With a crucial Budget decision only hours away, BUSINESSiQ Editor Mike Hughes takes an in-depth look at remarkable plans to make Sunderland a new capital of film-making


If this was a movie script, Netflix might be tempted to place it under ‘Fantasy’.

Poor old Sunderland, struggling with lost jobs and dreams, gets the right people in the right positions and suddenly, things start happening - regeneration, homes, vision, jobs, hope.

So why not go all in and make it one of the film capitals of the world as well? Take an abandoned gateway site with a rich industrial heritage of shipbuilding and repairs – right next to the aspiration-enriching Northern Spire Bridge - and build a new Hollywood?

But this script has already been pitched, commissioned and cast. Now it’s up to the Government to make it happen, as the whole £450m project hinges on Jeremy Hunt announcing in the Budget tomorrow that he will offer tax incentives to bring the big-budget blockbusters to Crown Works.

The Northern Echo: The plan for the siteThe plan for the site

If he doesn't - and there seems to be little risk attached  to the decision - then the backers who know how good an idea it is will turn away.

The vision and boldness which are only starting points for something on this scale is almost unimaginable. To dare to suggest it and then dare to make it possible needs a Sunderland ‘Til I Die level of teamwork, so where better to start than the home of that iconic documentary series - Fulwell 73.

Leo Pearlman is the company’s Managing Partner, overseeing all commercial matters, business development and growth here and in the US.

Inside Crown Studios

  • The proposals are to deliver Crown Works Studios on 33-hectares of previously developed land on the south bank of the River Wear.
  • The vision is to create a major studio that meets the requirements of the international film and television industry, enabling Sunderland to establish itself as a prime destination for the UK’s high-end film and TV production.
  • It will be a hub for skills, technology and creative people, as well as for social and community life – for both the film industry and neighbours.
  • Key stats include: £759 million in GVA per year, including a £336 million contribution to North East GVA; 2,000 jobs on-site, including security, training, painters, plasters, joiners, metal workers; 20,970 jobs across the UK; 8,450 new jobs in the region
  • Once fully built out, three blockbuster movies or a series of films could be made on this site. Only 1 or 2 sound stages would be needed for a small movie, whilst a major project would require 3-4 sound stages.


The Northern Echo: Leo PearlmanLeo Pearlman

Alongside Sunderland ‘Till I Die for Netflix, he has produced TV and films like Hitsville: The Motown Story, I am Bolt, the Class of 92 for Universal Pictures and Cinderella for Sony/Columbia, enjoying commercial success including Emmys, Grammys, National Film Awards and Brit Awards.

He spoke exclusively to BUSINESSiQ about the Crown Studios project and its remarkable potential.

“Our ambition is to make the this region a global centre for film and TV production,” he said.

“The North East is an untapped resource, and has been historically overlooked, not just in the film and high-end TV industry, but across the board.

The Northern Echo: How the site will lookHow the site will look

“At a time when the UK continues to prove itself as a prime location for the studios and streamers, we want to diversify the concentration of opportunities that this country provides by creating a second major production hub, by leaning into the necessity for greater geographic, cultural and social diversity and ensuring that people understand the value to the whole industry that comes from choosing to work in this region.

“We’ve been really heartened by the reaction from the local people, businesses, and the wider industry support for our ambitions with the studios. Our intention now is to ground break this year pending planning approval and the necessary support from national Government.

“This project will provide jobs at each stage, from building the studios themselves to production roles, helping to tackle the industry’s skills shortage going forwards, bringing 8,450 new jobs to the North East over 10 years.

The Northern Echo: Leo is centre-stageLeo is centre-stage

“It will in turn boost the local economy, and positively impact long-term industry perceptions of the North East, nationally and internationally as well as contributing to the UK’s economy more broadly to the tune of £759 million in national GVA.

“This is about bringing in exponentially more production to the UK, production that otherwise wouldn’t come here, and would be lost to the national economy.”

Within the industry, this is the Golden Ticket – our own film studio that is so much more than a a set of buildings. It is a university as well, providing the sequel to success stories like Fulwell with the full blockbuster treatment for rising stars who just need the right direction.

Helping give our local rising stars the profile they deserve is North East Screen – the regional agency which formerly operated as Northern Film + Media.

Now led by Oscar and BAFTA winning film producer David Parfitt, whose films include Shakespeare in Love, My Week with Marilyn and The Father, its brief is to develop and champion the region as one of the UK’s leading film and TV production hubs where talent can live, create and work.

It supports incoming productions with crew, locations and facilities and works with independent production companies providing them with business and commissioning support so for David, the plans for Crown Works are the perfect co-star.

“The main plans were announced before I came on board as Chairman, but I had a conversation early on with the developers and their message was ‘if you're going to go for this, you go for it big’ he said.

“This certainly has vast potential because after they break ground they're building four stages to get the site going and then everything proceeds from there until they get to that full-on complex.

