Roddy Flynn | Tony Tracy
School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland | NUI Galway, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2020
ISSUE 15 | Pages: 296-329 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2020-9568

Creative Commons 4.0 2020 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.

Sometimes, even an annual review feels like it might be too frequent, especially if its subject is an industry wherein the activity often fails to resolve itself within neat 12 months intervals. The policies put in place to incentivise production and the broader development of the screen sector in Ireland operate across five year horizons.  Even for individual productions, the gap between a greenlight for production and the actual appearance of the text via whatever primary platform may span several years. (This is particularly true of labour intensive sectors like animation. Cartoon Saloon’s Nora Toomey is currently working on a feature version of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s classic 1948 children’s book My Father’s Dragon which was commissioned in 2018 but which will not see the light of day until 2021).

Despite this one can tentatively point to “certain tendencies”, some novel and still emerging, some entrenching well-established patterns and some – most notably the performance of Irish screen texts in their domestic market – downright worrying. The effects of a marked heating up of the streamer wars on the other side of the Atlantic clearly works to the benefit of a local industry which, pace the Irish government’s 2018 Audiovisual Action Plan is seeking to present itself as “a global hub for the production of Film, TV Drama and Animation”. The fall-out from these wars – an at least short-term upsurge in demand for content to fill the silos of new players hoping to distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded marketplace – reinforces the post-2005 trend whereby the highest profile productions in the Irish screen production ecology have primarily been commissions for US cable channels including Showtime (The Tudors, Penny Dreadful), Starz (Camelot), the History Channel (Vikings) and Syfy (Night Flyers).

The relative ease with which Ireland has established itself as key element of the international division of screen labour (albeit this is the result of active policy and industry  efforts to attract such productions) is shadowed by the implications for the Irish film and television sectors exposure to international competition at the point of consumption. In marked contrast to recent years where local heroes – Mrs Brown’s Boys (2014), The Young Offenders (2016), Black ’47 (2018) – achieved significant domestic audiences, 2019 saw indigenous production struggled to make an impact in a cinema market dominated by US franchise behemoths. Just 10 films accounted for 38% of total Irish box office in 2019: three from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, four additions to the Disney animation franchise (including live action remakes), the unexpected global hit Joker and the big screen reboot of Downton Abbey. Only one – Rise of the Skywalker – could be regarded as even tangentially connected to Ireland given its use of the Skelligs as a location. The issue is less acute on the small screen: new drama on RTE and Virgin Media found audiences but notably often did so with content increasingly – and manifestly – designed with an international market in mind, an ambition usually reflected in the involvement of production entities and funders from beyond Ireland. This may be trivial but it may also discourage work perceived as “difficult” for international audiences.

If ever there was a sector which exemplified the disruptive potential of the digital network economy (think Uber, Airbnb and Amazon) it is the arrival of OTT (“Over The Top”) or streaming services into a small-screen market long dominated by 20th century industrial-scale broadcasting behemoths. Subscription-based revenue models directly commodifying audiences have transformed the economics of an industry long reliant on either advertising revenue, public support through broadcast licence fee revenues or, in the case of most European public service broadcasters, a combination of both.

If this has already been the case over the past decade, emerging industrial configurations in the US are clearly set to further upset the apple cart.  Having effectively dominated (indeed largely created) the global market for streaming services since 2010, Netflix is suddenly facing a plethora of challenges from OTT services offered by legacy television companies (CBS’s “All Access”, Disney’s “Disney+” and – from April 2020 –  NBC’s “Peacock”), slightly newer media companies (HBO’s “HBO Max” debuting in May 2020) and digital native players such  Amazon’s Prime Video and Apple+, as the post-Steve Jobs era tech company finally decided to invest some serious capital into its “Apple TV +” service.

