Roddy Flynn | Tony Tracy
Dublin City University, Ireland | Huston School, NUI Galway, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2014
ISSUE 9 | Pages: 208-237 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2014-4739

Creative Commons 4.0 2014 by Roddy Flynn and Tony Tracy. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Split Screens: The Year in Review 2013

In seeking to get a handle on a year in the life of a national audiovisual industry, its seems practical to commence with some basic facts – how many projects were completed, at what cost and in what specific areas (i.e. film, television and animation)?  Time was, one could simply flip through the pages of the annual review of screen production in Ireland prepared by the Irish Business and Employer’s Confederation (IBEC) and reel off the statistics. However, in a lacuna which finds echoes in other aspects of the industry, the IBEC report has not been published since 2011. A draft 2012 version was prepared but came with the acknowledgement that, despite a nominal obligation to do so, not all projects made with Irish Film Board support or Section 481 certification, had submitted figures while those who had some were either “incomplete or clearly inaccurate”. So, for the past 2-3 years our sense of the industry in quantitative terms has been based on patchy information from a variety of sources apparently using inconsistent methodologies to produce figures describing the sector.

In December 2013, the Irish Film Board produced figures suggesting that €168m was contributed to the Irish economy in 2013 through “employment creation and spend on local goods and services”. Furthermore this was an 18% increase on 2012 and 42% up on 2011. This seems like good news but it’s hard to reconcile it with the figures from the last IBEC report, which suggested that €156m was spent in Ireland in 2011. There is also some inconsistency in the Board’s own statistics: on October 15 2013 (the day on which an adjustment to Section 481 was announced) the IFB released a press statement stating that screen production in 2012 was valued at €180m in terms of expenditure on local goods and services. If the €168m figure above represents an 18% increase on 2012, then the 2012 figure should have been €142m (rather than their published €168m).

It may well be that IBEC and the Irish Film Board simply adopted different bases for their calculations and that the inconsistency in the Board’s own figures is down to semantic distinctions between Irish expenditure and contribution to the Irish economy. Regardless, the elusive nature of these figures not only draws attention to the difficulty of presenting a clear picture of the state of the sector but also suggests that what is happening within it is either not based on sound and coherent policies or that, in an increasingly diversified and splintered marketplace, it has become more difficult to achieve a clear and coherent picture of what’s happening.

For now, no one seems to bothered as long as things are ticking along. And – absence of reliable figure notwithstanding – the general sense is that the screen industries as a whole in Ireland continue to outperform virtually every sector in the rest of the economy in terms of relative growth.

This is not to suggest however that there will be a slew of Irish films coming soon to an Arthouse/Multiplex near you. For what is most notable about Irish audio-visual production in 2013 –the twentieth anniversary of the re-constitution of the Irish Film Board under order from the then new Minister for Culture Michael D Higgins – is that it has diversified into a multi-platform and highly stratified activity of enormous variety. To speak of ‘Irish Film’ is to attempt to corall a range of practices that include webisode internet drama like Dannan Breathnach’s Cuckoo,1 no-budget / low-budget experimental and narrative films (see Donal Foreman’s essay below), thriving international TV drama and post-production sectors, personally funded documentaries (eg The Irish Pub, Dir: Alex Fegan)2 and an often struggling feature film category with one or two annual breakout hits (eg The Guard, What Richard Did, Once etc.) and a myriad of misses. On several levels we regard 2013 as a tipping pointaway from the 1993 ambitions to fund a national cinema centred on theatrically released feature film productions that tell ‘our stories’ to –primarily– ourselves while, noting simultaneously and paradoxically a mushrooming of personal and often highly accomplished moving-image storytelling that finds limited distribution through non-theatrical channels. In this splintering, the Irish audio-visual sector is unexceptional in reflecting the radical technological changes and globalization of ‘content’ in the digital age. But accompanying these shifts and more fundamentally it also reflects and, insome cases responds to, a dramatically altered understanding of Ireland as an ‘imagined community’ since 1993. Thus, while the concept of a national cinema as a useful paradigm within which to not only interpret but also fund audiovisual production has gradually eroded in the interim, we see a proliferation of practices that place the local and global in dynamic tension through a variety of creative and economic emphases.

