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The Crown Jewels

The £450 million Crown Works Studios are going ahead, with work expected to start on a former shipyard site beside Sunderland’s River Wear in the summer, and the first smacks of clapperboards due to be heard in 2026. And it’s all a dream come true for Leo Pearlman, a co-founder of production company Fulwell 73, which will oversee the venture alongside Cain International, and the many others who have put their hearts and souls into making it a reality. Here, Leo speaks to Colin Young about the endeavour, its economic and employment potential – and his secret fear.

When Leo Pearlman spoke to North East Times Magazine three years ago, he was a man on a mission.

His world-renowned production company Fulwell 73 had just opened an office in Sunderland, and there was talk of a film studio ‘in the 300-mile corridor between North Yorkshire and Glasgow’, bringing jobs and investment, in all sectors, and using creative arts to boost the economy.

The previous day, he’d spoken to University of Sunderland media students at Sunderland Business Festival, asking how many of his audience saw themselves using their degree to work in the industry.

Only 15 per cent raised their hands. Dismayed by such a pessimistic outlook in his familial home city, Leo set his mind on a project that would transform the future of Sunderland and many thousands of people too.

And he quickly found a number of kindred spirits.

He says: “When this was just a pipe dream, speaking to those students was one of the toughest conversations.

“I had a follow-up piece because I thought the number would be high.

“But they said they had no choice but to do whatever else.

“They said they loved the North East, that they didn’t want to move to London or Manchester, but that there weren’t many jobs in the creative industry here.”

Now, of course, Leo can barely stop smiling.

After years of planning, months of campaigning, and meeting after countless Zoom call, Leo, Sunderland and the North East film industry have got their way, and Crown Works Studios will be built.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt confirmed so in his Spring Budget with £37 million of funding – rising eventually to £120 million through a so-called trailblazing devolution deal with the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority – which has unlocked a £450 million investment from FulwellCain, the joint venture between Fulwell 73 and investment firm Cain International, that is backed by Sunderland City Council.

Crown Works Studios, named after the former shipyard where it will sit, will include 20 premium sound stages, production workshops, offices, a vendor village, admin and social facilities, a multistorey car park and extensive backlot.

It is tipped to generate more than £336 million a year, and more than 8500 new jobs across all sectors.

Think Atlanta in the States, says Leo.

He says: “Twenty years ago, there was no sport, no music and no-one had ever made a film in Atlanta; now, it’s the second largest production hub in the US after California.

“Sunderland and the North East have the opportunity to be exactly that; a major production hub outside London and the South East, and certainly the second largest in Europe.

“There’s no doubt about it. That’s the ambition.”

That initial ambition, Leo acknowledges, came from Sunderland City Council.

Sunderland is Fulwell 73’s city and their football club.

And it will also be the centre of this hugely ambitious project; as significant for the region as Nissan’s arrival was in the 1980s.

They looked at more than 40 sites, but the answer was on the doorstep.

Leo says: “I hate the idea of anyone thinking this is some kind of charitable endeavour.

“It absolutely isn’t.

“It is, first and foremost, a commercial endeavour, our thesis being that the UK creative industry needed a second major production hub.

“Our business development team pulled together the analysis and, in many ways, because we’re Fulwell 73 and with our connection to Sunderland, it actually would’ve been better from a POV perspective to be in Durham, Northumberland or around the borders, because then nobody could point at us and say, ‘well, you’re only doing it because it’s Sunderland’.

“But Sunderland City Council were just the most ambitious, entrepreneurial and commercially-minded authority we spoke to.

“From the first minute we talked about this opportunity, they were the ones that said, ‘it’s not going anywhere else. It’s going in Sunderland. End of conversation’.

“We said, ‘OK, prove it’.

“And every step of the way they’ve done so, to the point where you just go, ‘I’m not going to fight anymore. We’re putting it in Sunderland’.

“And that’s genuinely how this came about.”

