Irish Film and Television – 2011

Tony Tracy | Roddy Flynn
Huston School, NUI Galway, Ireland | Dublin City University, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2012
ISSUE 7 | Pages: 201-233 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2012-1988

Creative Commons 4.0 2012 by Tony Tracy and Roddy Flynn. 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.

Introduction

On March 10 2012, The Irish Times reported that Ardmore Studios, the facility which since 1958 has in one way or another symbolized the attempt to establish a film industry in Ireland, faced closure owing to a lack of activity at the studio. Ardmore has faced “The End” before: in 1963, 1967, 1973 and 1982 it variously entered receivership, went bankrupt or was simply closed. On every occasion, the studio re-emerged, often re-capitalised by the state. However that the current threatened closure may genuinely be the final curtain reflects shifts in the structure of the Irish audiovisual sector which have become particularly manifest over the past twelve months.

The 1990s and 2000s were easily the most successful decades in Ardmore’s history, as the facility benefitted from the general increase in film and television production levels that followed the re-establishment of the Film Board, the creation of the Independent Production Unit in RTE and the expansion of tax breaks for audiovisual investment.

It might therefore be reasonable to assume that Ardmore’s current difficulties point to a decline in production activity in Ireland. In fact, the opposite is the case. When IBEC published its annual audit of production in Autumn 2011, it noted that the value of the Irish audiovisual sector in terms of output had leapt from €243.3m in 2009 to €387.9m in 2010. However, drilling down into that overall figure reveals dramatic changes in the sector over the past decade. In 2003, 70% of audiovisual production in Ireland was accounted for by feature film production. By 2007, however, feature production’s share of output had fallen to less than 10%. In its stead, independent television production has come to the fore, accounting for 62% of all production activity in 2010.

This shift to television owes much to rise of US cable networks since the late 1990s, which brought cinema-style production values and significantly enhanced budgets to television drama production. And just as in the 1990s US film producers looked overseas for countries which would allow them to eke value out of every last cent of their production budgets, the last five years have seen a number of large-scale US television productions touch down in Ireland, leaving tens of millions of dollars in the hands of Irish cast, crew and facilities companies. The TudorsCamelot and Game of Thrones (the last shot in Northern Ireland but entirely post-produced by Screen Scene in Dublin) have all contributed to production activity here since 2006, availing of both the Section 481 tax-break and dipping into the Irish Film Board’s International Production Fund. 2011 and 2012 have seen or will see further large-scale productions shoot here such as the Morgan O’Sullivan production, Vikingsfor MGM Television, and the Italian-funded Titanic: Blood and Steel mini-series for RAI.

The four seasons of the Morgan O’Sullivan-produced The Tudors were particularly crucial to Ardmore’s viability between 2006 and 2009. That it was almost immediately replaced byCamelot (another Morgan O’Sullivan production, this time for the Starz network) kept the ball rolling for the studios. However, the increased level of television production created its own difficulties. The presence of Camelot  in 2010/11 meant that another production, Showtime’s The Borgias (created by Neil Jordan and co-produced by Octogon’s James Flynn) couldn’t even contemplate shooting in Ireland because of the lack of studio space: that production was largely shot in Hungary instead. However, this apparently unfulfilled potential demand, encouraged entrepreneur Joe O’Connell to proceed with the construction of a competing set of studios 20 minutes down the N11 from Bray in Ballyhenry near Ashford, Co. Wicklow.

The design of Ballyhenry’s three sound stages addressed a key difficulty faced by Ardmore: scale. The significance of this consideration has been emphasized by the particular nature of the television dramas which have come to Ireland in recent years: they have all been set in period or fantasy contexts. This demands the extensive use of Green Screen technology to create the settings for the productions. This in turn requires larger-scale (in excess of 12,000 square feet) studio spaces. Ardmore, a facility originally constructed in a very different film-making era has one such sound stage: Ballyhenry has three.

Thus when the Starz network declined to renew Camelot, Ardmore (and Ireland) lost a production which had spent €32m in the previous year. But that loss was compounded by the news that Vikings seems likely to be shot in Ballyhenry with the result that Ardmore has had no major projects onsite books since early summer 2011.

The apparent ascent of Ballyhenry and the possible demise of Ardmore suggest a scaling up in Irish production and reflect the current emphasis of state audiovisual policy. In the aftermath of the February 2011 election a  new Fine Gael/Labour coalition came into office. The new Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is Jimmy Deenihan, a Fine Gael TD (and former Kerry footballer) who, following the practice of most of his predecessors, lost no time commissioning a report on the future of the Irish audiovisual industry which was published in July 2011. Entitled “Creative Capital” the report recommended a number of strategies aimed at increasing the value of the Irish audiovisual sector to over €1bn and related employment to 10,000 by 2016.

