School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2021
ISSUE 16 | Pages: 302-333 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2021-10401
Part of the appeal of cinema-going since its inception, especially with the emergence of purpose built picture palaces designed to appeal to more well-heeled patrons, has been the opportunity to seal oneself into a dark, womb-like environment and succumb the stimulation of the optical and auditory senses by high definition images and crystal clear sounds.
In an era of Covid-19, those positives have become major disincentives to cinema-going. There have been no documented cases of Coronus Virus transmission occurring within an Irish cinema. Nonetheless, given the zombie movie-esque culture of fear, which has transformed our perception of strangers into potential vectors of transmission, how dedicated a cinephile would one need to be to contemplate entering a closed room shared with others even under socially-distanced conditions, with decent ventilation and mandatory mask-wearing?
For much of 2020, personal inclination or otherwise in this regard was in any case moot. Under emergency conditions in Ireland, cinemas were required to shutter their doors for much of the year. The first lockdown saw cinemas close on March 25th and, even when they were permitted to re-open at the end of June, social distancing requirements severely curtailed their capacity. With the advent of a second wave in the Autumn, first Dublin (on 18 September) and then the rest of the country (October 5) moved to Level 3 restrictions which saw all cultural venues shut again. They would re-open briefly for the month of December but as it became evident that a third wave was sweeping over the country the introduction of Level 5 restrictions saw the shutters of cinemas close again and, at time of writing (March 2021), their doors remain shut. In all, in the twelve months from March 2020 to March 2021, Irish cinemas were only able to operate for a third of that period. Even when open, social distancing restrictions – 1 or 2 metres spaces between individual cinema-goers and a cap of 50 people in any auditorium – severely curtailed the numbers who could attend.
Detailed figures on how this has affected Irish cinemas are, unsurprisingly, not available. (Medialive.ie, usually our go-to source for such data simply stopped publishing monthly attendance figure after January 2020). Globally the impact has clearly been calamitous for the theatrical exhibition sector. Pre-Covid, global box or 2020 was predicted to be somewhere of the order of $44.5bn. In fact, early figures from January 2021 suggest that it appears to have come in at scarcely one third of this. Given that Ireland has endured what is, by some distance, the longest lockdown in the EU (measured in terms of days of business closures) it’s safe to assume that the impact on the local box office has been even more pronounced. Some sense of the likely decline in revenues is hinted at by estimates from Core Advertising which suggest that spend on cinema advertising in Ireland fell by 80% from €7.6m in 2019 to €1.4m in 2020.
One consequence of this is that some of the films that might usually have formed the core of the annual review received either very limited big-screen releases or, in many cases, have seen those releases repeatedly and indefinitely delayed. Ireland’s submission to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the Best Foreign Language Oscar category, Arracht, a famine-era drama written and directed by Tom Sullivan, was originally scheduled for an April 3rd 2020 Irish cinema release. However, the winner of best feature at the American Golden Picture International Film Festival in May 2020 has, as of March 2021, been unable to capitalize upon its generally positive critical reception with a theatrical release. Similarly, Herself, Phyllida Lloyd’s film with Irish actress (and writer) Clare Dunne was positively reviewed in Variety and Screen Daily after it screened at Sundance in January 2020. However, lockdown closures persistently complicated a theatrical release in the UK and Ireland until, just before the Autumn 2020 lockdown kicked in, producers and distributors Element Pictures announced that the film’s release would delayed until further notice. It also appears that the latest Desperate Optimists (Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor) collaboration, Rose Plays Julie, a psychological thriller which premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019 and was due for a May 2020 Irish cinema release, has yet to reach the big screen. Similar fates befell The Winter Lake, Be Good or Be Gone, Redemption of a Rogue, and Boys from County Hell none of which appear to have received any kind of release at time of writing (early March 2021).
