School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2022
ISSUE 17 | Pages: 284-320 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2022-11036
Shuttered cinemas and an abundance of content: the 2021 paradox.
In September 2021, RTE screened Ken Wardrop’s Cocooned, an exploration of how the elderly in Ireland coped with the unprecedented sequence of lockdowns prompted by the Covid pandemic. Though emphasizing the humour with which the subjects of the film confronted their situation, the documentary also emphasized the confined nature of their lives, shooting them almost exclusively through closed windows as they looked out over (typically dark) exteriors.
Given the extent to which Covid conditions had curtailed production activity in at least the first half of 2020, the reintroduction of another prolonged lockdown in January 2021 might have seen Wardrop’s film regarded as an analogue for the Irish screen production sector entering another period of hibernation.
The value of production activity in Ireland in 2020 had fallen by 40% year-on-year to €213 million. Startlingly, however, by July, it was apparent that 2021 might be the single most successful year in the history of the Irish screen industry, measured in terms of projects in production and economic contribution. Figures from Screen Ireland suggested that 37 projects, worth €289 million had gone into production in the first six months of the year. If sustained this level of activity would comfortably eclipse the previous high (non-inflation adjusted) of €358 million recorded in 2019. End of year figures confirmed this. The total value of expenditure on screen production in Ireland in 2021 was just over half a billion euros, spread across 24 animation projects (€97m), 21 feature films (€177m), 10 television dramas (€224m) and 12 documentaries (€2.7m).
This remarkable bounceback owed something to broader developments in the wider international screen sector and to the simple fact that projects put on hold in 2020 recommenced activity (in most cases even before 2020 was out). It also owed at least something to Screen Ireland’s active development of Covid-specific measures during 2020 and 2021 (facilitated by additional one-off stimulus support from the Department of Arts). Not least among these was the Production Continuity Fund offering financial aid to productions by funding the additional production costs associated with implementing Covid-mitigation measures.
Those measures have been far from trivial. The direct costs noted in Screen Producers Ireland’s updated “Return to Production Guidelines” (published in April 2021) include the purchase of PPE, ongoing PCR tests and the employment of on-set medical crew. But, in many cases, shooting schedules have had to be entirely rewritten to take account of the need to split crews into self-contained pods (to mitigate the potential for Covid transmission). Indeed, scripts themselves have had to be revisited to work around such difficulties as shooting large group or crowd scenes. (Notably, thus far none of the major television dramas shot and broadcast during the pandemic included any reference to Covid in their narratives. In that respect, Wardrop’s non-fiction Cocooned remains something of an outlier.)
The fact of Covid formed part of the backdrop against which Screen Ireland developed its most recent strategy document, published in July and covering the period up to 2024. For the most part the five pillars of the strategy rehearse previously identified priorities. Still clearly nodding at the 2018 Audiovisual Action Plan, the first pillar emphasised the need to develop a “global” reputation for innovative and creative story-telling. This pillar is largely concerned with the status in which domestic screen production is held internationally and tacitly acknowledges that Irish feature film still struggles to make an impact beyond these shores, especially compared with the animation and television drama sectors. Though it appears animation was been knocked off its “first among equals” perch in 2021 (the remarkable €178m 2019 spend in the sector comfortably outstripping the value of feature and television drama production), it remains the indigenous screen sector most likely to penetrate international markets, a fact reflected in the strategy emphasis on the need to retain intellectual property rights for animation where possible. Irish-set television drama has also sold well internationally in recent years but the strategy reference to support for “collaboration with Irish public-service media and broadcasters with international partners” acknowledges the extent to which the cost of high profile drama production demands financial resources which cannot be found solely within the Irish market. As, Denis Murphy notes in his discussion of RTE’s Hidden Assets drama (set in Ireland and Belgium), this raises questions as to whether Irish television drama must take into consideration the tastes of audiences outside this island if it is to be commissioned at all.
