Sunderland film studios: How proposed Crown Works Studios are honouring city's past and opening a gateway to a bright future
“Who would have thought we’d ever have a film and television quarter on the banks of the Wear?”, says Cllr Graeme Miller as he stands on a former industrial heartland which is set to welcome a new industry to Sunderland.
The River Wear has long been the lifeblood of Sunderland industry, from centuries of glassmaking to shipbuilding, which made the then town a global leader.
Now, its south banks at Pallion could soon house one of the biggest filmmaking studios in Europe.
It’s a huge coup for the city and one which would transform the cultural and employment landscape, creating around 8,500 jobs in everything from hair and makeup, catering and security to sound engineering, set builders and lighting.
Last week’s news of the Crown Works Studios plans by FulwellCain Studios, a joint venture between global entertainment company Fulwell 73, the hugely-successful production company behind Sunderland ‘Til I Die, and Cain International, were met with a wave of support.
Here’s everything you need to know about the game-changing plans.
The name Crown Works Studios doffs its cap to Sunderland’s rich industrial heritage.
The 1.68m sq ft film industry hub at Pallion, with 20 premium sound stages suitable for major feature film and high end TV productions, would be created on the former Crown Works site which housed Coles Cranes for more than 50 years until its closure in 1998.
Previous to that, from 1917, the site was the home of Egis shipyard, which built a total of 34 ships before closing in 1930.
Henry Coles had started Coles Cranes in 1879. Steel & Co moved the crane production line to Sunderland in 1939 and named the site Crown Works, in recognition of the amount of Government works the expanded company was undertaking.
It became a bustling industrial heartland where thousands of cranes were manufactured before being exported around the world. Once Northern Spire was completed, the old stone plaque from the Crown Works head office building has been installed in a wall near the southern approach to the bridge at Pallion, to mark the history of the site.
The new studios would stretch along the banks of the Wear on the brownfield site to the left and right of Northern Spire.
What it means for Sunderland and the North East
The studios would be the biggest jobs boost to the area since Nissan in the 1980s, creating a huge wave of opportunities for those who work in the wider infrastructure of the creative industries.
It could generate £336million for the local economy every year, creating jobs and contract opportunities spanning a vast range of disciplines including the trades and manual skills.
For the country’s wider TV and film industry, it would fill the need for studio space, which is seriously lacking, with a site that’s easily accessible with the new road in place.
"It’s a massive game changer,” said Cllr Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council. “These studios give us the flexibility to provide both film and TV space. There’s a huge market out there for television. We’ve seen that with Game of Thrones and other other TV programmes that have a global audience.
"What exactly is made here will be dictated by what the market decides, but I have no doubt it will be high end.”
Alison Gwynn from North East Screen, the regional screen agency which is based at Riverside in Sunderland, said the studios are massive for the region as a whole, helping to retain talent whilst also attracting people to the area.
“Fulwell’s studio announcement is a world class game changer and builds on the North East’s vision for growing the screen industry,” she said. “We fully support their ambition, and we will work closely with them to build the skills and infrastructure required, supporting both crew and local businesses to become an important part of the supply chain needed to serve the productions made there.
"Their studio will be a global player and will need our regional crew workforce, and the highly experienced world class talent from the region - who had to leave for career progression to come home.
"We will also need to develop a new generation of industry-ready entrants, and career changers who can step across in technical and craft areas from other industries. This is a phenomenal opportunity for the people of the North East.”
When could work start?
The Crown Works Studios are subject to planning processes. All going to plan, with the final support hopefully coming from Central Government, work could start on the site as early as this year to create the first of three phases at the studios. The final phase would be complete by 2027.
The brownfield site is already clear and the new build stages can be built in a matter of months.
In addition to Crown Works Studios, plans are in place for the Shipyard Studios at the neighbouring Pallion Shipyard, the only standing shipyard remaining in the city since it closed in the late 1980s.
A separate development, it would utilise the old shipyard building to create one of the world’s largest underwater studios.
Plans for Pallion Shipyard Studios are being led by production company Metalwork Pictures USA, global events business Broadwick Live, Pallion Engineering Ltd and Kajima Corporation of Japan.
A certificate of lawfulness was approved by Sunderland City Council in December 2022 and grants permission for the site to operate as a film studio and creative hub.
Much like the banks of the Wear were once home to a series of shipyard, they could soon be home to a series of studios, heralding the dawn of a new era of creative industry.