Of those that did go on release some pictures had the (mis?)fortune to do so just before the various lockdowns commenced. Nick Rowland’s debut feature Calm With Horses, an Irish crime drama produced by Element Pictures opened on 13th March, receiving scarcely a fortnight of cinema exposure at home. (It would subsequently become available to domestic audiences via Netflix in October 2020). Scottish director Peter Mackie Burns’ big screen take on Mark O’Halloran’s play Rialto (reviewed here by Tony Tracy) opened outside Dublin on Oct 2 and was due to open a week later in the capital in anticipation of a relaxation of the Level 3 lockdown that had been imposed on that county. In point of the fact the lockdown as instead extended to the country as a whole by October 18 and, in anticipation of this, the film moved online on October 9 (via platforms such as Barbican Home Cinema, Curzon Home Cinema, Volta and IFI@Home).
Vivarium, Sea Fever and Dating Amber flipped usual release patterns, receiving big screen releases during the summer in the 10-week window between the first and second lockdowns. However all three had already been made available online. Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium (assessed by Emma Radley in this edition) which saw the director revisit the territory of his 2011 horror short Foxes in longform and with an internationally recognisable cast (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) was due for a cinema release on March 27th the very day on which the first stay-at-home order was issued. Some nimble footwork on the part of producer Fantastic Films mean that the film was available to stream from that date via a variety of platforms (iTunes / Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Microsoft Store, PlayStation, Virgin, Google Play, Rakuten, BT, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player). The Neasa Hardiman-helmed horror thriller Sea Fever – another Fantastic Films’ production – also saw its initial theatrical release date (April 10) transmogrified into a April 20 Video-On-Demand debut via Wildcard Distribution while David Freyne’s Dating Amber a 1990s-set coming-of-age drama, also debuted on a streaming platform, opening on Amazon Prime on June 4. (Jack Fennell reviews Sea Fever elsewhere in this year’s edition).
Indeed, in effect, of the mainstream Irish productions due for release in 2020, only Broken Law and The Racer (released respectively in July and December) received anything close to “normal” releases. Indeed “mainstream” may be an inappropriate description from Paddy Slattery’s energetic feature debut Broken Law given its reliance on crowd-funding but the acquisition of its Irish rights by Break Out Pictures (established in May 2019 by former Element Picture executives) ensured it received at least a limited cinema release. (Break Out also secured the Irish rights to Rialto and Arracht). Again, both films ended up on streaming platforms, Broken Law on Netflix from January 2021 and The Racer on Amazon Prime.
The enforced shift to online viewing presents a difficulty in assessing the wider impact of such titles. Although, as noted below, linear broadcasters such as the BBC and RTÉ routinely trumpet the success of their content on their on-demand platforms, streaming services have less incentive to do so, especially those operating a subscription model rather than a pay-per-view approach. Thus we have little clear sense of how many people actually watched Calm With Horses and Broken Law on Netflix and Dating Amber and The Racer on Amazon. (That we are living through an era when the opportunity for face-to-face watercooler promotion of such texts through word of mouth has been severely – if not entirely – curtailed by the transformation of normal work practices means we cannot glean even an informal sense of whether such texts are “circulating” extensively). In passing, however, it is worth acknowledging how fantasy genres – exemplified by Vivarium and Sea Fever – were, of their nature able to circumvent some of the difficulties faced by “straight” drama texts (i.e. their setting in pre-Covid conditions). Indeed, the arrival of Covid made both texts seem unusually prescient: Vivarium’s depiction of a couple trapped in an isolated suburban housing estate clearly echoed the restrictive conditions that followed in the wake of then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s mid-March 2020 “stay at home” plea. Similarly, many reviewers drew attention to the parallels between the manner in which the characters in Sea Fever were “infected” by the microscopic offspring of the aquatic monster encountered by a science research boat.
