Sunderland City Council has led the applause after a landmark deal in Jeremy Hunt’s Budget opened the doors for a game-changing project.

Sunderland will become a major destination for film and high-end TV production, thanks to a trailblazing devolution deal agreed between the Government and the North East, which will equip the region with the tools to enable the creation of one of Europe’s largest filmmaking complexes, in Sunderland - led by Fulwell 73 and backed by FulwellCain.

Crown Works Studios will transform the economy of the North East, spurring a creative industrial revolution in one of the UK’s most exciting sectors, and generating £336m a year for the regional economy. It will enhance the UK’s offer to the global film and high-end TV industry, and enable the North East to play a far greater role in future growth.

The Northern Echo: Sunderland City Council and NEMCA intend to invest up to £120m towards the Crown Works Studios projectSunderland City Council and NEMCA intend to invest up to £120m towards the Crown Works Studios project (Image: Crown Works Studios)The devolution deal announced in the Budget will provide the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority (to be formed in May) and Sunderland City Council with the tools they need to make Crown Works a reality and level up the region. Sunderland City Council and NEMCA have confirmed that they intend to invest up to £120m towards the project using the tools provided by the deal, and Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “This is a monumental day for Crown Works Studios, Fulwell 73, Sunderland and the North East, unlocking jobs and opportunities for our people and businesses that will bring about benefits for generations.“We have worked hand in glove with Fulwell 73, the Government and our regional partners to ensure that this scheme – which is game-changing for the whole of the North East – will move from vision to reality.”

The £120million represents a significant contribution towards Crown Works Studios that will kickstart the creation of one of Europe’s largest studio complexes, and is a huge step towards realising the full ambition of 20 soundstages in the heart of Sunderland.

The announcement leverages £450m of private funding, which will enable the North East to achieve its full creative potential, and become a major hub for big budget productions, capitalising on the productive, loyal workforce the region boasts.

Creating another major film and high-end TV production cluster outside of the South East, Crown Works Studios will be a catalyst for regeneration creating thousands of jobs and skills opportunities at all levels for people living across the North East and beyond.

The Northern Echo: Crown Works is expected to be responsible for the creation of over 8,450 new jobs in the regionCrown Works is expected to be responsible for the creation of over 8,450 new jobs in the region (Image: Crown Works Studios)The North East’s beautiful scenic locations have for a long time been used in major feature films including Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and Transformers, but until now the lack of studio infrastructure in the region has meant that productions come and go, and the North East has been prevented from capturing the full value of this activity. 

The project has been described as the most economically significant development for the North East since the arrival of Nissan in the 1980s. Alongside specialist skills for the UK film industry, those who will benefit from the development being on their doorstep include carpenters, engineers, designers, drivers, electricians, hair and make-up artists, and medics amongst others.

The project, pending planning permission, could see ground broken as early as this summer, with the construction of the first six stages as part of Phase One. Completion of further phases is anticipated providing 20 stages by 2028. 

The full site will attract global productions worth £644m a year. At this point, Crown Works is expected to be responsible for the creation of over 8,450 new jobs in the region, and £336m of economic growth (GVA) per year at full capacity and on completion of all phases of construction. 

The Northern Echo: Leo Pearlman, managing partner at Fulwell 73Leo Pearlman, managing partner at Fulwell 73 (Image: Fulwell 73)Leo Pearlman, managing partner at Fulwell 73 said: “This is a historic moment for Sunderland, the North East and the UK’s screen industries. Crown Works Studios will help transform the city we love into a global hub for big budget film and TV production.

“Britain’s creative sector is at its best when industry and the public sector share the same vision and work together to deliver it, so I’m hugely grateful for the backing of the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority and for the partnership between them, Fulwell 73 and Sunderland City Council. Our screen industries are world-leading, and with this backing, the UK, with the North East in its arsenal, can grow its capacity for the production of film and high-end TV.” 

He continued: “At the centre of our plan is a pioneering training strategy that will transform lives and create new opportunities throughout the North East, kickstarting a creative revolution that enables the region to play a leading role in our most exciting sector.”

Councillor Amanda Hopgood, interim portfolio holder for culture, creative, tourism and sport ahead of the formation of a new North East Mayoral Combined Authority in May, and leader of Durham County Council, said: “Devolution brings with it the opportunity for local leaders to back projects that are regionally significant, directing trailblazer funding directly into the North East’s priorities. The Government’s confirmation of our trailblazer paves the way for Fulwell 73 to push ahead with this ambitious project, unlocking £450m of private sector investment to turn this exciting vision into a reality.”

Leo Pearlman talked exclusively to BUSINESSiQ editor Mike Hughes about his plans.

“I’m so happy I almost forgot about last night’s football results,” he tells me, wincing at Sunderland’s 1-0 loss at home to Leicester.

“I’m incredibly emotional and proud. That’s the top line after what has just happened and to have been involved with all the other stakeholders and partners in getting this over the line.

“I’m grateful to government for stepping up and doing what they needed to do, grateful to the local council and local authority for being the most incredible partners on this project from day one with us and just so proud that we’re able to do something not just for Sunderland, not just for the North East but also for the whole country. It’s a special day.”

The bigger picture is not lost on him, with the Government support coming from a Trailblazer package for the combined authority.

“It all has far greater positive implications than just Crown Works. This is something hugely beneficial to the whole region. The fact that we can play a part in that, we’re very grateful for but I’m glad that I had very smart people around me to put it all together and show me what it meant for the project. “We are finally able to say that we are actually doing this, that the first phase and the first six stages can now be unlocked and that will step up to 11 and then to 20 stages, and then who knows from there.

“The idea that we should have spades in the ground this summer, during July and production 2025 in Sunderland, is pretty amazing.”

The Northern Echo: Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City CouncilCouncillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council (Image: Sunderland City Council)Thankfully his involvement in the project is very much a long-term plan, but perhaps not as hands-on as he might have liked: “Unfortunately, I won’t be allowed to drive a JCB, which is a real shame.

“But there are experts when it comes to the development side of the build and we will be working with the right partners for each part of the project – as many people as we can who are local to the region. And when it’s built, it has to benefit everyone from the first day, so that will be a real focus for us, a commitment to work with as many local firms as we possibly can and keep banging the drum for the region.

“If we fail in building up to that 8,500 new jobs in the region over the next 10 to 12 years, then this will not be a success. It doesn’t work if we’re shipping in crews and talent from outside the region, it has to be built on local talent and 85% of those jobs are skilled blue collar drivers, carpenters, electricians, plasterers, hairdressers, and make-up.

“They are all the young people of the region right now who wouldn’t even consider or dream of the idea of working on the next Star Wars movie or the next Barbie. But now they might have the opportunity to do so.

“The hard work starts tomorrow, but I might take a couple of hours off this afternoon,” he tells me.

“This feels like we’ve got our first step on the board. We’ve started on the journey and God knows where that goes. But the hardest step is the first one and thankfully we’ve been able to take it.

“I’m beyond words for all of your support and for everyone in the region. Without all those voices, there’s no way this would have happened. I’m very realistic about this. This has been a huge effort from so many people.”