This newspaper has been reporting on hopes and ambitions for Scotland to have a major film studio for more than 80 years.
There have been so many false dawns in the two decades I have been following the lack of progress that it was understandable that a long-awaited announcement on a preferred site was greeted with a large dose of cynicism. Nonetheless, a possible happy ending to the saga was a welcome tonic after a frankly miserable year for the Scottish cultural sector.
It was perhaps ironic that arts agency Creative Scotland delivered the good news, given the debacle over its last major funding announcement and the drawn-out departure of chief executive Janet Archer after a series of key decisions were overturned by her board.
The devastating fire at Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building, the destruction of the adjacent O2 ABC concert venue and prolonged closure of the city’s CCA arts hub have cast a long shadow that will take years to dispel.
And the only certainty about the impending deadline for Britain leaving the European Union is that there is little end in sight to the constant uncertainty arts organisations have had to grapple with.
So many film studio proposals have come and gone since the mid-1990 golden era of Scottish cinema that many in the industry had become convinced it was never going to happen. Most recently, a £250 million private sector project earmarked for 100 acres of Midlothian’s green belt, was approved by Government ministers 12 months ago. But those plans were dealt a crushing blow in October when a farmer won a long-running legal battle to remain on land needed for the studio.
Just after Creative Scotland launched its new “Screen Scotland” unit, it looked like another embarrassing failure in the face of a boom time for the industry elsewhere in the UK. But Screen Scotland is now confidently predicting the Leith Docks studio will be up and running by this time next year. Despite hints in the summer by Creative Scotland that it was making serious progress, it was a surprise to discover those plans are so far advanced.
Crucial hurdles have been cleared over the former Pelamis wave power plant, already been used by Avengers: Infinity War, the biggest film production to shoot in Scotland. The Scottish Government has given the project its backing and may offer public funds. With the huge warehouse already in place on industrial land, the project seems certain to avoid the protracted planning wrangles that bedevilled the Midlothian venture.
All that remains is for an operator to be found before Scotland attracts some of the biggest players in the global industry. It all sounds so simple. But something tells me this may be the hard part. The fact Creative Scotland will be pursuing this venture, rather than the private sector, has set alarm bells ringing for some.
The main industry lobby group, the Association of Film & Television Practitioners, has published a list of pressing questions highlighting its main concerns about the Leith Docks announcement. These include a “very rushed timetable” requiring notes of interest to be submitted by 22 January and a final deadline on 1 February to ensure that an operator can be in place by the spring and in business by the end of 2019.
It could be a complete coincidence, but Creative Scotland and Screen Scotland were ordered by a Holyrood committee to make significant progress on a studio by the end of the year. No-one could argue that last week’s announcement, including the accompanying timetable, does not meet that criteria. But serious questions will be asked if those behind the new project fail to meet their own deadline.