Even if the performance of individual texts on online platforms was veiled in mystery, the extent to which Covid conditions prompted a shift towards domestic consumption of screen content in 2020 was obvious. It may have gone largely unnoticed but the number of Irish households subscribing to Pay TV services had declined from 70% at the start of 2015 to 60% by January 2020. However, in the same period the number of active broadband subscriptions has grown from 1.706m in 2015 to 1.763m by the close of 2019. This suggests that Irish consumers had already been engaging in a degree of “cord-cutting”, cancelling subscriptions to cable and satellite packages and directly accessing content via broadband subscriptions (e.g. Streaming Video-On-Demand services, free and paid, Youtube, Torrent sites etc.). Research conducted by the Core Advertising Agency during the first lockdown suggested that Covid conditions significantly accelerated this shift, pointing to a dramatic upsurge in the use of both subscription and free on-demand services. 49% of Irish adults had access to Netflix at the start of 2020 but this rose to 63% by June. Core estimate that between 500,000 and 550,000 Irish households (or 31% of the total) had subscriptions by the middle of 2020. Other services – starting from a lower audience reach – made proportionately even greater gains. Disney Plus, which launched in Ireland on March 24 just after the first lockdown commenced, had reached 20% of all Irish adults by June. Amazon Prime and Apple TV both doubled their reach from 12% and 5% of adults to 26% and 10% respectively in the same period. The emphasis on fiction – comedy and drama – content within on-demand libraries suggests that audiences looked to streamers to escape the quotidian stress of living under lockdown conditions. Core’s figures suggest more people were watching comedy on streaming services than any other genre.
In passing it might be noted that this growth in the popularity of such services also coincided with some public discussion of how at least some of the revenues they earn might by clawed back to the benefit of local audiovisual production. In 2019 the then Minister for Communications established a Future of Media Commission initially prompted by the need to address the persistent gaping holes in RTÉ’s finances. Since expanded to consider all media sectors, the Commission spent 2020 receiving submissions from across the Irish media sector on how to maintain the viability of all media sectors in the face of collapsing advertising revenues for legacy (print and broadcast) media. In parallel a proposed Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill carried within it the promise of at least partially addressing this problem. The bill would transpose into Irish law Article 13 of the European Union Audiovisual Services Media directive require on-demand services to ensure that European works constituted at least 30% of their catalogues. However it also empowered member states to insist that such services financially contribute to the production of European works. Heads 76 and 77 of the bill, which is currently (March 2020) subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by an Irish parliamentary committee envisaged imposing a levy on audiovisual media services providers either based in Ireland or targeting Ireland from other EU member states).
If currently the vast bulk of that streamer content originated outside Ireland, the need for escapist entertainment was paralleled by a demand for local-relevant information allowing audiences to cope with the uncertainties prompted by Covid conditions. Unsurprisingly then, documentary and news were ranked second and third most watched genres accessed via on-demand services. This clearly rebounded to the benefit of platforms associated with linear broadcasters. Prior to Covid, the RTÉ player averaged 1 million streams per week. This doubled to 2 million over the course of the first fortnight in March and, while it dipped somewhat by mid-April, between January and June 2020, the RTÉ Player saw its overall use leap from 28% of all adults to 49% (a surge supported by the arrival of stand-out Irish audiovisual hit of the year Normal People on the RTÉ Player in May). Notably, Covid conditions appear to have prompted older households who might not previously have considered the RTÉ Player to reassess its utility. The Virgin Media Player also saw a 21% year on year increase in usage between March and May 2020 with documentary series The Guards: Inside The K emerging as the single most popular show on the Player in that period.