Leo adds: “I feel a pressure for this like I don’t feel for anything else we’re doing; it means far more to me. ‘Everything we do is important, but this one is important in a different way; this is genuinely a once-in-a-generation opportunity and such a big one.

“But, I’m bullish as ever. We’re going to do it.”

Another major protagonist, he says, is ‘force of nature’ Alison Gwynn, chief executive of North East Screen, who has pulled together 12 local authorities and secured a £25 million BBC contract for the next five years.

She’s currently preoccupied with sourcing sheds for storage for a major film production this year – which won’t be an issue once phase one of Crown Works Studios is completed in late 2025 and early 2026.

It epitomises the collective spirit which attracted the group to the project and a palpable return to the North East for Leo and Fulwell 73, way beyond how much money they make.

Leo, cousins Gabe and Ben Turner and their friend Ben Winston set up their hugely-successful production company in 2005, honouring Roker Park’s Fulwell End, their love for Sunderland AFC and a certain year the club won the FA Cup.

James Corden joined as a partner in 2017.

Leo says: “This means the world to me because my family had a business in Sunderland for more than 120 years, and it makes me so proud when someone hears my surname and they say, ‘I remember your grandpa and your great uncle – good guys’, and they remember the business.

“And the idea that my grandkids or my great-grandkids will look up at a business we started in Sunderland feels incredible.

“That’s why the best moment was calling my dad after the announcement.

“He was the last of our family to leave the North East, after he sold the business about ten years ago.

“Getting to call him and say, ‘I think we might be doing this’, was amazing and super important.

“He put the phone down, so I didn’t hear him cry, and he called me the next day once he’d recovered and dried the tears.

“I wish my grandpa was still around because he never understood my job.

“He would always say, ‘I don’t get it. How do you make money doing what you’re doing? Is it real?’

“‘It’s just feathers’ – that was his line.

“I’d say, ‘what do you mean?’, and he’d say, ‘you don’t make anything physical’.

“So, with this one, I could’ve called him and said, ‘get this – it’s got bricks and stuff’, and he would’ve got it.”

Little did Leo know, after his demoralising meeting with Sunderland’s students, they were perfectly positioned in Wearside to take their transformational vision forward.

Back then, he was just a Sunderland fan with a film crew, a Netflix documentary about his beloved Sunderland AFC and other significant projects attached to the Fulwell 73 name.

Today, he is on the club’s board and a Foundation of Light trustee. And he is a voice in the region, as well as a voice for the region.


It was at the launch of the heart-rending final series of Netflix hit Sunderland ’Til I Die that Leo made his impassioned plea for Government backing. Local newspapers heard the call and splashed the project across their front pages in a co-ordinated campaign that sent a clear message to Westminster.

All six now adorn Fulwell 73’s London offices.

Leo says: “I came in and someone had put them up; it was an amazing moment, very special.

“Even talking about it now – and I’m not being dramatic – gives me goosebumps and makes me a little bit teary.

“The tidal wave of support, love and community we’ve felt from the minute we announced this project, mixed with a fair amount of completely justifiable incredulity, has carried this.

“It’s one of the first reasons why massive projects like this don’t get built in other parts of the country.

“You see projects announced but they ultimately fall down because the community doesn’t really want it, understand it or get behind it.

“But we had the most unbelievable level of support, which was encapsulated by the local newspapers coming together and supporting it with the same enthusiasm.”

Leo adds: “We’re incredibly lucky as a city to have the council, and to be at a point in time when devolution is going through, to have people, who have divisions, brought together.

“The combination of different pieces has led to a perfect storm.

“I’m not sure I know the full extent of the impact this is going to have – I shout the numbers out loud, because it’s the easiest way to get people engaged and excited.

“If I close my eyes and think about what some of them might look like in ten years’ time, I’m not sure. It’s as bold as you can dream it.

“I’ve said it before that 85 per cent of the 8500 jobs are not specific to the film industry; drivers, hairdressers, caterers, plasterers, labourers, electricians, carpenters, highly-skilled blue-collar jobs.

