Lights! Campus! Action!

University campuses have popped up as locations in everything from The Avengers to The Crown. So should you swap mortar boards for clapperboards and start touting your institution to film crews? Here’s how to make filming work for you.

“I’d say that if there was ever a good time to let film makers know about your estate… it’s now,” is the hot tip from esteemed film location manager Hugo Smith-Bingham. “Universities are great places to film and if you put yourself out there people are going to be hammering at your door.”

Smith-Bingham is co-chief of Scout Productions, one of the UK’s most respected location agencies.

He’s got over 30 years of scouting, fixing and managing experience for high-end TV drama, massive ad campaigns and box-office saviours like Saving Private Ryan and Ex Machina. In spite of being put through the mill by the pandemic, the future for British film production is looking surprisingly bright.

“The industry’s going through one hell of a purple patch,” Smith-Bingham enthuses. “Studio occupancy and crew employment are at all-time highs, there’s equipment shortages – always a good sign. It’s booming.”

Filming at Cardiff University


Added to that rosy litany is a growing demand for fresh locations able to facilitate large-scale shoots. “Universities can be real treasures. They’ve often got really diverse exteriors, architecture that spans decades and styles, interiors like corridors and labs and, like say Brunel or the University of East London, they’ve also got great sporting facilities to work with.”

The attraction of filming on university estates then, says Smith-Bingham, is their versatility. “And space to work. Features and ads are huge scale operations. There’ll be upwards of 100 people working on set across different departments all with the tow trucks and equipment – it’s like the circus has rolled into town. Obviously you need space for all that.”

British film and TV drama production is largely concentrated in London, Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow. “So our first port of call tends to be closer to the production base. But if you broaden your horizon,” says Smith-Bingham, whose location-managing instinct compels him to get his money’s worth from the naval analogies, “and you can weigh anchor for a week or two on an effectively closed location like a university during a calm period, then it makes it worthwhile for the producers budget-wise.”

Budgets, of course, cut both ways. Helen Earwaker, is the sales and marketing manager within Royal Holloway, University of London’s commercial services team. “Quite simply it’s an extremely attractive revenue source for us. But all the films and TV made on our campus, like scenes from The Avengers or Downton Abbey, are also, kind of, ambassadors for us. It gives Royal Holloway a global reach.”

Bollywood movie Judwaa 2 comes to Royal Holloway


Helen oversees the entire filming process, from negotiating the budget, to making the spaces available, to ensuring the production’s risk assessments, insurances and even carbon emissions management are all in order before shooting begins. “I, and one of the Holloway team, will be on set every day, too. There are always questions – quite often from sound recordists who can’t find the off-switch for the air conditioning – or last-minute prop requests. It’s a really fascinating break from the normal commercial services role.”

Ten years ago, bar a few documentaries and an episode of Antiques Roadshow, filming at Royal Holloway wasn’t a particularly serious business concern.

“We were more focused on conferences and weddings – we still host those, of course, but we were getting a lot of approaches from location agents and scouts about opening the campus, one part in particular, to features and commercials. There are a lot of considerations, not least our commitments to the students and staff, but we’ve made it work and the business is very valuable to us.”

The appeal of Royal Holloway to location scouts is blindingly obvious the minute you set eyes on its flagship Founder’s Building.

As a whole, or framed into spectacular-looking parts, the monumental pile central to the leafy Egham, Surrey campus has featured in dozens of movies, TV dramas and ad campaigns including The Avengers (Age of Ultron), Jack Ryan, Downton Abbey, DEVS and the Bollywood blockbuster Judwaa 2.

Cut to montage…

Opened by Queen Victoria in 1886 and later ecstatically praised in the Pevsner guides as the, “most ebullient Victorian building in the Home Counties”, the Founder’s is architectural extravagance incarnate.

The architecture is a direct lift from the 17/18th-century chateaux of the Loire Valley complete with conical roof towers and 700 chimneys. Its breathtaking facade – quite possibly the best thing to ever happen to a Victorian brick – is covered with sculptural reliefs and encloses two impossibly romantic quadrangles. Stunning interiors include an arts gallery stuffed with Victorian landscapes and portraiture, and the bordering-on-hysterical gilded opulence of the chapel.

Royal Holloway plays host to Downton Abbey


It takes some serious screen presence to compete with all that ‘look at me!’ pomp going on in the background. But Holloway also offers Hollywood the surprisingly mundane – the most recent example being… a toilet block.

“The Founder’s Building is the jewel in the crown for us, for sure, but like many university campuses we have a huge range of old and new exterior and interior assets that can double as different locations,” says Helen. “I think it’s important for universities to look past the beautiful period buildings and think of your estate as a whole package.”

Cardiff University’s Temple of Peace in His Dark Materials for the BBC


So it is that Royal Holloway on screen is as likely to be a fairytale palace as it is a secondary school, an emergency ward, an apartment block or a dour local authority library. “It could be simply that, which happened to us, a spiral staircase is called for in a script and a location scout remembers that you have one, or there’s a certain type of flooring that looks like a period hospital ward, or a not-very-attractive 1970s corridor – it doesn’t have to be the things that you associate with the university. One of the most recent projects we had was filmed entirely in the toilets – our beautiful Founder’s Building didn’t get a look in, they needed toilets and that’s what we provided.”