Although consumption of media texts within the confines of the private sphere is hardly novel, the wholesale shift towards an almost exclusive reliance on such modes of consumption is thought -provoking. Despite arrival of radio and television broadcasting in the 20th century addressing domestic (and implicitly family) audiences within their hermetically sealed living units, for most of the 20th century, cinema remained a genuine mass medium consumed in the co-presence of potentially thousands of others viewers. The main site of consumption for notionally large-screen texts may have shifted to the small screen in the last quarter of the 20th century. Nonetheless, if cinemas retained a key role as an initial launch platform for films and also a status as the “best” place to watch films, this seems to have been particularly true for Ireland. Even if attendance levels in have declined since 2017, 15.1m tickets were still sold in 2019 and Ireland’s 3.3 visits per capita in that year was the highest in Europe. If watching films remained at least in part a public experience, it was often one beset by the tension of having to accept the vagaries of how other members of the audience behaved. Film screenings are sites of negotiations with strangers, where we simultaneously tolerate the sounds (and odours) of popcorn and nachos being consumed, phones being answered and scarcely muted expositions of onscreen events while we ourselves engage in agonisingly long drawn out attempt to unwrap a sweet in as close to total silence as possible. But they are also spaces where we learn about how others see the world as we encounter a variety of audience responses to the same onscreen events. Witness how different sections of an audience for a comedy disagree on what is funny with laughter emerging at different moments from different regions of the auditorium. The advent of home cinema systems (average sizes of LCD sets doubled from 23 inches to 47 inches in the US between 1998 and 2018) may promise a theatrical experience in your living room but this emulates the audiovisual experience rather than the social one. Pandemic conditions inevitably encourage us to regard strangers as a source of a new kind of – passive, unintended – threat. The related disappearance of spaces for social connection, necessarily intensify the atomisation of social life, curtailing our scope for empathy at a point when debates about how to live with/against Covid 19 require such fellow feeling more than ever. This raises the question of how existing media forms such as cinema might be instrumentalised to address these social lacunae, especially if pandemic conditions persist indefinitely.
Inevitably, of course, the screen texts that were available to audiences in 2020 could not have anticipated the impact of Covid-19 and the sense of displaced reality that characterised the experience of watching narratives set in “normal” conditions in the midst of a Covid reality that seemed at times to be drawn from fiction. (Notably Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 medical thriller Contagion enjoyed a wholly unpredictable new lease of life on Netflix). This was not merely the case with regard to the filmic texts mentioned above but also those overtly designed for the small(er) domestic screen. If the February debut of the second series of Virgin Media’s Blood meant that the Adrian Dunbar-starrer was largely able to evade the pandemic context the same was not true of Virgin Media’s other major contribution to local drama, The Deceived, a psychological thriller from Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee (with her husband Tobias Beer) which aired in September 2020. Despite this and doubtless buoyed by the presence of Paul Mescal (of whom more in a moment), the low-key series performed well across Virgin’s linear and on-demand platforms, its 114,000 average audience placing it within touching distance of soap stalwart Emmerdale’s viewing figures.
For its part, though still reliant on finding overseas co-production partners as a pre-requisite for greenlighting new work, RTÉ was fortunate to find its fiction cupboard relatively replete with Irish-facing comedy given audience preferences under pandemic conditions. Season Three of the BBC co-produced The Young Offenders was the most popular comedy or drama on Irish television screens across the summer months while the October slot offered to Season Two of the Amy Huberman-penned sitcom Finding Joy (produced with support from US Streamer Acorn TV) maintained the high standard of scripting and performance (though apparently not the audiences) established in the first series. Perhaps more surprisingly The South-Westerlies, a six-part comedy-drama set in a coastal town in Cork about to welcome a Norwegian-owned wind farm, performed well with Irish audiences in Autumn 2020, securing average audiences of around 260,000 views in its Sunday evening slot. This occurred despite an, at best, lukewarm local critical response to characterisation that seemed anxious to at least nod in the direction of the kind of soft primitivism associated with texts like The Quiet Man. That the series also involved finance from Acorn TV at least raises questions as to the extent to which trans-Atlantic funding shaped such representation. (One (US) review described the show – approvingly – as an “Irish version of a Hallmark movie”). Yet another Acorn co-production, the comedy drama Dead Still, could hardly have been further removed from such tropes. Broadcast in November and December, the series was set in the macabre world of a Victorian Dublin photography studio specializing in memorialising the recently deceased and, as Sheamus Sweeney notes in his review, offered a vision of Dublin rarely seen on our screens: as a city at once part of the British Empire but also culturally removed from that imperial core.
