Facilities management for a film studio site demands an almost superhuman combination of both customer and project management skills - and a determination not to be fazed by the presence of celebrities, as Martin Read reports.
27 January 2014
If you were asked to name the homes of the British film industry, some familiar names would doubtless come to mind. Pinewood, perhaps, or Elstree, maybe Ealing - all well-established studios that stand as testimony to this country's uncanny ability to punch above its weight in all aspects of creative arts production.
3 Mills Studios may not so quickly come to your lips, and perhaps few outside of the industry know the name - but the studios, tucked away in London's East End just off the A12 and a stone's throw from Bromley-by-Bow Tube station - have developed a good reputation internationally for film, TV, music video and advertisement production.
The site previously housed a brewery, hence its picturesque setting over water and the great variety of its buildings. The site has been used as film studios for the last thirty years, and its impact on the market for such facilities has been significant.
The 80,000 square feet of filming and rehearsal space - set across 11 studios of widely varying sizes and shapes - has been home to some of the world's best-known film and TV productions of recent times. The studios also play a leading role in rehearsals for forthcoming West End theatre productions, something their location - the site is just seven miles from Soho and four from the City of London - has undoubtedly played a part in.
Location also played a big part in 3 Mills stages being use as rehearsal space for London 2012's opening and closing ceremonies; the Olympic Park is just a brisk walk north-east of the studios.
Then there are the studios themselves. Completely absent are the anonymous aircraft hangars perhaps associated with other facilities of this kind. In fact, as our front cover depicts, part of 3 Mills is situated on an island oasis, on which is located the House Mill, the largest and most powerful of the four remaining tidal mills in the UK.
Its history as a brewery, the picturesque riverside location (The River Lea runs beneath the site) and its many distinctive period buildings (ranging in age from the 1700s to 1980s) means that 3 Mills is often chosen so that filmmakers can take advantage of the site's cobbled streets, basements, tunnels, car parks, roads, walkways, canals and rivers. On-site locations have doubled as police stations, hospitals, nightclubs, airport lounges as well as urban London, New York and Victorian streets.
The FM structure
The management of 3 Mills is entirely outsourced by the overall client, the London Legacy Development Corporation. Property management consultancy GVA previously took care of all aspects of the site's activities, but responsibility is now split into two distinct areas - marketing and operations. Deloitte Real Estate manages sales and marketing, while Bilfinger HSG Facility Management takes care of all aspects of operations and FM.
Bilfinger has provided a TFM service since April 2013. Cleaning, security, M&E and fabric maintenance, technical services and venue management all come under Bilfinger and its operations manager Keith Broome, who transferred to Bilfinger from GVA when Bilfinger took on the contract. Broome's perations team comprises seven full-time staff, two contract managers, a team of handymen and runners as well as cleaning and security staff.
"There are FM problems and risks inherent to this kind of site that you simply wouldn't find anywhere else," says Broome. "Communication is paramount at every level."
Broome, and Bilfinger's associate director Andrew Hulbert, sing the praises of the post-April 2013 FM structure. "One thing we're very clear on is that FM companies deliver FM so much better than managing agents do," says Hulbert. "That's because our processes, our help desk and finance systems, are all set up so much better."
Says Broome: "Since last April, the difference is that there's a focus and support from managerial level that we've never had before. If any issues suddenly arise throughout the course of a day, Andrew and the managerial team are there for support. We have weekly meetings with them in any case, as well as monthly meetings with the client where we report on activities."
As for the work itself, FM at 3 Mills is the very embodiment of that oft-used phrase "no two days the same".
Broome says: "It's unlike FM in commercial or industry, where you tend not to be so customer-facing. In those environments there's a lot of time where you can organise maintenance out of hours, so essentially your tenants don't get to see you. All they know is that when they come in and the light that was flickering is now working, well, that's FM.
"Here, it's totally different. My team have to work in front of the production's own personnel, as well as the stars of the shows themselves, to get things done.
"The bulk of the FM we do here is reactive. We are service providers in the truest sense of the word. When a production signs the lease to occupy a space, whether it be office, rehearsal place or studio stage, it falls to the FM team to look after the production from start to finish."
All companies taking on a booking have to complete a standard health and safety pro forma, detailing any hazards they may create during their production. When they take on the space, it's the client's responsibility.
3 Mills' operations/FM team is responsible for all statutory requirements and reactive work across the site but, says Broome, in terms of day to day client liaison there are many blurred lines. "When the sales team brings in a new booking, the client will come on site and they'll need to be looked after, and of course sales does some of that. But when the production's up and running and they have problems, those problems can be endless. Say, for example, their catering van doesn't work; they'll then call us to see if we can help. And we have to act fast, because all of a sudden that client has 200 people who won't be fed and we have to do something to help because it's part of the contract."
