1 March 2023
Film studio bosses have often been portrayed as champagne-drinking, cigar-chomping, larger-than-life characters who live, sleep and breathe movies.
Dad of four Frank, 54, was the owner of a cash-and-carry business who had no interest in making movies when he bought a disused film studio, intending to turn it into a venue for weddings.
But when the local council rejected his plans he was left with a stark choice — lose money or go into the movie business.
That was 16 years ago, and now his foray into the screen world — West London Film Studios — has become so successful that he is just about to open a second studio complex costing £23million, which has been described as the Rolls-Royce of the industry.
Along the way, Frank has become pals with Hollywood A-listers such as Mark Wahlberg and Jason Sudeikis, star of Apple TV’s Ted Lasso, which was shot entirely at the studios in Hayes, Middlesex.
On any given day at the studios he could bump into the likes of Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Bradley Cooper, Matthew McConaughey or Helen Mirren.
But for a movie industry hotshot, unassuming Frank likes to keep a low profile.
In 2015 Renee Zellweger was just finishing a day’s filming at the studios in the title role for Bridget Jones’s Baby when the quiet, dark-haired man passing by politely enquired: “Hello, how are you?”
She said she was fine, then asked him: “And what do you do here?”
Frank says: “She was surprised when I told her, ‘I own the place’.
“Once she realised I wasn’t joking we had a nice chat. Then, as everyone was clearing up for the end of the day, she helped to sweep the canteen floor — you don’t get stars doing that.”
Renee, whose later Oscar-winning Judy Garland biopic Judy also used Frank’s studios, clearly made a lasting impression on him.
He says: “She was very down-to-earth and one of the nicest people you could ever meet.”
Frank, from Essex, started off his business career with the cash-and-carry in 1984. It had some land with it, so he built a restaurant next to it, and it was soon a success.
He recalls: “We wanted to expand because we were getting requests from the Asian community for big weddings.
“I heard about a studio that had gone into liquidation and bought it in 2006 to convert into a wedding hall. But Hillingdon Council didn’t want to do a change of use, they wanted it as film studios.
“I tried to sell it to get my money back but the crash came along in 2008 and it didn’t happen.
“Then I found out that the Government had just brought out a 25 per cent tax break for making films in Britain and all of a sudden there was a demand for studio space.
“I spent a few million refurbishing the whole property, then we changed the name to West London Film Studios and we haven’t looked back.
“It really was a total accident but it’s been absolutely fantastic. Suddenly, out of all my businesses, it became the one that was doing really well.”
Frank’s studios — a short drive from Heathrow Airport — have been used to make an amazing list of blockbuster films and global TV hits.
All the walls of the reception area are covered in messages of thanks from some major showbiz names, such as Emilia Clarke — Daenerys Targaryen in Game Of Thrones.
She made 2019 film Last Christmas there, and her note to Frank reads: “What comfort you kept us in on our shoot — best studio ever!”
There are messages from Sir Anthony Hopkins, who filmed 2020 movie The Father at the studios, Matthew McConaughey, who filmed for The Gentlemen there with Michelle Dockery in 2019, Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller in 2015 drama Burnt, Benedict Cumberbatch in 2014’s The Imitation Game and the Doctor Strange sequel in 2020, plus Helen Mirren in 2020 comedy drama The Duke.
TV hits include the award-winning Killing Eve, which was made there for three years, and long-running detective series New Tricks.
And every episode of Ted Lasso — series three starts on March 15 — was created in Frank’s studios.
He says: “It was a perfect location because the actors and crew only had to cross the road and walk for a couple of minutes and they could film the outdoor scenes at Hayes and Yeading United FC’s ground.”
Madonna, The Rolling Stones and Noel Gallagher are just some of the music giants who have shot videos at the studios.
Frank says: “My management team never tell me who is here and often I bump into people like Bradley Cooper and Jason Sudeikis.
“Not all experiences have been great with stars. We have had the awkward one here and there but Anthony Hopkins is a gentleman. Another nice one is David Walliams, who I bumped into too.”
When Renee Zellweger filmed her pregnancy scenes for Bridget Jones’s Baby, the producers chose Frank’s studios because they include a fully-equipped hospital set, with real heart monitors and resuscitation machines.
This part of the studios also has an operating theatre, intensive care ward and even a mortuary with a headless body on the autopsy slab.
Former NHS nurse Lizzie Dyer, who runs the hospital studios, takes us to the intensive care ward — where Gary Lineker once became “trapped” in a collapsing hospital bed for a Walkers crisps advert.
Lizzie, who used to work in emergency and critical care, scrolls through photos of TV and movie stars who have been “patients” there.
She says: “Emily Atack recorded here with Gemma Collins for their recent series in a scene where they were wearing bright pink scrubs.
“Horrible Histories used our Intensive Therapy Unit ward just before Christmas and John Bishop’s comedy show films here too.
“Stephanie Beacham made a film called Grey Matter and Michelle Ryan was here in December.
“And when Martin Freeman was in the comedy Breeders he used our MRI scanner.”
With the studios a success, a three-acre plot of green-field land across the road came up for sale, and Frank bought it, thinking he might be able to turn it into an overspill car park for the 800 staff who were by then working on film projects.
But as business was booming, he decided to try to build another studio on the plot instead.
He says: “Councils rarely give permission to build on green land and when I said I wanted to build a new studio the first reaction was, ‘No chance’.
“When you speak to any council the first thing they want to know about is the employment your project will bring to the area.
“But the first thing Hillingdon Council told me was that they were not short of employment because they have the aviation industry at Heathrow Airport and they had also got the hospitality industry. They didn’t need another studio.”
However fate was to step in for Frank — who this year was made an OBE in the New Year Honours and last week met PM Rishi Sunak.
He says: “Then the pandemic happened. Suddenly those two industries, aviation and hospitality, were hit hard.
“Just as I’d bagged the original studios by chance, this happened by accident too.
“Because of the pandemic every council wanted to have a good PR story, so they agreed to give me the planning permission.”
Building work started in January 2022 and the state-of-the-art studios are due for completion this month.
For Frank it’s now just a case of scrolling through his growing list of celebrity contacts for an A-list star to cut the ribbon.
Source: The Sun