Ironically, what unquestionably became THE Irish-themed screen event of the year – Element Pictures’ adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People – was made without financial support from any Irish broadcaster. The success of Rooney’s first novel Conversation With Friends in 2017 had prompted interest in screen rights for Normal People as early as Spring 2018 while it was still in galley stages. Element Pictures’ pursuit of the rights was underwritten by an advance commitment from the BBC’s Head of Drama to greenlight its actual production. The acquisition proved to be a sound investment as the novel became something of a transatlantic literary fiction publishing phenomenon immediately after its August 2018 release. Girls creator Lena Dunham tweeted that Rooney was her favourite writer working in modern fiction a sentiment echoed months later by influencer/model Emily Ratajkowski. That both endorsements came from two figures noted for their public embrace of sex-positive attitudes may offer some insight into the wider public embrace of the novel.
As a novel, Normal People’s appeal owed much to Rooney’s spare writing style, and her excavation of the interior lives of her two intense protagonists. At one level the book is arguably somewhat conservative: Marianne is the princess, trapped in a (mainly figurative) castle by her wicked (not step-)mother and brother who is ultimately “saved” by the proletarian Connell. (“No one is ever going to hurt you like that again”). But the book is far more than an updated fairy tale, illuminating as it does the millennial condition. While meeting classical markers of masculinity (sporting prowess, physically attractive to the opposite sex) Connell is also haunted by demons born of his having to negotiate social caste as his intellectual prowess powers him upwards through the glass ceiling of academe. Notionally better-resourced (at least financially) Marianne turns out to be the victim of long-term physical and psychological abuse which, it is clearly implied, has shaped her submissive sexual identity. That she encounters a sequence of male characters (other than Connell) only too willing to exploit this seems to reflect ubiquity and influence of pornography for those born in the era of broadband and smartphones. If the novel acknowledges a crisis of masculinity through Connell it also emphasises that patriarchal structures of dominance (sexual or otherwise) very much remain operative and pervasive.
This is sensitive territory, especially in the wake of #MeToo and #WakingTheFeminists consciousness-raising efforts and must have given the producers food for thought in crewing the production. The use of not one but two female Directors of Photography (Suzie Lavelle and Kate McCullagh) is notable simply because of the historic dominance of men in that role. Production Designer Lucy Van Lonkhuyzen’s realisation of Irene O’Brien’s art direction received extensive praise and even the Stunt Coordination was overseen by veteran Eimear O’Grady. There is, incidentally, nothing remotely tokenistic about any of these hires: all five have come up through the post-1993 expansion of screen production activity on this island. Nonetheless, that so many roles were filled by women is notable. Alice Birch collaborated with Sally Rooney on the screenplay and though Mark O’Rowe also worked on the series his input was limited to final episode. Given Element’s involvement and the setting of the novel, Lenny Abrahamson’s attachment as a director for the first six of the twelve episodes had an air of inevitability about it. But Abrahamson’s first four features were squarely focused on studies of contemporary masculinity even if Room emphasis on Brie Larson’s performance as “Ma” demonstrated that Abrahamson’s comfort with a female perspective. Thus the decision to bring Hettie McDaniel in to helm the second half of the series seems calculated to ensure that a female gaze co-anchored the series. Though possibly best known for directing Blink in 207, widely regarded as the best single episode of the post-2005 revival of Doctor Who, MacDonald also had some form in exploring teenage sexuality going back as far as her 1996 feature debut “Beautiful Thing” (another study of an initially hidden relationship).
