| Published: 15 March, 2014
ISSUE 9 | Pages: 208-237 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2014-4739
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
- 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. [↩]
- http://irishpubfilm.com [↩]
- 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/ [↩]
- 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.” [↩]
- http://trampolinemovie.com [↩]
- http://theobriensmovie.com [↩]
- Kevin Rockett, ‘Aspects of the Los Angelesation of Ireland’, Irish Communications Review, 1, 1991: 18 – 23. [↩]
The Concrete Manifestations of Emotional Eternity in Brendan Muldowney’s Love Eternal (2013)
Pilgrim Hill (Gerard Barrett 2012)
The Last Days on Mars (Ruari Robinson 2013)
Amber, Screenworks and the production of culture
I wanna destroy the passer by: Nihilism, Narcissism and Authority in Love/Hate Series Four
New Voices in Irish Experimental Cinema