In the black-and-white era after the second world war when Alec Guinness was starring in Ealing comedies and Richard Attenborough played Pinkie in an acclaimed 1947 film of Brighton Rock, it was clear that British films had the brightest of futures. In the following decades, film studios such as Pinewood and Elstree became hives of cinematic activity. Then, in the 1990s, it all seemed to fade away.
Not any more. The glory days are back in the nation's film heartlands. Buoyant, expanding and home to some of the world's biggest stars, the leading studios are full to capacity and taking unprecedented bookings from international film-makers. Some high-profile productions are even being turned away for lack of space. Such is the boom, studios are now pursuing dramatic expansions.
Last week Hollywood investment in Britain was boosted when Warner Bros confirmed that it is building three state-of-the-art sound stages at Leavesden, near Watford, expanding the vast studio where it made the Harry Potter films and where the spinoff trilogy, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, will be shot.
Pinewood Shepperton, home of James Bond, also announced that it almost tripled profits last year and now plans to double its site with a £200m expansion across a 100-acre former M25 landfill site. One of its executives, Andrew Smith, said this would make it "the largest studio group in the world".
While the Pinewood Group is also involved in a new studio in Wales, other British studios expanding include Elstree in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, where Alfred Hitchcock directed the UK's first "talkie" and Gregory Peck made classics like Moby Dick.
How times have changed. Elstree was derelict when it was acquired in 1996 by an entrepreneurial local council, which breathed new life into it – and ploughed back profits into local services.
Suffragette, a new film about women fighting for voting rights starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep, has just been filmed there, and Elstree is now so busy that, in the last three years, it has turned away productions worth £4m. Its planned multimillion-pound expansion of its 15-acre site will potentially double its revenue.
Ealing Studios, home of classics such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, plans to increase its site by about a third, 3 Mills Studios in east London, where Sir Ian McKellen will be filming A Slight Trick of the Mind this month, is exploring a redevelopment, and the Scottish government is looking into establishing a new studio.
Producer David Parfitt, who won an Oscar in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love, said that the demand reflects "amazing confidence in the British film industry". Speaking to the Observer as chairman of Film London, the screen industries agency, he said: "We're absolutely delighted because we are in dire need of capacity." Tax breaks to attract film-makers to the UK have helped, he suggested, "and brilliant creative people make this a very tempting place to shoot".
He added that many productions are "from the US, or at least backed by US studios" where a common language helps. But he warns that it's not "just chasing tax dollars", the skills that you offer are key. That the tax credits are supported by both the Tories and Labour reassures film-makers, he said.
Barnaby Thompson, one of the owners of Ealing Studios and a leading producer, said that, while Weinstein's comedy Chef was among Hollywood productions to start shooting there, it too had to turn away film-makers for a lack of space. Commenting on the UK boom, he said: "It's still cheaper to shoot in Romania, but the tax credit just reversed that."
The economic benefits to Britain are clear from Film London figures. Spending on feature films exceeded £1bn in 2013, with more than £868m generated from 37 inward investment features. Since the introduction of the UK film tax relief in 2007, production spend in the UK has exceeded £6bn.
High-profile feature productions included The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney, and Disney's Cinderella, starring Cate Blanchett. Since its introduction in April, high-end TV tax relief has also generated £395m for the UK.
Josh Berger, president of Warner Bros, UK, Ireland and Spain, said his company had made some of its "biggest, most successful movies here", exceeding expectations with Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes films, among others.
Films to be made at Leavesden, a former aircraft factory, include a new Tarzan action adventure, starring Samuel L Jackson. Film London is now looking at other "non-traditional spaces" such as Leavesden, including an old Ford factory in Cardiff.
Andy Paterson, whose acclaimed films include The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth, sounded words of caution: "You've got to be careful that you're not just servicing productions from overseas. We need to make sure that … our local industry, which is world-class, is driving a lot of that."
A film like The Railway Man had a core British team behind it and took nearly £7m in the UK box office and a similar figure in Australia and New Zealand: "That's a huge export … That movie cost £10m to make, but we only brought £2m of that from the UK. The rest was effectively bringing in investment from overseas … and then it generates colossal amounts of economic activity both in cinemas and DVD in the UK and worldwide."
The British Film Institute has only £26m to support film development, production and distribution activity, he said. "That's a tiny amount … So this would be a moment to take that boom – accept that it's pouring billions into the economy – and readjust how you boost the local sector."
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