The success of the resulting series was simply remarkable. There were 21.8 million requests for the first episode in the week after it appeared on the BBC iPlayer, doubling the record established by Killing Eve in 2018. (By November 2020 this had grown to over 60 million requests). In Ireland, the series also set a new record on the RTÉ Player with 3.3 million streams by June 2020, far outstripping the 1.2 million stream record for Love/Hate Season 4 in 2013. This translated into huge international interest in the series: the involvement of the Disney-owned US video-on-demand platform Hulu in funding the series (along with support from Screen Ireland and Section 481 funding) ensured that it would find an American audience from the outset. However, by May 2020, rights to the series had also been sold in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Benelux, Latin America, and Japan. The series also received two Golden Globe and four Emmy nominations. Never has an Irish-set series have received so much exposure.
To what extent pandemic conditions contributed to this success is debatable. Abrahamson has speculated that lockdown viewing conditions certainly helped, implying that the sense of been sealed inside one’s home conditioned viewers to embrace the intimacy of the Marianne/Connell relationship. That that intimacy included some element of overtly sexual content prompted some surprisingly reactionary public “debate” in Ireland with complaints about primetime pornography. The screen version certainly includes some scenes which Rooney allowed to occur off the page in the novel but the sensitive manner in which the sex scenes were handled (overseen by Intimacy Coordinator Ita O’Brien) suggests that only those who consider displays of genitalia to be ipso facto pornographic could have found Normal People even remotely problematic in this regard. (Indeed, in a subtle divergence from the novel, the depiction of Marianne’s BDSM relationship later in the series raises the possibility that the character has more agency in determining the nature of that relationship than the novel suggests).
The success of Normal People engendered calls for a sequel, though Rooney has, as yet, announced no plans for a follow-up novel. Some sense of the BBC’s anticipation that the project would be a success can be gleaned from the fact that in March, even before Normal People had aired, the station commissioned the same creative team – Element, Alice Birch and Abrahamson – to begin work on an adaptation of Rooney’s first novel Conversations with Friends which at least inhabits the a similar milieu.
The question was whether Covid conditions would actually permit anything to be actually shot. Virtually all live action production activity – from Ridley Scott’s medieval blockbuster The Last Duel to the smallest micro-budget work – ceased in March. (The shuttering of the former saw actor Matt Damon become a familiar figure around the streets of south Dublin suburb Dalkey as he and his family waited out the first lockdown). A survey published by Screen Producers Ireland in June 2020 suggested that a total of 24 productions ceased operations while a further 59 companies had had to delay the start of production.
Against this, the screen production sector that was able to pivot quickest to adjust to lockdown had also become the single biggest element of the industry according to figures published by Screen Ireland in May 2020. From accounting for 20% of all production expenditure in Ireland in 2014, the Irish animation sector accounted for 50% (equivalent to film and television combined) in 2019 and employed just over 2,000 people by mid-2020. This growth had been reflected in the expansion of Animation Ireland, the trade association for Ireland’s animation studios, membership of which grew from 14 studios in 2015 to 33 by 2020. More animation projects – 39 in all – received Section 481 relief in 2019 than any other screen form. The nature of the animation production process meant distance working was – at least compared with live action – relatively straightforward to adjust to and the industry as a whole found itself sequestered before high-end desktops in spare rooms and attics across the country. Although these are clearly still less than ideal circumstance, production has continued more or less unabated. Indeed at a consumption level, Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers (produced for Apple) was the most successful local cinema release in 2020, going straight to No.1 at the Irish box office after its release on December 4).
With regard to the live action shutdown, Screen Ireland were quick to respond, announcing the first of a sequence of measures to shore up the industry on March 19 2020. In general Screen Ireland adopted the perspective that funding should be refocused away from production activity (where at least temporarily it couldn’t be actually spent) and aimed more at the development process, thus both maintaining some cash flow into production companies and ensuring that whenever production was allowed to recommence that the industry as a whole would be ready to spring back into action.
The initial measures saw Screen Ireland commit to providing 90% funding upfront on all development loans to Irish screenwriters and production companies through to 31st May 2020, while a blanket extension was made to all existing development and production loan offers due to expire. For those productions that had been completed before the first lockdown kicked in (The Racer, reviewed here by Sean Crosson, was fortunate to wrap on February 28), additional marketing and distribution support was promised while Screen Skills Ireland promised not only to continue delivering training online but also to do so free-of-charge.
