Hackney Empire’s golden age secures its blockbuster future

US studios value our legendary past and elastic filming locations as a recipe to make movie magic

Credit: Mark Senior Pic: Hackney Empire during the filming of the Rolling Stones announcing their new album Hackney Diamonds in September 2023.

In its 120-year history Hackney Empire has had more than its share of luck. It survived second world war bombings and years of being demoted to a bingo hall. In the 1980s, it drove away threats of being flattened to make a car park. Now, at a time when so many venues are facing closure, US film production studios seem to have come to save the day. The popularity of the theatre as a filming location has helped generate income to help the theatre survive the pandemic and other economic hardships.

The Empire is not the only British venue to attract the attention of US film producers – its popularity with US production houses is part of a national picture. US production houses are using the UK to shoot for a variety of reasons, and there has been an overall increase in film production spend nationally. Creative sector tax reliefs make the UK financially attractive, while cultural capital – our historic buildings for example, make it a good backdrop for many stories. The native language being English also makes filming here logistically straightforward. 

In the case of the Hackney Empire, it is not just the grand interiors that attract US producers, but also the theatre’s own illustrious heritage. Over the 19th century the Empire felt the rumble of the beloved tap-dancing comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, shuddered under the feet of Judy Garland as her voice echoed through the theatre, withstood the roar of Duke Ellington’s trumpet, and filled with laughter when Charlie Chaplin did his “little tramp” bit. US production houses have used the theatre to recreate scenes for biographical films about these iconic stars. 

In 1992, the film Chaplin came out, with some scenes shot at the Empire. Decades later in 2018 Stan & Ollie, a biographical film about Laurel & Hardy was released featuring a recreation of the duo’s original performance in the Hackney Empire; the year after, Judy was released – featuring a scene taken in a single take where Renée Zellweger sings live for the first time in her performance of Judy Garland.

Meanwhile, high-end TV shows, like Bridgerton, have used the theatre to film period dramas which play on the glamour of the venue to establish the era of the show – Netflix had to blow the cobwebs off, paying to dust the domed towers that frame Hackney’s iconic stage to shoot a scene of Princess Charlotte attending the “opera”. 

Lani Strange, head of marketing, says, “We’ve proven that we’re a location that can be moulded and altered.” Strange says that she has often come in when something is being filmed and “hardly recognised the space”. For the film Judy they had to even out the whole of the Stalls area, so that they could build a runway and have cabaret style tables.

Hackney Empire’s location and filming income has increased by 67 percent since last year, and now makes up 13 percent of their annual income.

Lucy Frazer, the Culture Secretary, is keen to portray the overall increase in film production spend as a success story: “Five of the top ten highest grossing films at the UK box office were made on British soil, which is a testament to our film industry’s ability to draw audiences to cinemas and compete on the world stage.” Frazer credits the film industry’s resilience, in part, to government efforts: “our tax reliefs and investments in skills, technology and studio infrastructure” have made the UK a more lucrative place to “write, produce and direct,” she said.

However, not everything is as rosy for the UK film industry as it seems. Pact, which supports independent productions in the UK, points out that the films made by UK studios include those that are “wholly or partly financed and controlled by a major US studio but which qualifies as British under the cultural test for film”. In other words, even supposed “UK studios” are being financed by the US. Forty percent of the UK box office income came from US studio films in 2021, driven by Marvel films that were made in the UK & US.

Similarly, the BFI reports that there has been a 13 percent decrease since 2022 on domestic UK film productions, but they also found that the spend on films that are co-produced with other international studios had increased, and was now “more than two and a half times”.

Homegrown UK filmmakers and production houses are facing a tougher market with the increasing amount of US production houses coming to the UK. The government have acknowledged this, launching an inquiry last year to attempt to resolve the issues facing the UK film industry. 

Credit: Mark Senior Pic: Looking at Hackney Empire from the perspective of the stage

However, after a two-year campaign by the BFI, the government has finally offered some relief to the UK’s independent film sector – offering a 40 percent film tax credit for films with a budget up to £15m. This tax relief intends to encourage UK filmmakers to film in the UK as opposed to going abroad (a trend that has become increasingly more popular among UK independent filmmakers). 

While Hollywood’s interest in Britain as a backdrop has been beneficial to Hackney Empire, helping it survive yet another difficult chapter, whilst our independent filmmakers have not been so lucky.

Read the rest of our series, Lights, Camera, Action! here

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