“You might work on the next Barbie movie or the next Indiana Jones movie, but you have a skill set that enables you to work outside of that in the downtime as well.

“When you speak to schoolkids, and they say they’d love to work in anything creative, you see the looks on parents’ and teachers’ faces.

“I get it, because you can see they’re thinking they might as well say they want to be a footballer.

“That’s why I love the idea of all those pointing up the road at the studios and saying, ‘I’m just going to work there’.

“That feels pretty amazing.

“I feel pressure because there’s 100 steps between now and where we’re building, and a million things could happen.

“But I love hearing from the colleges and universities, about how they’re seeing huge increases in applications for courses in the creative industries. That’s pretty cool.”

Yet Leo remains a troubled man.

With planning permission granted soon after the Chancellor’s announcement, it is hoped work will start in the summer.

But if Leo has a deep sense of foreboding about that, it has nothing to do with the project.

He says: “I absolutely hate the cold, I’m not very Northern.

“There are a few people from our offices in Sunderland who go swimming in the North Sea every morning at daybreak; rain, wind or sunshine.

“And I said, ‘the day we break ground, I’ll go for a swim in the North Sea with you all’.

“So, the work starts in July or August, because there’s no ******* way I’m going swimming in the rain! Summer is the answer.

“Late 2025, early 2026 is the dream to have first production and completion of phase one.

“Then we’ll go from there.”



From national to global player

Alison Gwynn, Chief executive North East Screen

The new film studios will take the North East from national player to global player, and the scale of production, from feature films to factual programmes, will be gobsmacking.

The huge game-changer in all this was the partnership with the BBC, which wanted to make programmes in our region and needed evidence of investment in infrastructure and skills.

And we fought hard to make that happen.

North East Screen helped bring together 12 local authorities – from Redcar & Cleveland to Northumberland, under the auspices of the North East Screen Industries Partnership – which developed an alliance and a five-year, £25 million agreement with the BBC.

We’re two years into that deal and industry is moving faster than anybody anticipated; our crew bases are up 80 per cent and production here this year is expected to be up 300 per cent on last year, which was also up on the year before.

With all that in the background, the plans for the film studios came at the perfect time.

Leo’s heart may have been set on Sunderland, but the deciding factor was Sunderland City Council, which has really driven this.

Without the studio, we would still see more opportunities for jobs and inward investment from the sector in the North East, but there is a limit to what we can do and offer without the infrastructure.

We want more productions and we want them to stay longer.

For example, a couple of years ago, we had Indiana Jones filming at Bamburgh Castle and Dungeons and Dragons, at Alnwick Castle, at the same time.

But both productions could only stay so long because there wasn’t the infrastructure to fully support them.

If we’ve got the infrastructure in place and the studios, we are looking at breaking into the global market.



Hollywood. Pinewood. Atlanta. Sunderland…

Patrick Melia, Chief executive, Sunderland City Council

It really can’t be overstated just how big a development Crown Works Studios is for Sunderland and the wider North East, which is why it fills us with immense pride as a council to have been able to support the project.

Economically, it will provide a boost not seen since the arrival of Nissan in the 1980s and, culturally, it will see Sunderland share a stage with some of the world’s largest TV and film production hubs, from Hollywood to Pinewood and Atlanta.

Young people will also be able to consider a career pathway their parents and grandparents could never have dreamed of, never mind the fact these opportunities will be right on their doorstep.

Add to that the plethora of other developments ongoing across the city, from the new medical school at the University of Sunderland to Riverside Sunderland and Nissan’s planned expansion and AESC’s gigafactories, and we couldn’t be happier with how our city plan is progressing.

In less than five years, we’ve transformed swathes of brownfield land into shovel-ready development sites.

And with more cranes than ever before now perched over the city’s skyline, and work on Crown Works set to begin imminently, it’s even harder to imagine how much the picture will have changed another five years from now.


Photography: Christopher Owens

May 9, 2024

  • Feature

Created by Colin Young