[who make] films that rage against the silence by expressing the innermost feelings about the society we live in . . .
The bombast of youth notwithstanding, this is a provocative declaration. At a time of crushing economic and (as a consequence) social crisis, the prospect of a radical cinema movement offers enormous possibilities, even if the economic contraction seems to militate against such costly arts as film and television. The question is whether O’Connor’s assertions reflect current trends or wishful thinking.
The Feature Film in an Age of Digital Reproduction
In the afterglow of the sudden increase in film and (to a lesser extent) television production in Ireland after 1993, a series of state and industry-sponsored reports and conferences were commissioned to discuss how to maintain production momentum. Many of these referred to the need to maintain a “balanced ecology” within the audiovisual sector, so that the health of a notoriously volatile industry (inherently so, given that production companies are essentially in the business of serial prototype production) was not reliant on success in one particular field. For this to happen it was necessary to encourage development right across the feature film, television, commercial and corporate video production sectors. To a large extent, and despite the economic downturn, this strategy has been put in place and is a success. As a consequence (and along with other factors such as the availability of cheaper digital technology and a broader profile of practitioners), in 2012, we have a far more diverse, complex and varied output from our Film and TV industry than at any time before. This includes new voices across a range of roles (from writing to post-production) and forms (animation, film, TV, computer games).
At one level it is undeniable that (particularly in the wake of the success of Once – now a successful stage musical) emerging individual film-makers have begun to find support and expression over the past five years or so. This was certainly the policy of the previous Film Board under which Simon Perry operated and championed early career storytellers such as Brendan Muldowney (Savage), Lenny Abrahamson (Garage), Ciaran Foy (Citadel), Ian Power (The Runway), Colin Downey (The Looking Glass), Lance Daly (Kisses), Ken Wardrop (His & Hers) and Carmel Winters (Snap) among others. Heading into the future, that kind of broad based support from the IFB will be harder to maintain.
However, at the same time, funding for Irish film and TV has been dramatically cut since the advent of the economic crisis. RTE has seen its advertising revenue collapse from €239m in 2008 to €167m in 2011. Licence fee income has also dropped — with the net effect that RTE lost €16.7m in 2011. The Irish Film Board has similarly watched a capital budget of €20m in 2008 fall to just under €12m in 2012. This decline in funding raises the question of whether the kind of local films championed by Mark O’Connor can be supported at all.
Nevertheless, we have recently seen the emergence of new approaches to no/low budget film-making — from film-makers like the prolific Mark O’Connor himself (Between the Canals, King of the Travellers) and his contemporary Ivan Kavanagh (The Fading Light, Our Wonderful Home) among others. Of these, Terry McMahon’s Charlie Casanova (with a reported budget of just €1,000 and a crew assembled via Facebook) probably attracted the most attention over the past 12 months (albeit more for that film’s mischievous selective quotation from an Irish Times review than for its awards success at the Galway Film Fleadh and the Melbourne Underground Film Festival). A number of other productions have pursued similar ‘low-fi’ / DIY approaches: the “privately-funded” sci-fi thriller Dark By Noon; Flats a crowd-funded, six-part drama series, Cathy Pearson’s documentary Get the Picture (funded by American website indiegogo.com) or Donal Foreman’s upcoming feature Out of Here.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, beyond a small number of film festival screenings, such productions continue to find it difficult to find audiences. Although Charlie Casanova did receive a limited cinema release in Ireland, Dark By Noon does not appear to have been seen anywhere (despite talk of a September 2012 UK and Ireland cinema release) while the fact that Flats has been made without broadcaster support raises the question of how/whether it’ll ever make our screens.
An Irish Cinema?
Part of our motivation in drawing attention to these shifts and the splintering of production/distribution practices is a reflection on the notable dampening of an Irish national cinema discourse in recent years. Several factors have contributed to this — the diversification in the output of Irish film-makers; the development of Irish film studies away from a narrowly national interpretive lens and the radical transformation and crisis in the Irish national narrative itself. Nevertheless, new approaches such as Debbie Ging’s outstanding new book on Irish Masculinities suggest exciting new lens’ for understanding such fragmentation. In her review of What Richard Did for this year’s edition, Ging suggests that Irish films are texts that can (perhaps, must) be read within a nexus of extra-territorial concerns — in this case class and gender — as local responses to anxieties surrounding white privilege within a shifting global power structure. However, they may also be responses to more local issues. In both What Richard Did and Dollhouse, the parental figure is literally or figuratively absent, a lacuna mirrored by the apparent absence of any moral or ethical principles which might guide the actions of the youthful protagonists of both texts. It is tempting to read this as a reflection of an era in which the younger generation finds itself hamstrung by the amoral decisions of an older generation who have left them with a life-long financial debt and fatally undermined/corrupted the nation’s once unshakable pillars of authority.
The absence of financial security may also undermine the possibility of creating works which interrogate the current crisis and encourage instead a turn to less risky material. In this regard, Craig Simpson notes in his review of Stitches and Grabbers that the horror genre continues to offer an attractive set of conventions for young Irish film-makers: in addition to Stitches and Grabbers, 2012 also saw the release of Citadel and The Inside. Clearly the ongoing popularity of the horror genre (perhaps the dominant genre in Irish film-making) is that it is a relatively cheap and formulaic genre to produce, relying on well established conventions that cut on down script development time and costs. It is also therefore a more attractive proposition for distributors now that there is an established niche audience (mostly young males) for the product. But as Simpson opines, Irish horror comes in varying degrees of quality and is at its most interesting when it intersects not simply with established conventions but as a means of surreptitiously commenting on social situations.