You’ll quite often hear people telling visitors and potential students ‘That staircase is where Chris Hemsworth came running down in The Avengers’ – Helen Earwaker, University of London

In spite of the excitement, the glamour and the namedropping opportunities – “You’ll quite often hear people telling visitors and potential students, ‘and that staircase is where Chris Hemsworth came running down in The Avengers’,” – the realities of having film crews on campus at Royal Holloway aren’t taken lightly.

“No matter how well you manage it, it’s a fact that filming is very disruptive. The students come first, so we would only allow small units in at weekends and only in areas that people don’t need access to,” says Helen. “We confine large-scale productions to the vacations.”

Fake snow for Doctor Who at the main building, Cardiff University


Cameras, catering… and chaos?

Not that this doesn’t come with its own set of challenges.

The first thing a production will want to do is establish a unit base with departments for camera and lighting, art, make-up, hair, costume and more. That often means closing the university’s biggest car parks exclusively for the crew use. Explains Helen: “They need somewhere they can bring those huge trucks that have all of their lighting and camera equipment. It takes up masses of room. They’ll bring a catering truck and facilities, they’ll have trailers for their main cast and if the production has supporting cast (otherwise known as extras), then they need to be accommodated between takes.”

When usual access routes are blocked, areas cordoned off and car parks and cafes closed due to filming, Helen acknowledges that staff and academics have a legitimate case to be annoyed by the disruption. “The summer vacation months particularly are generally expected to be quiet times that allow staff and academics to get on with administration and research,” says Helen, “so you can imagine, when I’m closing off great swathes of the campus for huge lorries full of kit and accommodating, sometimes, hundreds of people, I’m not exactly the most popular member of staff.”

Cast members Chukwudi Iwuji, Annabel Scholey, Nicola Walker and Deborah Findlay making BBC’s The Split at Royal Holloway


But that disruption is somewhat ameliorated when staff are made aware of the serious amounts of money being paid by the production companies.

“In ballpark terms,” says Helen, “you could be looking at anything from about £2,000 per day through to about £10,000 to £15,000 per day. If it was something that was taking up the whole campus, though, we’d be negotiating in excess of £20,000 a day. It has to be worthwhile for the university, because, exciting as it is to accommodate productions, we are a university first not a film studio.”

Royal Holloway has a rolling tariff based on the scale of the production and the likely disruption to the day-to-day running of the university. Documentaries and corporates with small crews requiring a few hours’ discrete filming in a quiet corner of campus require little supervision or set up and the budget reflects that.

Major commercial productions, and all the logistics that go with them, are a different matter. Communication is the key.

“Of course, you need to be open with staff about exactly how much of an obstacle filming at scale can present, but we do try to keep it to a minimum and a lot of staff appreciate that the money we make from filming is invested back into the university and the faculties.

It’s near enough pure profit, we don’t have to contend with overheads and it’s an important source of income.”

Creating a Scene

“There’s a real sense of joy when you see the campus, and the city on screen,” says Richard Martin who runs Cardiff University’s dedicated Film Unit. “Often as not it’s doubling as somewhere else, of course; for instance, a lot of our older buildings in the Civic Centre campus are made of the exact same Portland stone used to build Westminster, so that’s handy for the likes of Sherlock or Doctor Who or any political dramas, but we know that’s our library, that’s our staircase, that’s Cardiff.

“Cardiff is a small city, but it has an amazing creative industries and agencies and really punches above its weight as a hub of TV and cinema drama production and it’s now internationally known as a very film-friendly city – the university is really proud to be part of that.

“I’d describe our income as a location as ‘modest’, but in the same breath ‘significant’. The university, the students and staff, comes first. It’s not unusual for filming to be taking place in term time – students often ask what alien invasion is taking place this week. It’s a positive experience for unis and the cities they’re based in, but there is a lot of organisational work to do to ensure that there’s no disruption.

My advice to unis that haven’t offered locations before is to really hammer out how to get that balance right.”

Get in the Picture

“There’s no real secret to getting location companies to notice your estate’s assets”. says Hugo Smith-Bingham of Scout Productions. “Nearly all local authorities have film departments with databases of locations and they’ll advise you how to make yourself available – remember, it can be good business for the city and the region, as well. There are nationwide agencies, too, like Creative England and Creative Scotland who are really helpful.

There are location databases within the industry, as well. “We have a huge database at Scout,” says Hugo. “It’s free to sign up to and we’ll take a small cut if we can get you business through it. This is quite a compact industry and word of mouth is one of the strongest selling points. As you start appearing on screen you’ll find that location scouts will start to contact you and ask to come for a recce…”

Hannibal Lecture

Dramas shot on British campuses

● Bristol University – Starter For 10 (Playtone/HBO)

● St Mary’s, Belfast – Derry Girls (Channel 4)

● University College London – The Crown (Netflix)

● University of Oxford – Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone (Warners)

● Imperial College, London – Kingsmen: The Secret Service (MARV/20th Century Fox)

● University of Exeter – Broadchurch (ITV)

● University of Cambridge – The Theory Of Everything (Working Title)

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