The scale of the potential outlay on content production across these firms is staggering. Although those services rooted in legacy production will to a large extent cannibalise their existing libraries to fill out their content roster, the newer players are increasingly looking to rapidly acquire their own directly-owned content to obviate the possibility that rights holders will retrieve their content back as they also move into the OTT market. (Netflix has already experienced a haemorrhage of Disney content – Marvel, Star Wars, Animation – as the latter’s “Disney+” service came on stream.) Netflix’s total content budget in 2013 as House of Cards appeared for the first time was around $2.3bn, the bulk of which was spent on external acquisitions. By 2019, that figure had leapt to a reported $15bn most of which is being spent on the direct production of some 300 film and television shows from countries around the world. For its part Apple’s 2017 announcement that it was ramping up its own content production with a war-chest of $1bn initially seemed impressive but the sudden arrival of much broader competition in the intervening two years saw that figure leap to $6bn spent on high profile Emmy-friendly content such as the Morning Show. Amazon too has massively upped its game, matching Apple’s investment by 2019 and pumping circa $1bn into its five-season adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings (due to begin streaming in 2021). Taken in aggregate then, the streamer wars have conjured something like $35bn for investment in content. This figure, equivalent to 12% of Irish GNP in 2019, is critical to understanding the current political economy of Irish screen production. In an age where runaway production is taken for granted (the single most successful global television show of the past decade – Game of Thrones – which was shot in Northern Ireland, Spain, Croatia, Iceland and Morocco) it is scarcely any wonder that owners of production facilities including Ardmore, Troy and Ashford Studios have been licking their lips and expanding their facilities in anticipation that some of the streamer bounty would find its way to these shores.

And it has. The aforementioned Cartoon Saloon project My Father’s Dragon was commissioned by Netflix, which also briefly diverted the Vanessa Hudgens 2019 vehicle The Knight Before Christmas from its Ontario location for a two-day sojourn in the gothic Charleville Castle outside Tullamore. In September 2019, principal photography began at Ardmore Studios on the Netflix-commissioned Fate: The Winx Saga, a live-action adaptation of the RAI Italy/Nickelodeon animated series about a group of, wait for it, crime-busting fairies. Perhaps most significantly in November 2019, Netflix ordered production of 24 episodes of Valhalla, advancing by 100 years the setting of the History Channel’s Vikings (which saw its sixth and final series shot in 2018).

However, even this was dwarfed by the July 2019 announcement Troy Studios would play host to a €45m 10-part adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation sci-fi sequence. Produced for Apple TV by Skydance Television in partnership with local production company Wild Atlantic Pictures, Foundation became, at a stroke, the single largest single production ever shot in Ireland, directly employing 500 people (even if production was suspended in mid-March in response to the Covid-19 outbreak).

Between 2008 and 2011, the money spent on labour by indigenous television production and incoming projects was roughly equivalent, with each contributing about €15m in expenditure. However, the labour-value of incoming television productions since 2016 has exploded, reaching €99m in 2017 as compared with the €5.5m spent on employment in local productions. TV drama, driven by the presence of international productions is now the core of the industry, accounting for more than half of the total €291m Irish expenditure across film, animation, documentary and television in 2017. Incoming television productions alone accounted for €156m of that. In other words, even before the Audiovisual Action Plan declared its global hub ambitions for the Irish screen production sector, it’s goals had arguably already been partially achieved with more than 80% of Irish production expenditure in 2017 being sourced from outside Ireland.

The question is what this leaves at the local level and, more specifically, what did it leave in 2019. On the big screen, although not constituting the total released output of Irish cinema in 2019, 23 feature films and feature docs with some Screen Ireland support made their way into cinema between January and December. Admittedly, at a textual level audiences might have been hard-pressed to recognise some these as local texts since, in keeping with the ongoing outward look of indigenous production, so many are set elsewhere (and indeed often have even limited Irish personnel involvement). Audiences flocked to Element Pictures The Favourite, the awards haul of which, drove shy of €1m worth of admissions in Ireland. However, local audiences proved immune to the allure of even those international films with (unlike the Yorgos Lanthimos-directed Oscar- bait) actually had Irish directors. Neil Jordan’s New York-set Greta, a two-hander with Isabelle Huppert and Chloe Grace Moretz made only a muted impact on its Irish release despite major distribution support. For its part John Butler’s unexpected follow-up to Handsome Devil, a likeable odd couple comedy called Papa Chulo set in sunny California disappeared without trace on release here. (It did however, enjoy something of an afterlife on Netflix and, piquantly, offered Irish viewers the peculiarly arresting about seeing the words “Screen Ireland in association with RTÉ” superimposed over a Los Angeles vista). Ivan Kavanagh’s, Never Grow Old, a leftfield western featuring Emile Hirsch and John Cusack suffered a similar fate on its August 2019 release. Given it’s (Irish) west coast setting, (and not notwithstanding the central casting of Stephen Dorff and Melissa George) David Gleeson’s psychological horror-themed Don’t Go with its overt debt to Nicolas Roeg Don’t Look Now (and even David Keating’s Wake Wood) might have anticipated a better fate but despite prominence of local talent (notably Simon Delaney and Aoibheann Ginnity), at best lukewarm reviews consigned it to oblivion (and, in all likelihood, ultimately to a streamer near you).