As it became clear that lockdown conditions would be in place for months rather than weeks, these measures were enhanced. On April 17 Screen Ireland announced that the value of the Strategic Slate Development Fund would be increased from €1 million to €3 million and that a further €1 million in Enhanced Development Support would be made available to Irish production companies working with writers on a project by project basis, (i.e. where the Strategic Slate Funding Scheme did not apply). Three other forward-looking schemes were initiated or expanded at the same time. The Creative Concept Development Scheme for Directors invested in “the early vision of a director to develop high value, well-refined projects” essentially facilitating directors in creating a proof of concept to bring to a producer or to the market. An additional €100,000 was added to the existing Screenplay Development and the Spotlight writing schemes, with the latter focused on mentoring early career writers. Finally Screen Ireland put €150,000 towards a Financial Planning Support fund to allow production companies to avail of professional advice from a financial consultant in drawing up financial plans to meet Covid conditions.
The publication of the Irish Government ‘Economic Considerations for Reinstating Economic Activity’ report at the end of May envisaged that the earliest live film production might recommence would be during Phase 3, (29th June) of the Government’s five stage plan. This would be subject to the provision of assurances from within the sector that practical issues (insurance, health and safety protocols and travel restrictions) had been addressed. By this stage the Screen Ireland Covid-19 Sub-Committee had already been working for some time with industry stakeholders – Animation Ireland, Screen Producers Ireland, Visual Effects Association Ireland, Commercials Producers Ireland, Screen Guilds of Ireland, SIPTU and Equity – to address these issues. Screen Producers Ireland was specifically tasked with drawing up health and safety production protocols which could be applied to the specific circumstances of individual productions. These were delivered in June and immediately accepted by the Department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht as conforming to broader COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. These new Production Guidelines included information on options for modifying work structures to help to reduce contact, implementing sanitation regimes to reduce risk of transmission of COVID-19, and specific options for minimising risk in close contact activities such as costuming and make-up. Such protocols were not without cost implications however and, in recognition of this, Screen Ireland introduced a €1 million COVID-19 Production Fund to at least partially offset the additional costs making up to €75,000 available for individual productions.
Even after live action restarted under the new protocols, new state supports specifically targeting the sector continued to emerge. At the end of July, Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht Catherine Martin T.D., announced a new €10 million pilot Performance and Production Support Package as part of a stimulus package for the economy as a whole. €5 millions of this was earmarked for the audiovisual sector with €3 million was dedicated to TV Drama funding. This followed on the appointment of former Virgin Media Television Head of Commissioning to the new role of TV Project Manager within Screen Ireland. This might have been interpreted as a short term attempt to cash in on the success of Normal People but in point of fact back in 2018 the Audiovisual Action Plan had identified a critical absence of funding for local drama production (not least due to the ongoing travails within RTÉ’s finances). The TV Drama Fund was thus specifically designed to stimulate large-scale production activity across Irish TV drama and had already awarded €900,000 to five television drama projects by September 2020. In the same month Screen Ireland announced €1 million in funding for a joint development initiatives with RTÉ TG4 and Virgin Media. (Further clarity on how the fund would be used emerged in October when TG4 (in association with Screen Ireland) announced a call for applications to develop five (!) new 4-8 episode contemporary drama series targeting younger (under-35) audiences with up to €50,000 available per project).
A final funding boost came with the October 13 announcement of the 2021 budget. Screen Ireland secured a funding increase of €9 million bringing the agency’s capital budget to €26.2 million and the full budget (including administration) to €30.09 million for 2021, the single greatest funding commitment to the agency since its revival in 1993.