Big Success on the Small Screen
Traditionally absent from histories of Irish Film has been TV output. 2012 was a year in which national and international production for the small screen continued to grow in status and significance in terms of employment, production volumes, critical success and cultural impact. When overseas-originated feature film production began to wane after 2003, indigenous television production (in both drama and non-fiction) began to pick up, driven largely by RTE’s drive to fulfill it’s statutory obligations to commission independent work but also by the content demands of TG4. As the 2000s progressed these were again augmented by overseas work (The Tudors, Camelot, Ripper Street and Vikings) albeit this work was largely destined for the international marketplace (including Ireland). The presence of such overseas productions has cushioned the sector as a whole against the impact of declines in indigenous funding: Vikings alone brought €20m to the Irish economy.
But local production for the small screen has also thrived in 2012 with Love/Hate as the outstanding exemplar. Having won more than respectable audiences during its first two series, the third season was an unparalleled success. Over 850,000 viewers tuned in to the season finale in December, a ratings success which in turn drove stellar sales of the box set for seasons 1-3 in the weeks running up to Christmas. Furthermore, the series has also been widely sold overseas and remake rights have been optioned for the US market. Perhaps more surprising is the shift by commercial station TV3, a station hitherto understood as acquisitions-led, towards a far more content-led approach. This was reflected not merely in its ongoing production of relatively cheap non-fiction material but significant investments in drama. Even if the €300,000 invested in the ITV-produced Titanic drama constituted only a small proportion of that production’s budget, the decision to commission Deception, a critically panned but audience-pleasing drama series, demonstrated a new commitment to indigenous production which finally realized the promise of the station when it first received its licence in 1989.
In a similar vein, Irish-originated television comedy translated successfully across the Irish sea. Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boys is now the top-rated comedy in the UK (on BBC) and Ireland (on RTE) and continues to reap awards (notably at the BAFTAs and National Television Awards) despite ongoing critical maulings about its dated mode of address. On Sky One (another commercial channel which has clearly decided on a content production strategy), the apparently unstoppable ascent of Irish comic actor Chris O’Dowd continued as Moone Boy (set in Boyle Co. Roscommon and co-scripted by Nick Vincent Murphy who also wrote TG4’s The Running Mate in 2007) became an instant success, securing a commission for a second series. Perhaps unfairly compared with Father Ted with which it shares a certain surrealistic approach, Moone Boy mines O’Dowd’s Roscommon childhood for comedy gold and has reintroduced a whole generation to Tico’s Tune, better known to Irish radio listeners of the 1970s and 1980s as the theme from the Gay Byrne Radio Show. The success of comedy may also owe something to the current economically depressed epoch: that RTE Television is currently running three shows of a satirical bent – the established Savage Eye along with newcomers The Mario Rosenstock Show and Irish Pictorial Weekly — is clearly influenced by the fact that logic-defying events now occur on a weekly basis in Irish society. Irish Pictorial Weekly in particular has been outstanding: reviving a format created by former Irish film censor Frank Hall during the 1970s, the figure of the “Minister for Hardship” has been replaced by — inevitably — a German who reports back to HQ in Germany on the activities of the “pixieheads” in Ireland, overtly drawing attention to doubts over where national sovereignty now lies.
The search for international revenues has not been limited to drama and comedy, however. After Irish production Company Good Company Productions sold options on the format for Feirm Factor (a reality show based around managing a farm) to six territories in Europe, RTE developed “Format Farm” to generate formats which, in the words of RTE Commissioning Editor Eddie Doyle “can be made to serve both our audiences here and for export”. That a commissioning editor for the national (public service) broadcaster can unabashedly rationalize the resulting decision to produce two of the sixty (!) reality formats submitted (The Takeover and Six in the City will hit Irish screens as full-fledged series in 2013) as «an appropriate pro-business response to the commercial and broadcasting environment that we’re all in» speaks volumes for how the ongoing crisis has altered priorities in the audiovisual sector.
In conclusion, despite a severe down-scaling in funding opportunities, the Irish audiovisual sector displayed resilience and diversity in 2012. However, the distribution difficulties faced by Irish cinema in part accounts for the fact that feature films now occupy a less significant place in the overall cultural and economic impact of Irish audiovisual output than they ever did. Indeed, it might be argued that Irish TV — Love/Hate, The Savage Eye, Irish Pictorial Weekly – was a more continuous and visible cultural presence in 2012 than even relatively widely distributed Irish films like What Richard Did or Dollhouse. That said, there is enough film-making practice — particularly at the low-budget and no-budget end of the spectrum — and across forms of short film and documentary — to speak of ongoing and emerging Irish films rooted in the local. (In respect of short films we should note especially the recent success of the charming short film Irish Folk Furniture (Best Animation Short at the Sundance Film Festival) and gesture towards the Irish Film Boards useful short film channel: http://www.thisisirishfilm.ie/shorts). In 2012, despite cuts, a substantial and established Irish audiovisual sector working within local and international contexts continued to develop talent and produce a variety of work. Some of this output tells us something about Ireland as a society. But — despite faint traces — it would, we think, be premature to speak of anything like a ‘new wave’ in the traditional use of that term in cinema history; linking the output of a group of artist/film-makers through recognizable thematic and aesthetic concerns linked to social change.