Perhaps most disappointingly, the more unproblematically Irish films –, Viko Nikci’s impressive Cellar Door (reviewed elsewhere by Emma Bracken), Ian FitzGibbon’s black comedy Dark Lies The Island, Carmel Winters’ boxing drama Float Like A Butterfly, Hugh O’Connor’s likeable comedy Metal Heart (from a script by Skippy Dies author Paul Murray), and Shelly Love’s A Bump Along the Way (an unplanned pregnancy drama starring Bronagh Gallagher) – all failed to breach the top ten in the week of their release despite support from distributors familiar with the Irish market (Eclipse and Wild Card) and generally positive reviews. Even those that did – however – briefly penetrate the public consciousness can hardly be said to have done so in any spectacular fashion. Aoife Crehan’s macabre comedic feature debut The Last Right released just before Christmas 2019 looked like it might have legs, taking €20k and reaching number five in the top ten on its first week of release (doubtless aided by a significant push from its mini-major distributor eOne). However, it appeared to flounder somewhat thereafter. Ordinary Love, (reviewed by Tony Tracy) a reflective study of middle-aged love under duress was a double hander in two senses, with two directors – the duo Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn – and two sensitive performances from Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville. Yet it struggled to make €20k at the box office. Another directorial two-hander, the Mike Ahern-Enda Loughman-directed Extra Ordinary (here reviewed by Harvey O’Brien) with a winning central performance from stand-up Maeve Higgins, took €50k despite offering an often hilarious take on the Irish horror genre. Indeed, just one film, Lee Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground (of which Denis Murphy offers a review and production history elsewhere in this year’s review) took enough at the box office –  €150k – to allow it match the revenues of the fifth most successful Irish film of 2019.

The net impact of all this in financial terms is not yet 100% clear. Since 2010, Irish films have accounted for anything from less than 1% of total local box office to – driven in part by Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie – up to 7% in 2014. The combined box office of Irish films in 2018 – the year of Black ‘47, Damo and Ivor and Dublin Oldschool – was just shy of €3m or about 2.5% of all revenues. Although official figures for 2019 have not yet been released, overall attendance fell 4% to 15.1m admissions, suggesting that the post-recession recovery of 2015-17 would not be sustained. However, it is also clear that Irish films in 2019 almost certainly failed to account for even 1% of their own box office. (It is already clear at time of writing, as public events in Ireland are curtailed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that 2020 attendance figures will be even worse than previous years.)

Accounting for this disappointing performance is necessarily speculative. The Hole in the Ground relative success may owe something to its generic – horror – nature and, at a stretch, whatever star power lead actor Seana Kerslake exerts. Surveying the releases above it is hard not to notice the prevalence of genre work amongst the fiction releases: three horrors and a western. We have speculated in these pages before as to the operation of a political economy which perhaps tacitly encourages such genre-based production. As Emma Bracken’s perceptive reading of Cellar Door argues, there is no contradiction between genre and a local address. Indeed it may be that Cellar Door director Nikci’s part-outsider status (originally from Kosovo, Viko has lived in Ireland for two decades and is married to Jim Sheridan’s niece) permits him the distance to interpret the operation of historical institutional abuse in Ireland in a manner a native (an “insider”) might not achieve. However, it is equally arguable that although The Hole in the Ground’s adherence to genre conventions made it a relatively straightforward sell to international funding agencies, the condition attached to such funding dilute its cultural specificity. If, as Denis Murphy’s review notes, the involvement of Finnish funding is reflected in the presence of cast credits like “Kati Outinen: Noreen O’Brady” one consequence is that film occasionally feels “displaced” or least uncertain of its setting. (Those who have watched The Hole in the Ground will know that Outinen’s is a non-speaking role and thus the national origin of the actor is arguably relatively trivial. But it may also raise the question of the whether the role is silent precisely because the actor’s natural accent was not Irish.)