“Importantly, they're not just looking within the UK to fill these spaces. The argument as I understand it is, that the American studios might go to Sydney to do a Marvel film but now the same can happen here and those same studios will look at look at this and say ‘well, it's only 300 miles from London and the facilities are all there - why would we not use it?’

Like Leo, he gives the education and skills side of things top billing. Once a young TV star himself in the early Seventies as Wendy Craig’s youngest son Peter in ‘And Mother Makes Three’ he knows about the importance of the right role at the right time, and he sees the Crown Studios plan as being pivotal to creating those opportunities here in the North East.

“One of the most important things for me and North East Screen is the way it can transform training and skills in our industry so that we have a workforce trained up to be working with the productions we want to attract,” he told me.

“The number of jobs regularly quoted is around 8,000, which includes the studio spin off in terms of transport, construction, rigging, lighting - all of these things that come along with it.

“That scale means all the universities and colleges are interested and asking what they need to do because they are looking at it as being a great addition to their media training and the fact that they'll be able to put people into work experience just around the corner.

“That's central to what North East Screen is here to do.

“When it is fully underway, they would want to see in there perhaps a returnable series from a UK broadcaster, or they could do ‘shiny floor’ shows because they will have the facilities there to put on the equivalent of Strictly, or they could be doing local news from there because they will have the ability to do studios of any size.

“It's huge… absolutely huge.”

One of the many layers of success the whole project is capable of is the boost for the identity and investment-ready feel of the whole city. It becomes ‘that sort of place’ where mind-boggling projects can find a home and then grow as part of a city-wide cluster of businesses.

David says: “This is important because you have what I might call the escapees - the people like me who headed to London to work but, given the opportunity to come back, they will. Fulwell have already told me that 30% of the people who worked on Sunderland ‘Til I Die stayed in the area afterwards. They thought that the lifestyle appeared pretty good and the work is here – so they stayed.

“We want those people who escaped, and we want the people who haven't been here yet and who when they get here will stay, and that might include big studios bringing in heads of department from LA and heading to Sydney or Georgia or wherever in the world they are shooting – we want them all to be employing locally.

The Northern Echo: David Parfitt at the BUSINESSiQ Awards last yearDavid Parfitt at the BUSINESSiQ Awards last year

“We've never been short of creative talent in the North East – that’s not a problem. It's just that the creative talent wasn’t able to really exist here full time.

“Graduate jobs are a part of it, but the film industry has got people at every level who don't have to come through those routes but can still find the opportunities.”

He has experienced success at so many levels and has seen change every time he has picked up a script or looked through a lens. And he has learned every time, so he knows how it can be this time.

“In terms of my production line, over the last 30 years, it's never really been a thing to come to the North East,” he admitted.

“We may have looked at it at various points but perhaps ten years ago, when we were looking at a project, you'd have to bring all the crew and equipment from Leeds or Manchester or Glasgow.

“And if you were here and a camera went down during the shoot, you're not going to get a new one in an hour, you're going to get one in a whole day, so those are the things that informed our decisions ten years ago.

“But now when you're looking at an industry that we're attempting to build in the North East, all those facilities will be there. So it'll also improve the number of people who come in for location shoots, and I hope the knock-on from all of this huge stuff is support for the independent industry.

“We did this thing in Belfast about seven or eight years ago, where we took a really tiny project to shoot on a super-low budget. But what they'd said to us when we were going in was if you come in February, Game of Thrones will have just stopped and we will have this fantastic crew available for you with all the facilities and if you come in and do that you can do your low budget film with really top people. All of these things play off each other.

“There is already huge support for a project like this. I spoke to David Puttnam recently, who is still very much involved and wants to stay involved with Sunderland. He checks in and he's helping me find appropriate people who might be on the North East Screen board.

“He's been incredibly supportive behind the scenes and still cares deeply about Sunderland, along with many others who are asking ‘what can I do – how can I help?’ which is brilliant for the whole region.”

So there is powerful support from within the industry for a well-thought out plan that brings passion and commonsense to the table, and for Sunderland City Council leader Graeme Miller, it is another chapter in a bold masterplan for his city and the whole North East.

He told me: “The North East has one golden egg – and that’s Nissan, certainly Sunderland and Washington have that. A massive manufacturer, biggest exporter in the UK, huge number of jobs and a regional employer. That's all fine. I'm happy with all of that.

“But we can't rely on just having one, so we've been looking for a second golden egg and Crown Works is it - a creative arts complex that not only sells Sunderland, but the whole of the North East.

“If you stand still you get left behind and I am not standing still. We've got a lot of work to do to get all of this completely done, and while we're doing it there's all sorts of other businesses affected because it's a complex scheme of work.

“But this is huge for us with its high paid, high quality, high skilled jobs where the people who've got them can work globally as well. That will have a massive impact.”