Amongst other recommendations, the report suggested radically overhauling the Irish Film Board to allow it to act as “a specialist development agency for the entire audiovisual industry alongside its current remit of developing the industry for the making of Irish film and television”1 and suggested that responsibility for administering the Sound and Vision scheme (which supports  independent television production with funds from televisionlicence fee income) should be transferred from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to the Film Board in the interests of “greater national policy coherence”. Given the stress elsewhere in the report on the need to develop strong indigenous companies, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this would mean that the Board might focus its support on companies active in both film and television production in the interests of allowing the latter to scale up.

“Scaling up” may also inform the report’s stress on the need to establish strategic partnerships between the putative new Irish Film Board and each of Ireland’s indigenous broadcasters setting out “common ground for feature, TV drama, animation, documentary production and industry training”.2 At a time of national financial retrenchment, there is a stress throughout Government on ensuring that what money is spent is concentrated on productive activities. The report appears to suggest applying the same logic to the audiovisual sector, encouraging the Film Board and the Broadcasters to pool their expenditures to produce films and programmes which can succeed on a market basis. This stress on coordinating film and television production seems logical if one accepts that there’s a link between strong domestic broadcasting markets and the level and quality of film, TV drama and animation output.

However, the report’s insistence that such transformations should be “cost neutral” were problematic given the ongoing financial woes of the economy as a whole. In December 2011, it was announced that the total funding for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht would fall to €266m for 2012 whilst the Irish Film Board’s capital budget (i.e. the money actually spent on development and production of films) would fall from €16m to €13.1m. On the other hand, the Board’s administrative budget was increased by 4%, perhaps in anticipation of a re-tooling the Film Board along the lines proposed in the “Creative Capital” report.

Furthermore, various announcements from RTE and TV3 during 2011 did little to raise expectations that the broadcasters could make significant contributions to developing the audiovisual sector as a whole. The continuing contraction of the television advertising market continued to place all broadcasters under pressure. TV3 introduced a voluntary redundancy scheme in August, albeit on a small scale. RTE experienced even greater financial pressures: not merely did it continue to lose ad revenue but it watched as an increasing proportion of the licence fee bypassed the station and went to the Sound and Vision scheme. Facing a deficit of €17m for 2011, RTE is now in a period of retrenchment. Director-General Noel Curran identified “investigative journalism, arts and culture, children and young people, innovation, 24 hour news and national events”3 as areas the station would seek to protect and enhance but it was notable that more costly areas like drama production were not included on that list.

By contrast, TV3 announced during the year that it was building two new studios at their Ballymount facility to produce more homegrown material – 50 hours a week – than ever before. However, that additional output looks likely to be low-cost, invariably studio-based and almost wholly based on UK formats. Come Dine with Me, a reboot of Mastermind,Family Fortunes and Tallafornia (based on Geordie Shore itself based on Jersey Shore) do not seem likely to spearhead international sales.

That said, RTE are still the only producers of indigenous television drama. In addition to soap Fair City, 2011 and 2012 have seen the return of the gangster drama Love/Hate(reviewed here) and the restaurant-set Raw. RTE comedy, once regarded as a contradiction in terms also seemed to find a second wind. Hardy Bucks, a product of RTE’s “Storyland” slot from 2009, returned for a second series, with a welcome focus on a Midlands Ireland often absent from the small screen (see review of The Other Side of Sleep). David McSavage’s The Savage Eye found respectable audiences on RTE2 Television as it skewered the pretensions of Irish society, and perfectly captured public fury at the performance of the Irish political class over the past decades. Bizarrely it was eclipsed by the success of the BBC/RTE co-production Mrs Brown’s Boys, centred on comedian Brendan O’Carroll’s performance as the eponymous Mrs Brown, a working class Dublin housewife. O’Carroll’s “Mrs Brown” has been around for decades, on stage and in book form (and indeed on the big screen as performed by Angelica Huston in the 1996 film Agnes Brown.) The character’s small screen incarnation met with a negative reaction from critics in Ireland and the UK, who regarded its broad-humour, lead character in drag and studio setting as a throwback to sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s. Audiences, however, have flocked to the show – the show’s 2011 season averaged over 700,000 viewers on RTE – and in a populist nod, BAFTA included it amongst the nominees for Best Television Comedy in April 2011 (it didn’t win).

Strikingly absent from “serious” television drama was work reflecting and exploring the impact of the economic crisis (now in its fourth year). It’s obliquely referenced in Raw but the focus there remains on the internal lives of the characters rather than the social context they live in.