Small Screen: Big Audiences

Production for small-screen consumption (which means television and animation but increasingly means film too: see below) remains the lynchpin of the sector. In television the large-scale US productions continue to dominate in financial terms: HBO’s Game of Thrones completed shooting for Season 4 in Northern Ireland in November 2013 at which point activity shifted south of the border where Dublin-based Screen Scene recommenced their post-production role. Simultaneously, The History Channel’s ambitious Vikings completed its Season 2 shoot at Ballyhenry Studios in Wicklow, while 25 kilometres up the road, the Sam Mendes-produced Penny Dreadful, a late-19th Century-set fantasy horror made for Showtime occupied back-from-the-brink of extinction Ardmore Studios for five months from October 2013. These, along with the smaller-scale (at least in budgetary terms) UK productions, Moonfleet (an Element Pictures co-production for Sky Television), Undeniable (an ITV drama shot in Dublin and Wicklow in November 2013) and the second series of the BBC’s crime-horror “Ripper Street”, provided the backbone of live-action production. As such it would not be unreasonable to characterize the domestic industry as akin to other sectors of the economy – reliant on foreign direct investment. Indeed even the Irish-set material is more often than not co-produced with UK broadcasters. In comedy, Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy commenced shooting on its third series for Sky in July 2013 (and would win an International Emmy for its first series in November) while Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boys a BBC/RTE co-production, having won a second Best Comedy award at the UK TV Choice awards in September, officially cemented its status as the most popular television show in the UK and Ireland, topping the ratings in both countries last Christmas.  These were joined in Spring 2014 by a new work from Graham Linehan, The Walshes another RTE/BBC joint effort billed as an antidote to the comedy phenomenon of “Mrs Brown”.

How, if at all, does the export-led nature of such productions impact upon textual concerns? It varies. While the broad humour – and appeal – of “Mrs Brown” requires no particular familiarity with Irish culture, the quirkier Moone Boy makes fewer concessions: what, if anything, do audiences make of use of “Tico’s Tune” (better known to Irish audiences as the theme to the Gay Byrne Radio Show for 25 years from 1973) to introduce scenes at the protagonist’s home? The question of international appeal is more overt in other co-productions: the RTE/BBC decision to support Quirke, an adaptation of John Banville’s (writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black) novels about a 1950s Dublin detective, seems calculated to appeal to the voracious demand for international crime drama (the series has already sold to Germany, Croatia, Denmark, Iceland and Slovenia) whilst offering a (somewhat belated) perspective on the hidden side of institutional Ireland. In the realm of purely domestic productions, Love/Hate Series 4 (reviewed elsewhere by Angela Nagle) surpassed the already stellar audiences of the third series with between 20% and 25% of the population watching the concluding episode in December. (Love/Hate has also sold well internationally, arriving on UK screens via Channel 5.) The same is true of the Thaddeus O’Sullivan-directed psychological drama Amber (reviewed by Denis Murphy) which, having lain in the vaults since 2011 finally received an airing in Spring 2014, doubtless driven by the knowledge that it was about to be broadcast in the slot formerly occupied by DR’s The Killing.

That consciousness (post-The Killing) of the financial significance of international markets (not just as icing on the cake but as core revenues streams) has been reflected in RTE’s decision to rebrand its ‘Sales’ division as RTE Global. In a clear statement of intent, in January 2014 RTE appointed Microsoft Ireland’s former Chief Marketing Officer to head up the division with a brief to activate “new revenue streams from RTÉ Television to maximise returns in content particularly in programme sales, merchandising and licensing”. It is also a consciousness which TV3 may, perforce, have to adopt. At the launch of the 2013 Autumn schedule, TV3 execs stressed the increasing importance of domestic production (“2,252 hours of new home-grown programming”) to the channel. Although TV3 have unquestionably upped local content in recent years with a mix of popular lifestyle and reality-documentary current affairs content, UTV’s announcement in summer 2013 that it intended to launch a competing commercial channel dedicated to the southern Irish market from January 2015 must have raised concerns for TV3. In particular, UTV’s acquisition from ITV Studios of the exclusive right to broadcast in the Republic of Ireland the shows which currently constitute TV3’s largest audience (namely Coronation Street and Emmerdale) must have raised concern for TV3. In September 2013, TV3 invited proposals for a new Irish soap opera (broadcast twice per week) prompting questions about how such a series might be funded given the limited scale of the Irish market. Even if soap is relatively cost efficient (by drama standards), it’s questionable as to whether such an undertaking could be contemplated without reliable international programme sales. On the other hand it may be that TV3 are hoping that the recommendations of a major review of RTE’s funding by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland published in Autumn 2013 will increase TV3’s share of the Irish broadcast advertising market. The BAI suggested that RTE would require public funding in the coming half decade but, mindful of the need to ensure RTE primarily pursue a public service remit, the review suggested that any increase in public funding occur in parallel with a decline in RTE reliance on commercial revenue. The precise details of such a shift remain to be worked through, however.

Big Screen: Small Cinema?