In sum then, by the end of 2020, and notwithstanding Covid conditions, the Irish audiovisual sector was at least theoretically poised to rebound whenever “normal” conditions were restored. That the producers representative body, Screen Producers Ireland and the SIPTU Trade Union were able to sign off on a decade of negotiations to finalise an agreement covering work conditions and minimum pay rates for live-action film and TV productions (as explored by Denis Murphy in this edition) is clearly timely in this regard. Even with the early production shutdown, completed works supported by Screen Ireland amounted to 12 feature films, three television productions, eight animated TV shows, and 13 documentaries. In August Matt Damon returned to Ireland complete filming The Last Duel in Meath and Tipperary. October saw principal photography wrapped on Irish/Polish arthouse drama Wolf, the first independent film supported by Screen Ireland to shoot during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same month, the Fintan Connolly-directed Barber (featuring Aidan Gillen as the eponymous detective working during a global pandemic) also completed shooting. The RTÉ commissioned – but, unusually BBC-developed – drama Smother from Irish novelist and screenwriter Kate O’Riordan had seen its Clare location shut down midway through a 12 week shoot which began in February. However, it was able to complete shooting during the summer and its March 2021 schedule date will see it reviewed in these pages next year. Another RTÉ drama commission, Kin, an Irish-set crime drama supported by Scandinavian streaming platform Viaplay commenced shooting in October 2020.
Furthermore, there is clearly an expectation that Ireland remains well-placed to exploit an ongoing demand for content from studios, broadcasters and platforms overseas. And there is a clear intent to develop production capacity within the state in anticipation of increased overseas-funded activity in Ireland. Addressing the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht in December 2020, Screen Ireland Chief Executive Desiree Finnegan stressed the need to build on existing relationships with major studios and streamers. Weeks earlier Screen Ireland had advertised the position of a Los Angeles based Liaison to “support the Irish creative screen sector and strengthen US-Ireland relationships between the Irish screen industry and the US entertainment industry.” Finnegan placed particular emphasis on how US funders of production had emphasized the need for more production infrastructure. For much of its existence, Ardmore Studios was not only the only studio space in Ireland but between its 1958 opening and the early 1990s, it often struggled to fill its sound stages. With the post 1993 expansion in production activity (and especially after 2010) more space was sought and as of 2020, Ardmore had been joined by the Ashford Studios setup at Ballyhenry in Co. Wicklow (which received planning permission in January 2019 to add a further four sound stages and 160,000 square feet of studio space to its existing three stage, 57,000 square foot offering) and the massive four stage 100,000 square foot Troy Complex in Limerick. (This doesn’t even consider the Titanic Studios operation in Belfast). However, the Covid interregnum notwithstanding, anticipated demand from beyond Ireland’s shores is such that even this level of studio provision is now considered inadequate. Thus in May 2020 – South Dublin County Councillors voted to selling a 48-acres site at the Grange Castle Business Park in West Dublin to Lens Media. Fronted by producer Alan Moloney and Windmill Lane founder James Morris Lens Media’s planned “full-service media park” includes 12 sound stages alongside 100,000 sq. ft. of office space. Two months later Greystones Media Campus Limited applied for planning permission to develop a multi-studio film and media campus located more or less midway between Ardmore and Ballyhenry consisting of 14 studios, offices, and ancillary production buildings. And there are at least two other studio proposals in the offing.
That overseas production will return to Ireland at an even greater level of activity when (if?) Covid conditions permit seems to be taken for granted. Similarly there is actual evidence to suggest the Audiovisual Action Plan strategy with regard to domestic – and especially television – production is actually being implemented, at least insofar as development spending is being deployed. How or whether work in the coming years will reflect the social and cultural impact of living through a pandemic remains to be seen.
Reflections on the European Sports Film The Racer (2020)
Sea Fever (Neasa Hardiman, 2019)
State of the Union: The New “Shooting Crew” Agreement
Wild Mountain Thyme and the Moral Panic around the Irish Accent on Film
Vivarium (Lorcan Finnegan, 2020)
“You Irish. You’re fucking dark!” Dead Still (RTÉ, 2020)