The same is not universally true on the big screen. Darragh Byrne’s Parked drew a remarkably-sympathetic performance from Colm Meaney, as Fred, a middle-aged man, reduced to living in his car by the recession. The film was well-received critically and its success in festivals on both sides of the Atlantic raise the prospect that it may receive wider distribution than the short run it received domestically. Indeed that it received a theatrical release even in Ireland made it unusual. Of the 44 films listed by the Irish Film Board as having been produced with its involvement since 2010, 14 have received any kind of release in Ireland. Even allowing for the fact that some of these are still in post-production the difficulty that Irish feature films continue to encounter in reaching audiences is disappointing. In summer 2011, Setanta Ireland ran a season of Irish films every weekday night, films which as IFB Chief Exec James Hickey discreetly put it, audiences “may not otherwise have a chance to see.”4  

Among the 14 that were released were The RunwaySnapRewindWake WoodSensation(reviewed below), Between the CanalsThe Other Side of Sleep (reviewed below) and the poorly received Stephen Soderbergh film Haywire (which was at least notable for featuring what is arguably the first blockbuster-style chase sequence through the streets of Dublin). A number of documentaries supported by the Film Board also found audiences on the small screen: Pyjama Girls, Ballymun Lullaby and Knuckle (the latter two reviewed below). By far the biggest Irish film in 2011 was John MacDonagh’s The Guard which in the process of taking €4.13m at Irish box office became the most successful independent Irish film ever released here (surpassing The Wind That Shakes the Barley). That this occurred against the backdrop of declining cinema attendances (which have fallen steadily since their 2007 of 18.4m admissions to 16.5m in 2010) is all the more remarkable.

Producer of The Guard, Ed Guiney’s reflections echoed the conclusions of “Creative Culture” on scaling up. Interviewed by iftn.ie, he argued that rather than simply trying to attract UK and US production

We should be making those films ourselves instead of just trying to attract them in. We need to be making more films on the same scale as The Guard. We have had a lot of lower budget productions, around a million euro or less, and that is totally valid. But what we haven’t had a lot of recently are medium budget film, around a four or five million budget, like The Guard or Shadow Dancers.5 

Guiney and his partner Andrew Lowe have already made significant progress in terms of scale. Already working both as a producer and – within Ireland – a distributor, their company Element Pictures moved into the online world with the launch of Volta Online in Spring 2012, making available a host of little-seen Irish films (not necessarily produced by Element or any of Guiney’s earlier ventures) to, hopefully, new audiences. In a similar vein, although the Light House cinema in Dublin’s Smithfield closed in April 2011 after three years of operation when the owners were unable to meet increased rental charges, in February 2012, the Light House re-opened it doors (just in time for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival) again under the management of Element.

The year ended on a similarly upbeat note with the inclusion of four Irish-related films among the Oscar Nominations. Relative neophyte producer Eimear O’Kane saw her short film Pentecost nominated in the best short film category alongside the eventual category winner, the Terry George-directed The Shore. There were also nominations for Kenneth Branagh as best supporting actor and make-up artist Lynn Johnston for her work on Albert Nobbs which was shot in Dublin during 2011. Perhaps more surprising was the absence of a nomination for the apparently omnipresent Michael Fassbender, who turned in a harrowing performance in Steve McQueen’s Shame. Indeed, 2011 was a year in which a rake of Irish actors, suddenly appeared (in some cases reappeared) on the international radar on both the big and small screens: Saoirse Ronan, Robert Sheehan, Amy Huberman, Sarah Bolger, Andrew Scott, Antonia Campbell Hughes, Kerry Condon and Eva Birthwhistle all came to prominence in a year in which sadly, two leading lights were extinguished in the guise of Alan Devlin and David Kelly.

In sum then, in spite of adverse economic conditions in 2011 the Irish Film and TV sector was vibrant, active and in some quarters deeply ambitious. However it was in a state of unprecedented transition. With the imminent closure of Ardmore, that venerable symbol of Ireland’s long held, often postponed ambition to make images of itself for the big screen, we can identify a real and symbolic shift away from an industry predicated on the model of indigenous feature film production towards an entertainment industry caught in the flow in transnational capital. It is notable that the ‘rising stars’ mentioned above all came to prominence or revived their careers in TV drama, in contrast to the traditional progress of Irish actors from (national) stage to (international) big screen. At the same time the cultural capital of feature films has progressively diminished, the success of the occasional breakout film like The Guard (benefitting from two stars and a considerable marketing budget) notwithstanding. While there is more work in the audiovisual sector than at any time before, challenges of distribution mean that a significant number of Irish films now go unseen outside of the festival circuit. From the current vantage point then, and in light of policy shifts outlined earlier, it seems that film will become an increasingly niche activity of the sector as a whole.

  1. Audiovisual Strategic Review Steering Group (2011), Creative Capital, Dublin: Government Publications, p. 19.  []
  2. Ibid, p. 16.  []
  3. From text of speech delivered by Noel Curran at The Helix, Dublin City University 17thOctober 2011.  []
  4. “Irish Films For All On Setanta Ireland” from www.iftn.ie/news. Accessed at http://iftn.ie/news/BroadcastNews/?act1=record&only=1&aid=73&rid=4284031&tpl=archnews&force=1 7 March 2012.  []
  5. Mandy Hegarty (2011) “Irish Producer Ed Guiney on The Guard” posted July 4 2011 on www.iftn.ie.Accessed at http://iftn.ie/news/featureinterviews/?act1=record&only=1&aid=73&rid=4284049&tpl=archnews&force=1 1 March 2012.  []