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Movers and Shakers – Lisa Dee, making East London the new home for film making in UK

Movers and Shakers

Movers and shakers is our new profile series spotlighting people in East London who are working to grow our region.

In our first interview, we spoke to Lisa Dee, who has led the charge on making Barking and Dagenham one of the UK’s most desirable filming locations. In 2022, a new film studio will go live in Dagenham generating £35 million annually for the local economy and create 1,200 jobs. The project is a game-changer and cements East London as the new home of UK film.

You lead Barking and Dagenham’s film business ‘Film LBBD’. How did that come about?

I’ve been at Barking and Dagenham Council since 2009 and originally worked as a Marketing Officer. We were getting a handful of filming enquires at that same, and I suggested it was something we should explore further. This was around the time of the credit crunch and councils were being challenged to find ways of generating income amidst restructuring and cost-cutting. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial ethic in my life and work, and thought this was an untapped opportunity.

I was also a single mother at that time when jobs were at risk, so I wanted to make sure my son and I had a secure future and out of that was born a new creative direction for the council. I approached my manager at the time about it and she was supportive in allowing me to run with the project. In 2012, we had 4 filming days in the borough. Last year, we had 300.

Filming isn’t your background. How have you built the company from nothing?

It’s taken a lot of hard work and a lot of long days. Support from partners like Film London, fantastic location managers (too many to name) and I had a great mentor in David Shepherd who is now the film commissioner for Vancouver. I was determined to make it work and that’s the beauty of the film and TV world, it allows you to evolve and be creative and welcomed me with open arms for which I am very grateful. We had to create a location portfolio to promote, so that meant scoping out the council’s estate and also looking at what was available in the private sector that would be attractive to film companies.

Once you have that, you need to sell it and that meant networking with location managers, producers and others in the industry. Some were dismissive about east London.  Film making is very west London-centric, so we had to dangle some carrots. We had some great locations, easy parking, wide roads, and would pull out all the stops and be helpful. In the early days, we had an empty magistrates’ court and that was a gem for us. So many dramas and films have courtroom scenes, so that worked well. Five years down the line, I was allowed to bring in someone to help me by way of the fantastic Jayne Baumback, because it was really starting to take off. The fact we get so many return productions now is testament to the fact our set up works.

We now work closely with other boroughs, like Redbridge, to manage some of their assets and partnership working has been important to support our neighbouring boroughs. Our locations portfolio in East London offers everything from beautiful historic grounds and architecture, like Eastbury Manor, Valentines House, Valence House and the Dagenham Civic Centre, through to industrial settings such as warehouses and science parks, and docks and modern riverfront spaces such as Barking Riverside. It’s a film maker’s heaven!

How does Film LBBD give back to the local community?

Giving back is really important to us and we’re uniquely positioned to do that. We have embedded social value targets alongside our commercial targets from the beginning. For example, we provide aspiring student film makers with free locations, and that has led to some brilliant material. A group of German students made a really powerful film about blood cancer with the message to encourage BAME communities to donate blood. We also provide advice and help, especially around certain rules or protocols around filming. For example, we’ve had young film makers who want to have a weapon on set as part of their story but don’t know how to get permission and could fall foul of the law otherwise. We’ve also advised film makers on how to engage with our local businesses and residents. That type of thing.

The other element is education. We want to create pathways between our local education partners  and studios so local young people get opportunities. There is one young man who we placed on a film set as a marshal and by day 4 he was promoted to production assistant. That led to other roles and he has now worked on loads of films – which was testament to his East London go-get-it attitude, which paid off for him. We simply gave him the in-road he needed, and we look to do that on a macro level with the studios.

How have local communities reacted to Barking and Dagenham  becoming London’s Hollywood?

Our communities have been really interested and rarely, if ever, had any complaints. I think in some other inner London boroughs, local people can sometimes see it as an unwanted disruption , but people here so far, are just excited about it. The older people here see the opportunities for their grandchildren, especially with the film studio. It will create a whole new range of jobs behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera; production office work, media law, accountancy, marketing,  the trades in terms of carpenters, electricians and plumbers, lots of roles with transferable skills.

With the planned new studio and confirmation of a major backer last month, the future for East London’s fledgling film industry looks bright, is this a game changer?

This is a massive game changer. The borough has a rich history of making things and to coin a phrase from our good leader Cllr Darren Rodwell, “We will now be known for making films not cars”. Every production that makes their film here will be stamped with the ‘Made in Dagenham badge’ and that’s truly something to be proud of. The studio will be the anchor point for a number of other studios coming online soon along the Thames Estuary Corridor, like Ashford Studios Purfleet and the existing 3 Mills Studios in Bow.

As London is moving a lot of work east, we are finding more crew and production workers are living in east, south-east and north London areas, so we’re on their doorstep, which makes Dagenham studios a great geographical fit for the existing and the next generation of crew and creatives. It will cut down journey times and promote an improved work/life balance for them too. For local people, there’s obviously jobs and opportunities. They’ll be able to say: ‘I’ve worked on a major feature film in the place I’ve grown up’. This will be simply amazing.

What has been the most challenging film project you’ve worked on?

The challenges aren’t usually anything to do with production. I’ve learned so much about the art of the possible with film making. The studios just make it happen, which is really inspiring and I am like a sponge learning and absorbing it all every day. The diversity side has picked up too, but there is still a way to go, and we want to be force for change here and we fantastic opportunity to do so. There are now more female leaders in senior roles. The challenges are usually around legalities and the expectations can be quite complex, especially with the bigger studios. Our legal team at Barking and Dagenham have become very au fait with media law. I’m sure it wasn’t what they signed up for when they joined the council!

Secret Cinema was a challenging yet a career highlight project to stage. They recreated the sets from the Bond movie Casino Royale and people bought tickets to the show.  Bond has a cult following and it’s called ‘secret’ Cinema because they don’t know where the event takes place. They are only told which train station to go to and are directed from there. People get dressed up as Bond characters and pretend they’re in the movie. In one set you can be in Madagascar, in the next you’re in a casino. That generated 120,000 visitors to Dagenham in just a few months and was a huge placemaking boost for the area as many of the audience have probably never stepped foot in Dagenham so it was great to be a part of welcoming to our fantastic borough.

It would be amiss not to mention lockdown! How has COVID-19 impacted the film industry?

We are lucky that now under the guidance of the British Film Institute’s Covid-19 protocols 85% of the film and TV industry have been able to return to work. It’s been a challenging time adapting to the new way of working but essential for us all to return safely and create the essential content everyone is waiting to watch!

Have you ever been star struck?

To be honest, I don’t always recognise famous people on set. The only time I was really star struck was when Richard Gere filmed in Dagenham. His son is a big West Ham fan, so next time he’s in town we’ll be sure to try and arrange a visit to the Irons. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth and I had a slight flutter then, only slight mind ha!

Find out more

You can find out more about film lbbd by visiting their website www.filmlbbd.com and their Twitter and Instagram accounts @filmlbbd

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Further reading

  1. Previous Local London Review of Year 2020
  2. Next Unmissable opportunity for SMEs in East London to be part of major infrastructure project