SoYo Square: The Studio of the North

By Paul Marris

Last year the Film Council launched a £6 million fund to support the film industry and film culture in the nine English regions. Sheffield is now the base for the Film Council’s Regional Office. Paul Marris looks at the history behind development in the regions and their long struggle for the means to sustain their own, diverse audio-visual expression.

A reception was held at last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival to mark the launch of the ‘Studio of the North’, based in Sheffield, regional capital for South Yorkshire. It is a thoroughly contemporary studio: not a material studio with sound-stages and dressing-rooms, but a 'virtual' studio, a network of business and organisational relationships. Clearly this marks the evolution of some new kind of organisation for film production within one of the English regions, but what kind? As so often, an apparently novel development is rooted in a long history whose factors are worth teasing out.

The origins of regional film production

The growth of regional audiovisual sectors in the UK has been a slowly evolving tale over the last five decades. Following the small-scale entrepreneurial anarchy and geographical scatter of the early years of cinema, the film industry in the United Kingdom was confined almost exclusively to London and the Home Counties during the forty years following the Edwardian era. Rare exceptions included a slither of a documentary sector in central Scotland, and the activities of Mancunian Films, whose features were seldom exhibited outside their native north-west England. The sale of Mancunian Films’ studio premises in Rusholme to the BBC in 1953 was emblematic of the first major development which seeded the growth of an audiovisual sector beyond the south-east: the arrival of regional television in the 1950s and 1960s. Then came the emergence of lightweight film and video technologies which enabled corporate communications departments and companies in the provinces to expand into the audio visual sector, and which gradually became adopted as legitimate, expressive media for education in local art and design colleges.

nightwalks-hugo-glendinning-1.jpgNightwalks, Forced Entertainment 1998

The 1960s and 1970s brought the formation of the regional arts boards. They tended to concentrate on documentaries, shorts, animation and ‘artists’ films’. At the founding conference of the Independent Film-makers’ Association in 1976, established to further the cultural and guild objectives of this new breed of independent or ‘grant aided’ film-maker, regional representation was high on the agenda both in terms of internal structure and its campaigning policies for regionally diversified, cultural expression. Significantly, in the same year, ‘Film Bang’ in Edinburgh marked a major step in the self-organisation of a Scottish film sector.

With the establishment of Channel Four in the 1980s, the first of the ‘publisher-broadcasters’, FilmFour, Independent Film & Video, and several other departments began to commission work from newly emergent, regional independents of varying cultural complexions, whilst the Independent Film & Video department also provided important revenue funding to a number of film workshops across the country with an explicit orientation to their communities.

In Sheffield, Steel Bank Films, the Sheffield Women’s Film Co-op and Sheffield Independent Film all benefitted from this new source of financial support.

It was the 1980s which also saw the introduction of public funding disbursed under an ‘economic development’ remit within the audiovisual sector. The pioneer in this mode of support was the Greater London Council through its associated Greater London Enterprise Board, GLEB, but parallel thinking developed in other English metropolitan county councils, including Tyne & Wear and South Yorkshire. With the abolition of the Metropolitan County Councils by the Thatcher government, what Steve McIntyre, has dubbed an “invisible college” emerged, “a growing number of influential and well placed advocates of the notion of cities taking cultural industries seriously” These advocates managed to ‘snowball’ their ideas across the country[1]. In Newcastle, the North East Media Development Council established a training centre and a media development agency.

In Sheffield the city council used planning powers to designate a run-down industrial district in the city centre as a Cultural Industries Quarter, and then set about capturing economic development funding for the arts and media in both their production and consumption aspects to gain the benefits of a Marshallian economic clustering.

Sheffield’s Cultural Industries Quarter

Reviewing the development so far, Sheffield’s Cultural Industries Quarter has proved a qualified success. In the visual arts there are the Site Gallery for photography and new media; Yorkshire ArtSpace, the first purpose-built studio for artists in the country, accommodating around seventy artists; and a stone’s throw away, the new Millennium Galleries.

A number of the old workshops practising Sheffield’s traditional metalwork and cutlery crafts have remained in the quarter and gained a new lease of life. Sheffield Independent Film has its office and studio premises here, as does the experimental theatre group Forced Entertainment. An audacious linked development has provided the four-screen independent cinema plus bar, the Showroom - which as well as running a year-round repertory film programme hosts the annual Sheffield International Documentary Festival -and the Workstation, specialist premises for media businesses and organisations. Occupants of the Workstation include the national office of the Community Media Association; numerous record labels, video game designers and independent film and programme companies; Lovebytes, a digital media organisation, which has been mounting digital arts biennales in Sheffield since 1994; Sheffield Hallam University’s postgraduate film school, the Northern Media School; and the internationally recognised design team the Designers’ Republic, who produce everything from their trademark club flyers to left-field dance promo videos. Despite the real ups and downs, investment, turnover, jobs and footfall have all been increasing.