If international productions and co-productions dominate current production practices in Irish television, ironically – given that the opposite was true several years ago – indigenous content in film production is once again the predominant practice. Even if, almost by definition, IFB-back projects require co-production partners (most commonly from Europe), the spacio-temporal settings of such films remain for the most part recognizably Irish. Conforming to the traditional mid-range budgets are films such as Ken Loach’s current film (in post-production) Jimmy’s Hall (which centres around the narrative of Irish socialist Jimmy Gralton) and literary adaptations of John Banville’s The Sea (2013) and Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (to be directed by John Crowley in 2014 starring Saoirse Ronan). Lenny Abrahamson’s eccentric new project Frank which stars Michael Fassbender as a pathologically anti-populist musician was shot in Ireland and US and looks certain to bring the director of Garage to a wider audience and attention. Thus it is an unusual but canny agreement when Element Pictures (who previously produced Garage and What Richard Did) signed him to a ‘first-look’ deal. Unprecedented in an Irish producer context – to our knowledge – such deals see the production company cover the overhead costs of artists in return for first-right-of-refusal on forthcoming projects. But it is a measure of the scale that the diversified and ambitious Element Pictures now operate on (in film and television production, film distribution, the online VOD [Video on Demand] service volta.ie and exhibition through their ownership of the Lighthouse cinema in Dublin), that they can cashflow such an agreement. Indeed, Element arguably represent the most evolvedlegacy of the IFB (co-director Ed Guiney produced his first film, Ailsa in 1994); their astute balancing of commercial and cultural agendas within the Irish film/TV sector and their relationship with Abrahamson represents an ever more integrated structure stretching from talent to distribution.

While the IFB- notwithstanding the savage cut in itsproduction budget to €7.5m (down from a total budget €20m in 2008) continued to support low-to-medium budget dramasin 2012-2013 like Love Eternal (Dir: Brendan Muldowney, reviewed below), Mister John (Dirs: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy), Jump (Dir: Kieron J. Walsh), Run and Jump (Dir: Steph Green) and the comedies The Hardy Bucks Movie (Dir: Mike Cockayne), The Stag (Dir: John Butler) and the as yet unreleased Calvary (Dir: John Michael McDonagh), the most startling shift in recent years has been in the explosion of no/low-budget and frequently genre-focused productions. Individuals like Colin Downey and Ivan Kavanagh have ploughed this particular furrow for some time and both have completed features – The Looking Glass and The Canal respectively – in the past twelve months. Kavanagh’s as yet unreleased film (his fifth feature following the festival favourites The Fading Light and Our Wonderful Home) suggests a step-up in budget and its acceptance into the Tribeca film festival and his next announced project – a western starring the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson – intimate a film-maker who will soon move in from the margins. Additionally, Kavanagh’s back catalogue of largely personally funded projects – including the mostly unseen Tin Can Man– have been bought by various US VOD distributors in a signal not only of the voracious appetite of new platforms but their future role in ensuring the development and even survival of an Irish film production sector (albeit for the small screen). Indeed, in this regard it is interesting to note that the IFB funded male comedy The Stag – a domestically successful Irish comedy with a cast that includes Andrew Scott, Amy Huberman and Hugh O’Connor will be distributed in the US exclusively on VOD under the more generic title of Bachelor Party. Donal Foreman’s atmospheric Out of Here is also illustrative of changes at the level of funding having deliberately eschewed IFB development finance in favour of a crowdsourcing model where it achieved its full production budget.3 Another significant figure in these developments is Gerard Barrett, director of the evocative rural drama Pilgrim Hill (reviewed elsewhere). Reportedly made for €4,500 and shot over 11 days, the resulting film was released to acclaim, toured international festivals and secured the writer/director international agency representation. As a consequence, still aged only 26, he is currently shooting Glassland, a Dublin-set thriller with Jack Reynor (of What Richard Did and subsequently Transformers IV)4 and the international star Toni Collette.

In what appears to be a paradigm shift in production practices 2013 and early 2014 saw the release and/or filming of around a dozen low/no budget productions with no involvement whatsoever from the IFB. Some of these relied on almost implausibly low budgets: Trampoline a drama set and shot in Nenagh by 26 yr old writer/director Tom Ryan was apparently shot for just €1,000.5 Films such as Song for Amy (Dir: Konrad Begg) or the London set The Callback Queen (Dir: Graham Cantwell) cost more but most still make the €350,000 offered under the Film Board’s low-budget Catalyst Scheme look positively profligate.

