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‘Let’s have a Sunderland Barbie’: Leo Pearlman on his plan to build a new Hollywood on Wearside (Guardian 25/12/23)

By December 26, 2023January 16th, 2024No Comments
Crown Works Studios View From River

Producer behind Fulwell 73 shares his ambition to create one of Europe’s biggest film and TV studios.

Film studio designs by 4D Studio Architects have been submitted to Sunderland City Council for planning aproval

“There’s no point in having dreams unless they are wild,” says the producer Leo Pearlman when he was asked to contemplate the dizzying scale of his ambition to create a new Hollywood on the banks of the Wear in Sunderland.

“The idea of building one of Europe’s biggest film and television studios is, of course, wild, and I almost have to play down the scale of the ambition just so people don’t get scared off. But the truth is that 20 sound stages is just the start.”

Pearlman is a managing partner at the production company Fulwell 73, which has offices in Los Angeles, London and Sunderland. The name speaks volumes: Fulwell after the Fulwell Road end of Sunderland’s former football ground, Roker Park; 73, after the team’s stunning 1973 FA Cup final win against Leeds.

Fulwell 73 has five founders – friends Pearlman, Ben Winston, brothers Gabe and Ben Turner and James Corden. Its roster of productions include the Kardashians and the Friends reunion special. Sunderland-born Pearlman is the driving force behind what seems like an impossible dream in the city – however, he says it is realistic and achievable.

There is no reason why Sunderland cannot become the new Atlanta, he tells the Guardian on a freezing December morning. “If you rewind 20 years, Atlanta was known for music and sport, certainly not for television and film. Fast forward 20 years and there are now more soundstages in Atlanta than anywhere in the US, except for California.” Pearlman has bought land in the Pallion area of Sunderland to build a film-making complex. Photograph: Mark Pinder/The Guardian

But it will happen only if the UK government invests in the project. The mood music has been positive, with the chancellor saying discussions had been good. “All I will say is, this year’s California blockbuster Barbie was shot in Hertfordshire,” Jeremy Hunt said. “Next time, let’s have a Sunderland Barbie.”

But time is running out, says Pearlman. “Ultimately, we are at a point now where words are largely meaningless, we need action. We need them to step up and put money where their mouth is and come on board and make this a reality.”

The private investment is £450m and they need a fraction of that from the government, he says. “We are looking for the government to put in less than £20m a year over 10 years, against an annual GVA (gross value added) of £350m to the region.”

An artist’s impression of part of the studios.
4D Studio Architects’ designs of the Soundstages that are part of the studios. 

Film and television production is booming in the UK and a big reason for that is the government’s tax credit incentive. The biggest production hub is the south-east but it is swamped, says Pearlman.

“It is a shocking statistic that the second-largest production hub is in Budapest and not somewhere else in the UK. If you think about the head start the tax credit gave this country, we have taken our eye off the ball. We have allowed other territories to not just catch up but to overtake us.”

Film and television companies regularly come to the north-east, whether for the Harry Potter films, Avengers movies or the latest Indiana Jones film, which generated many local headlines including “Harrison Ford spotted wearing cycling gear in North Shields”.

But they come, they film and they “bugger off”, says Pearlman. They head to the UK for the amazing locations, he adds. “You’ve got unbelievable coastline. You’ve got a proliferation of castles, churches and cathedrals. You’ve the natural landscape. You’ve got cities. You’ve got urban decay. You tick all the boxes that production companies are looking for and they are in quite a small area but there’s no facilities or infrastructure or a place to base yourself.”

Fulwell 73 had been looking for a place in the north of England or southern Scotland to build a production hub for a number of years. The support of the city council has been key to coming to Sunderland, though it probably helps that Pearlman was born there too.

Leo Pearlman
Pearlman: ‘When we saw the brownfield site on the banks of the Wear it ticked all our boxes.’ Photograph: Mark Pinder/The Guardian

“The truth is, Sunderland council was the most entrepreneurial, the most commercially minded, the most bullish about the opportunity. When we saw the brownfield site on the banks of the Wear it ticked all our boxes.”

There has been speculation that the region lacks a workforce with the right skills, but that is nonsense, says Pearlman, as most jobs in film production are blue collar, whether plasterers, electricians, drivers or hairdressers.

If the government invests, Pearlman estimates construction will start in spring with the first content being made in early 2025. His enthusiasm is infectious.

The leader of Sunderland city council, Graeme Miller, has described the project as “the most ambitious catalyst for economic development seen for decades in the north-east”.

Pearlman is certain Sunderland and the north-east can become a film and TV powerhouse. “Twenty sound stages is scratching the surface – but I’m not allowed to tell people that because then people really will think I’m crazy,” he says. “But that is what it can be.”

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