Nationally, the nineties saw the development of the film commission movement, agencies in each of the regions, nations and localities of the United Kingdom aiming to facilitate film and programme production and thereby capture mobile national and international production spend for their local economies.[2] This development had its reflection in Yorkshire where the Yorkshire Screen Commission was established in 1994.

nightwalks-hugo-glendinning-2.jpgNightwalks, Forced Entertainment 1998

The nineties also saw the imposition of independent programming quotas for the BBC and ITV, the establishment of Channel Five and various cable and satellite channels, and the growth in new media, all of which offered potentially larger markets for regionally-based media producers. To try to take advantage of these national changes for the Yorkshire region, the Yorkshire Media Production Agency was established in 1995. YMPA is an offshoot of Sheffield Independent Film, though it has now far outgrown it in turnover. Like the Yorkshire Screen Commission it is based in the Workstation and as its publicity states, it “exists to stimulate and develop all forms of moving image content production throughout Yorkshire”. YMPA essentially has a brokerage function, aligning the artistic and commercial development possibilities within the regional audiovisual sector with the economic development objectives of public agencies. In manoeuvring to harness economic development funds for film production, it could be said to represent the continuation of the ‘invisible colleges’ project of the 1980s. It requires an intelligent adroitness that can balance aesthetic awareness and industry savvy with administrative requirements and commercial judgement, and these characteristics have been impressively manifested by the YMPA team, particularly the agency’s chief executive Colin Pons and the development officer Anne Tobin. In the years since its founding, YMPA has contributed to the success of a range of productions, from shorts such as Jo Cammack’s Better or Worse and Disruptive Elements’ Groove on a Stanley Knife, through features such as The Acid House (produced by Alex Usborne from Irvine Walsh’s script) and The Darkest Light (co-directed by Simon Beaufoy and Billie Ettringham), and mountaineering documentaries like Hard Grit (proximity to the Peak District makes Sheffield England’s mountaineering capital, with its own distinctive subculture of ‘zines and other media), to Nightwalks, a vivid experimental CD-ROM made by Forced Entertainment.

The Studio of the North

Working in partnership, the YMPA and the Yorkshire Screen Commission have launched the Studio of the North. This integration of inward investment channels, which enables film commission support to be coupled with production (co-)financing, is something that was originally canvassed by several of the regional film commission representatives in the early nineties.[3] However, the Studio also draws on a vital new funding source deriving from the European Union’s Objective.

better-or-worse-jocelyn-cammack.jpgBetter or Worse dir. by Jocelyn Cammack 2000

One Programme, which provides supplementary regional development funding aimed at regions with an average per capita income below 75% of that obtaining within the member state as a whole. Hence it is South Yorkshire’s widespread poverty that underpins the new opportunities.

The overall project also embraces a Lottery franchise-style arrangement, whereby a number of local companies are partially supported across their production slates. Some of these are locally grown outfits, like Loop Films, focussing on the convergence between linear narrative and interactivity; Acier Productions, who co-produced the feature film Dream launched at Cannes in 2001; and the fledgling Cherry Pip Productions, who are developing a teen horror film set in Barnsley (quelle horreur!). Others are the northern wings of established London-based independents: the long-standing Picture Palace North, which has produced The Acid House and the feature documentary Tales from a Hard City; Faction North, which made the five-part innovative documentary-web series transmitted on Channel Four, Smart Hearts; and the newly arrived Fulcrum TV North, drawn to Sheffield partly through the Documentary Festival link and partly through the new support mechanisms available to independents in South Yorkshire. These include the consolidation and extension of industrial links across the European Union, including co-production and co-financing arrangements with Film i Vast in Sweden and FERT Studios in Italy, and participation in CREA.Net, a European digital co-production network.

Reflecting the evolution of audiovisual technologies, Studio of the North also includes a ‘New Media’ division, managed by Lovebytes through the Volatile Media scheme. This will support artists working with experimental digital video in interactive animation, innovative post-production, multi-media installations, or on alternative exhibition platforms and distribution channels.

The New Era

In one of the few attempts to document regional policy in this area, Steve McIntyre expressed anxiety in 1996 about “the evolution of the cultural industries arguments to a stage wherein industrial arguments are unequivocally dominant.” They had proved a kind of devil’s pact, he argued, in which any valid, progressive cultural dimension was being lost. Meanwhile regional independents appeared to be slipping into rhetorical and practical complicity with broadcasting deregulation, with the thin prospect of becoming little more than cheap out-of-house trainers for an industry that wouldn’t even assume that due responsibility.4 Those fears were not without substance at the time. He was writing in the dog-days of John Major’s administration, when the afterglow of the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan City Councils had long faded and the sunrise following the long Tory night felt uncertain.

nightwalks-hugo-glendinning-3.jpgNightwalks, Forced Entertainment 1998

However, the first New Labour administration has been both creator and creature of a new conjuncture. The concept of ‘heritage’ has thankfully mutated into ‘media and culture’. The ‘creative industries’ (wider than the ‘cultural industries’) are officially accepted, even promoted, as a significant economic sector which generates jobs and wealth. Europhobia is to be dispelled, and devolution and regional regeneration have become explicit policy objectives. In a metropolitan state like Britain, these changes have a vital bearing on the environment for regional media production development, consolidating certain baselines which have encouraged a confident, social entrepreneurialism. In this wider context, The Studio of the North project represents the latest, bold chapter in the history of one urban area’s contribution to the struggle for the means of audiovisual expression in the English regions.


[1] Steve McIntyre, Art and Industry: regional film and video policy in the UK, in Albert Moran (ed.), Film Policy:Internatonal, National and Regional perspectives, Routledge, 1996
[2] For the origins of the film commission movement, see Paul Marris, UK Film Commission, in Richard Lewis and Paul Marris, Promoting the Industry, British Film Institute, 1991
[3] Paul Marris, op cit.
[4] Steve McIntyre, op.cit.

Paul Marris is currently Principal Lecturer in Media Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. In 1976, he was one of the organisers of the founding conference of the Independent Film-makers’ Association.