolk helped make 2020 the busiest year for filming in the county to date despite Covid-19 pandemic

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Covid-19 shut down months of filming in 2020, but remarkably Suffolk’s official film office still managed to increase the number of filming days in the county on 2019. Local democracy reporter Jason Noble caught up with Screen Suffolk to talk about an unpredictable year and big projects coming up in 2021.

Bars, restaurants, retailers, gyms, theatres – scores of industries reported the overnight shock the Covid-19 pandemic-enforced lockdown back in March 2020 had on their businesses, as customers were there one day and unable to visit the next.

For the film and TV business, that was no different. And for Screen Suffolk, the county’s official film office tasked with bringing in productions to the county to enjoy the economic benefits they bring, that overnight effect was just as stark.

Covid-secure filming has become standard practice in Suffolk. Picture: Screen Suffolk
Covid-secure filming has become standard practice in Suffolk. Picture: Screen Suffolk

“The year started off really good, with lots of productions coming in,” said Jim Horsfield, operations and business development manager.

“We had lots of location scouts in for major movies and dramas and then it all stopped very, very quickly.

“It is the same for everybody else – production shutdown. The initial shutdown for lockdown 1.0 everything stopped, all the studios cancelled, all the location scouting stopped, and everyone stayed in – there was no way that we could work.”

Screen Suffolk
Screen Suffolk

As the first lockdown eased in the summer, filming began to tentatively start again, after the Department for Culture, Media and Sport agreed that those who could not work from home could continue their jobs, which included the filming industry, provided they observed social distancing.

Screen Suffolk was quick to put in place measures that could enable filming to be carried out in a Covid-secure manner.

It mandated that anyone wishing to film must have completed a 20-minute online course outlining measures which needed to be in place, while Covid marshals were on set to ensure that people were two metres apart, wearing facemasks and washing hands regularly.

With those systems in place now for well over six months, Jim says Covid-secure filming is now “just standard practice” across the whole industry.

Cameras on the promenade at Lowestoft filming the Burberry campaign advert in August 2020. Picture: Screen Suffolk
Cameras on the promenade at Lowestoft filming the Burberry campaign advert in August 2020. Picture: Screen Suffolk

Understandably, larger productions for films and TV shows have been slower to return, but last year Screen Suffolk remarkably still managed to achieve 141 filming days – two more than 2019 and well above the 20 prior to its formation in December 2016.

Location fees are also up eight per cent in 12 months.

That’s largely thanks to the one or two day shoots for adverts and catalogues which were able to return to production much quicker.

Jim said: “After two or three months of people seeing Zoom adverts and home shot adverts,” which were all that could realistically be created during the first lockdown, “people very quickly got bored with seeing that and they wanted real content again”.

Screen Suffolk said it was aware of local people being “understandably nervous” if a large production from London arrived on their doorstep, but Rachel Aldridge, also operations and business development manager with Screen Suffolk, said they told productions “we have got the space for you to be able to shoot securely, we have got big areas, we are not as congested as London, people can stay two metres apart during the whole shoot, you can put your safety procedures into place much easier than London”.

“I think that has encouraged productions away from London – particularly advertising,” she said.

Screen Suffolk estimates that a single day of filming generates around £11,500 for the local economy, which includes spend on catering, accommodation, local talent, location fees and the hire of any equipment among other things, which means last year boosted the Suffolk economy by at least £1.6million despite the challenges.

And despite the country currently living in lockdown three, there are signs of optimism for filming to return in Suffolk later in the year.

Rachel said: “We have got a feature film who are hoping to shoot here in the spring. We have got a high-end TV drama 90 per cent certain they are shooting here, and it is a Suffolk story.

“We have had enquiries for things like people looking for a French town in Suffolk, something that looks similar. Things like that because people don’t want to travel.”

Indeed, the Covid-enforced ban on travel to areas in Europe which traditionally offer tax breaks for film productions coupled with uncertainty around visas now that the UK is out of the European Union means filmmakers are increasingly looking to the UK for alternatives.

That has left Screen Suffolk fielding enquiries from film and TV productions looking to ramp up activity from the spring when more people are vaccinated and an easing of restrictions is anticipated.

As Rachel says, “If Covid hadn’t have happened I think last year would have been an extraordinary year.”

Perhaps 2021 then, the year of Covid-19 recovery nationwide, will be the start of an extraordinary new chapter for Suffolk’s appearance on screen.

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