How Edinburgh film industry could join international premier league – Brian Ferguson

If the visions for two major new projects are fully realised, Edinburgh could become a major player in the world of cinema and TV, writes Brian Ferguson.

Wednesday, 11th March 2020, 11:40 am
Bob Last and Jason Connery have been appointed to run a large-scale film and TV studio space in Edinburgh’s Port of Leith
Bob Last and Jason Connery have been appointed to run a large-scale film and TV studio space in Edinburgh’s Port of Leith

The bus stop at the Filmhouse cinema on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road was the perfect place to ponder the apparent coincidence of significant announcements on two of the city’s longest-running cultural sagas being made in the space of 24 hours – particularly given that they were both largely focused on the world of cinema.

I’ve no idea how many stories I’ve written on proposals for a full-time film studio in and around Edinburgh, or a new home for the Filmhouse and the Edinburgh International Film Festival. But they were being written before my time as a journalist, which goes back nearly 20 years. There have certainly been false dawns over a new film studio. I naively thought that the city started harbouring ambitions ­following the mid-1990s cinema boom, when Braveheart, Rob Roy and Trainspotting put the country on the global movie map. In fact, this newspaper has been reporting on such hopes for more than 80 years.

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Sir Sean Connery was a key player in many of the film studio proposals to emerge in the 1990s and 2000s. He also agreed to put his name to an ambitious plan for a new ­Filmhouse ­cinema, designed by Edinburgh architect ­Richard ­Murphy for a site in the middle of ­Festival Square on Lothian Road, in 2004. Since then Edinburgh has seen various film ­studio schemes come and go, while several sites have been explored for a new Filmhouse and film festival HQ without any sign of progress.

One has to wonder what Sir Sean, who now lives in the Bahamas and has not been in Edinburgh since an emotional film festival farewell in 2010, makes of the news that not only will his son Jason be turning a former factory in Leith into a permanent film and TV studio, but also that the plans for a new film complex in Festival Square have been revived.

Although the involvement in the studio venture of Connery Jnr – who has carved out his own acting and filmmaking career – and producer Bob Last was something of a surprise, the waterfront site has been identifed by the ­Scottish Government as the preferred option for a publicly funded facility for more than a year now. Its use by Marvel Studios and Netflix for Avengers: Infinity War and The Princess Switch: Switched Again has already put the site on the radar of the international film industry.

The prospect of Edinburgh having a fully-fledged year-round facility is a tantalising one for the screen sector in Scotland, given that it has largely had to rely on location filming before now. The bigger prize may be securing a continuous new drama series which can use the former Pelamis factory as a base – as has happened with the Sony-Starz series Outlander, based in a converted warehouse complex in Cumebernauld since 2013.

While the Leith site is available immediately, the prospect of a new Filmhouse and film festival HQ is, by the admission of chief executive Ken Hay, at least five years away. Planning ­permission for a building that will tower over the Sheraton Grand Hotel and the Usher Hall may be as tall an order as raising the estimated £50 million to pay for it.

The Filmhouse has been a much-loved facility for generations of film fans for the last 40 years. But I doubt many of them would argue that it is fitting home for the film festival, particularly given the demands of modern-day cinema audiences. But, if the visions of those involved in the two projects can be fully realised, then Edinburgh could propel itself into the international premier league of cinema cities.


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