Although space does not permit extensive consideration of the documentary form this year, we should also note that 10 Screen Ireland feature docs were released this year and that here too the outward gaze and concerns with matters beyond these shores was evident in titles such as Gaza, Losing Alaska (herein reviewed by David Robbins) but also in Johnny Gogan’s Prisoners of the Moon (about Nazi rocket scientist Arthur Rudolph), Seamus Murphy’s journey with English music icon PJ Harvey A Dog Called Money, UK filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s truly extraordinary tale of photojournalist Letizia Battaglia Shooting the Mafia and another addition to Paul Duane’s international CV, the often hilarious Best Before Death on musician and art terrorist Bill Drummond (he of – formerly – The KLF). Indeed just three of the feature documentaries – Frank Shouldice’s eccentric tale of septuagenarian Cavan brothers with aviator ambitions The Man Who Wanted to Fly, another addition to the growing canon of architecture-themed documentaries, Marcus Robinson’s An Engineer Imagines and the harrowing Land Without God, a study of institutional abuse co-directed by actor (and survivor) Mannix Flynn, Lotta Petronella and Maedhbh McMahon – directly addressed Irish themes at all.

The final area to consider then is the health of Irish television drama production. RTE’s ongoing financial travails have clearly curtailed the scope for costly drama on the national broadcaster. Although Amy Huberman’s Finding Joy was recommissioned, to date Irish audiences exposure to new material from RTE – soap opera aside – was limited to Dublin Murders, (here reviewed by Sheamus Sweeney) a somewhat awkward melding of two storylines from the crime novels of author Tana French. Though apparently sufficiently satisfied with the performance to contemplate a second series, reviews were muted and notwithstanding an impressive cast (Sarah Greene and Killian Scott amongst others) and strong production values, RTE struggled to surpass audiences in excess of 200,000, well below the 300,000 plus who tuned to watch the channel’s 2018 drama showcase Taken Down. More is promised from RTE in 2020 – Dead Still a Victorian era set murder mystery built around Michael Smiley’s photographer protagonist and, almost inevitably, an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s critically-acclaimed international best-seller Normal People directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie MacDonald – but the cupboard seems dispiritingly bare at present.

Indeed, upstart competitor Virgin Media has threatened to upstage RTEs’ drama output in the past 12 months. Though released without any of the fanfare surrounding Dublin Murders (the profile of which was enhanced by its broadcast on both stations funding it – RTE and the BBC) Mark “Cardboard Gangsters” O’Connor’s Darklands, which traced the domestic impact of criminal activity within a single family built around the parallel lives of MMA fighter Damien and his small-time felon brother Wesley. Sombre, low-key (and presumably relatively low budget) Darklands managed to explore the impact of a criminal existence in a manner which avoided the histrionics Love/Hate increasingly resorted to as it moved to its conclusion.

Darklands was also unusual in that – almost uniquely – it appeared to be the only Irish drama (again, excepting soaps) that was made last year with Irish audiences squarely in its sights. Though Dublin Murders and Normal People are unquestionably Irish stories, it is striking that both are based on pre-sold properties –best-selling novels – with built-in international audiences. Whether this guarantees actual sales remains to be seen, although it is notable the Virgin Media apparently secured sales in 65 territories for the first season of the Adrian Dunbar starrer Blood, more or less guaranteeing the production of the second series which went out on Irish screens in February 2020. In a neat circumnavigation, Blood was co-produced by Acorn TV (as was RTE’s Dead Still) a production company seeking to make inroads into the US market as a second-tier streaming service based around British material (or at least material with a UK-feel). That such collaboration is apparently critical for Irish material to be commissioned at all should give us pause for thought.