While a number of lo/no budget films that have the art-house aspirations of Pilgrim Hill or the still unreleased Out of Here the ambition for many of these genre-based films is clearly different with a eye on emerging distribution platforms whether as horror films (Beau Diable (Dir: Conor Slattery), Revenant (Dir: Sean Smith), Somebody’s There (Stephen Patrick Kenny) and Night People (Dir: Gerard Lough, in production) or crime thrillers Jack and Ralph Plan a Murder (Dir: Jeff Doyle), Black Ice (Dir. Johnny Gogan) and The Nixer (Dir. Fiona Graham). The Nixer (http://www.thenixermovie.com) – from 2010 for instance secured a multiplicity of US VOD services in October 2013 and Emu Productions secured a dual DVD-VOD deal for Colin Downey’s The Looking Glass for North America. Similarly the The O’Briens – “a romantic comedy with an Irish twist”6 (Dir: Richard Waters) was released exclusively through Hulu, Distrify and tugg – a trio of film distribution/promotion platforms largely unknown to the general public.

By way of conclusion we should like to quickly allude to two of this year’s most interesting films, which illuminate both in terms of their production and themes the tendentious character of an ‘Irish’ cinema. London based filmmakers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s Mister John (their follow up to Helen) yields Aiden Gillen’s most satisfying performance to date as a London-based Irishman Gerry who goes to Singapore in order to bury his recently deceased brother. We learn little about the character except that he has recently left his wife because of her infidelities. This slow moving and atmospheric film is structured by a narrative mystery in which its central male protagonist gradually subsumes his identity to that of a dead man, where personal history and even the borders of life itself become uncertain and fluid. While this noir-like narrative has markers of national identity, Gerry is a twenty-first century everyman played, with no more acknowledgement than his accent, by an Irish actor. Yet this small detail creates a powerful resonance for an Irish audience deeply familiar (again) with emigration and the complex sense of home that such an experience engenders.

Donal Foreman’s low budget debut Out of Here moves the action in the opposite direction in its focus on Ciaran (Fionn Walton); a young backpacker who returns to Dublin from travels in south-east Asia. Foregoing the genre underpinning of Mister John it nonetheless rhymes in interesting ways with that film in its foregrounding of a young Irish male who is uncertain of his bearings. While the film clearly draws on elements of American ‘mumblecore’ cinema (Foreman lives in Brooklyn where he edited the film, though he has been developing it for several years), it is its reworking of Joycean flânerie that is most compelling for an Irish viewer. The loose-limed and seemingly improvised narrative follows Ciaran as he returns to his family home then around the city, catching up with old friends, meeting some new ones, and occupies a liminal space of non-belonging. The juxtaposition between the film’s firm sense of setting and more intangible sense of plot and character produces an at times weightless narrative that seems entirely appropriate to the social and economic tectonics of recent years. Like Mister John, Out of Here can be read as a reflection of Irish identity unsure of its parameters or integrity.

In a seminal article written in the aftermath of the Oscar success of My Left Foot in 1990,7 Kevin Rockett argued that, notwithstanding that film’s representation of a ‘authentic’ Irish story, told with and Irish cast and crew, the periphery must be suspicious of embracing the validation of the ‘centre’, especially where, ‘Hollywood is re-energized from the periphery where the production of very particular types of universal narratives are used to reconfirm the dominance of the centre.’ As the range of productions of the past year and beyond demonstrates, Ireland now produces film practices that are artistically and commercially diverse within and beyond our borders. And while the centre-periphery dynamic has only hardened in terms of the range of films playing in Irish cineplexes, technology and two decades of training and education has resulted in more Irish producers producing more moving images than at any time in our short history. Nevertheless, the ‘Irishness’ of such productions seems likely to continue to diminish as a point of critical/commercial reference in a globalized and post-national context of instant downloads and personalized preferences. It is, as we can see, no longer really possible to speak of an Irish cinema, so much as moving images which are Irish-themed or set to various degrees.

  1. Cuckoo is a 28-minute Irish web series directed by Dannan Breathnach that recently secured a distribution deal with Channel France 4 and JRS.TV (Just the Story) in Los Angeles.The Irish production was originally commissioned as part of RTÉ’s Storyland series. []
  2. http://irishpubfilm.com []
  3. See TT interview with Donal Foreman in Film Ireland  http://filmireland.net/2014/02/17/interview-donal-foreman-writer-and-director-of-out-of-here/ []
  4. There can be few better illustrations of the increasingly porous relationship between Irish and global cinema than how Jack Reynor was cast in Transformers. In January 2012 Michael Bay – the high king of Hollywood spectacle – wrote on his website, “I just hired a great new actor for Transformers 4 to star against Mark Wahlberg. Jack Reynor, he is an Irish kid that came to America with 30 bucks in his pocket. Pretty ballsy. Seriously who does that? Anyway I spotted him in a great little Irish movie What Richard Did. This kid is the real deal.” []
  5. http://trampolinemovie.com []
  6. http://theobriensmovie.com []
  7. Kevin Rockett, ‘Aspects of the Los Angelesation of Ireland’, Irish Communications Review, 1, 1991: 18 – 23. []