"And when they say they need it now, they need it now," says Hulbert. "Time is money here."
Hulbert explains the jarring differences between FM in a commercial environment and FM at 3 Mills. "In a law firm, for example, it's the top ten partners who are the most important in that building. If they shout, they're the ones the FM deals with. But here, we can have up to 20 people like that all the time - and they're changing constantly.
"Every three or four days the productions are turning over and some new demanding manager comes in - so suddenly, they're the one you need to deliver service to. You constantly have to be on top of your customer service game here, adapting to new circumstances and people."
This makes 3 Mills the perfect training ground for facilities staff - instilling an ability to concentrate on servicing the ever-changing client while simultaneously putting out of your mind the many celebrities casually walking past.
Both Hulbert and Broome recount some great stories about the ad hoc nature of the requirements they can suddenly have forced upon them. Take the time the team's pre-Christmas drinks reception was interrupted by a call from Lady Gaga's management to book a studio for the next day.
Or how about this one from Hulbert: "It's 7.30 in the morning and I'm stood in the car park looking at Kevin Bacon and all these people forming a conga line for a mobile phone operator's advertisement. As if that's not surreal enough, a woman who turns out to be a runner comes up to me shouting 'I need a fridge, I need a fridge!' When I ask why, I'm told, 'because Noel Edmonds is coming! It's just so random; you never know what to expect."
Productions can vary dramatically in duration and need, from a half-day shoot through to the more than two years booked out for some feature films. The Olympic ceremonies proved particularly memorable; LOCOG was based at the site for a year-and a half before the games for the planning, production and rehearsal of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Danny Boyle was based on site and there was a Royal visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall to contend with.
"From September 2011 right through to the opening ceremony, we had in excess of 25,000 people coming through here," says Broome, who recounts how he and his team helped out. "There were some areas even we couldn't get into because the opening ceremony was being kept so secret, although we did get to see some of the costumes. When I saw the rehearsals, I didn't think much of it but of course all we saw was a tiny fraction of the overall picture. And on the night, when we watched the finished thing, it was spectacular."
Because of the variety of the work booked across the 11 stages, requirements and time frames for the work required can vary significantly.
So what happens when productions run over time?
"This is where the sales team come in," says Broome. "The mental stress they go through is phenomenal. They're trying to accommodate every enquiry they get, because otherwise that client will go somewhere else."
Moving productions in and out of studios to keep the new work flowing can be critical. And it's not just the filming itself that can cause problems.
"Don't forget that when a production comes in we're not just dealing with the film crew and artists," says Broome. "We also have the ancillary staff, while the production staff may need an office to do their accounts, then there's health and safety, costume, make-up, and in some cases they just use the studios as a base while the production shoots material elsewhere on site."
If we think the FM industry is small, the film industry is smaller. A large part of the job for Deloitte's Derek Watts, who's responsible for bookings, is networking, for example by visiting the Cannes Film Festival.
Broome says: "We've got to go out there with our red cross and white shield, battling for Britain. After all, the industry's got a huge reputation and sets so many benchmarks for film, TV and music video.
"It's a very competitive industry," says Hulbert. "We know that basic hire prices are being driven down and the number of extras added to the package driven up. Essentially, what we're selling is a big black box, but increasingly the sales team is having to promise more and more to clients. For example, offering to provide two new dressing rooms for the actors, that can add value to the booking. But of course, the more they sell, the more there's the requirement for the operations team to prepare for it."
It's just a pity there's no craft Bafta for FM - the invisible star of so many productions.
History of the Three Mills
- There are plans to restore the wheels of the House Mill for power generation (for which they were last used in 1941).
- Evidence suggests that the mills were listed in the Domesday Book and date back to the 11th century. The mills have ground flour, and even occasionally gunpowder, for the bakers of Stratford, who were celebrated for the quality of bread.
- During the 16th century the three mills were reduced to two and in the 17th century the mills began using the grain to distil alcohol.
- Distilling on the site ceased after the mills sustained air-raid damage during the Second World War, but the site was used for bottling and warehousing until the early 1990s.
- The old gin distillery and part of the bottling plant is visible in the site restaurant and one of the rehearsal rooms, while the main boiler shaft, built in the 1700s, is used by actors to rehearse their lines.
- From the 1980s part of the site was used for film and television production with the establishment of Bow Studios, 3 Mills Island Studios and Edwin Shirley Productions. In the mid-1990s the three studios merged to become 3 Mills Studios under the management of Workspace Group.
- In August 2004, the London Development Agency (LDA) bought 3 Mills Studios, with ownership transferring to the London Legacy Development Corporation (Legacy Company) in 2010.