The second pillar’s emphasis on investing in Skills and Talent is also far from novel although, in a development of the gender-focused responses to the #WakingTheFeminists drive since 2015, there is an acknowledgement of the need to broaden the cultural diversity of Irish screen talent to reflect the reality captured in the 2016 census that 17% of Irish residents were born outside Ireland. Hence the focus on the creation of a “national talent development and inclusion policy” and the provision of a “dedicated fund to support more access programmes.” (In October Screen Ireland announced the launch of a €500,000 Pathways fund to encourage production companies to support work placements and shadowing for crew from diverse and under-represented backgrounds.)
We will turn to the third pillar below but the third and fourth respectively point to the need to maintain and expand the business skills base underpinning the industry and the support for Screen Ireland itself as the key sectoral development body. There is clear emphasis here on the role played by overseas production in Ireland with reference to the need to sustain the conditions which have created a “pipeline of large-scale international projects filming in Ireland”. To this, in July, Screen Ireland announced that it would re-establish a permanent presence in Los Angeles by relocating Steven Davenport, the agency’s lead on inward international production, to an office there. (This had been previously signalled by deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar during a pre-Covid trade mission to Los Angeles in September 2021.) In the longer term, however, the strategy noted the need to ensure: that Section 481 remains competitive with similar incentives in other jurisdictions; that studio infrastructure (ongoing expansions of which are discussed below) continues to keep pace with demand but also that; the scope for production beyond Dublin and Wicklow is expanded.
The reference to Section 481 appeared to nod at an April 2021 report jointly commissioned from PriceWaterhouseCoopers by Ardmore and Troy Studios in association with Animation Ireland and Screen Producers Ireland. Stressing the extent to which Section 481’s operation underpinned the success of the screen sector, the launch of the report saw Ardmore/Troy CEO Elaine Geraghty argue that the upper limit of €70 million on the tax credit was increasingly coming to constitute a barrier to attracting incoming productions as alternative locations in the UK and Eastern Europe adjusted their own incentives.
Developments in studio infrastructure have continued apace although these were not unaffected by the pandemic. Having been on the cusp of closure scarcely a decade ago, Ardmore anticipated a dramatic expansion in 2021, with three new sound stages and new support buildings. The sound stages alone would expand Ardmore’s footprint by 140,000 square feet. The first stage of the expansion was scheduled for opening in September 2021 but the general post-Christmas lockdown saw construction suspended in January 2021.
This did not deter the US-based real estate investment management companies Hackman Capital Partners and Square Mile Capital Management from combining to purchase both Ardmore and Troy Studios in August 2021, adding them to what was already the world’s largest independent studio and media portfolio, consisting of more 360 sound stages spread across four countries.
(Whether these would be augmented by further development of studio space in Wexford remains to be seen. In January 2021, Wexford County Council approved an application from Tara studios to develop a seven-stage facility on the 154 acre Borleagh House estate (formerly home to Robin Hood actor Richard Greene.) The combined studio space of 150,000 square feet would make Tara the single largest studio facility in the Republic of Ireland. However an objection was lodged to the development in February 2021 and, though the case was due to be decided by June 2021, as of the beginning of 2022 it appears to be still under consideration.)
As for supports for Screen Ireland itself, the strategy spells out how the body will play a key role – driving industry collaboration informed by empirical research – in the wider expansion of the sector. This latter framing bore fruit in the October 2021 Budget announcement that Screen Ireland’s funding for 2022 would be upped by 22% over the 2021 level of funding to €36.74m of which €32.15m was dedicated to capital (i.e. non-administration) funding. (The Budget announcement was less forthcoming with regard to the sought-for expansion of Section 481. Although it was announced that the tax credit would be extended to apply to digital games production for now at least the €70 million cap remains in place.)
However, it is arguably the third pillar of the strategy that best reflects the changing nature of the screen sector, locally and globally: that focused on facilitating the consumption of Irish screen content. Though stressing the need to ensure that work is made available to audiences everywhere through the preferred medium of filmmakers (apparently a nod at the need to maintain the large-screen venues), there is a tacit acknowledgement that for “the next generation” of film-goers, the cinematic experience may not be considered paramount. Thus while the strategy envisages actively supporting cinemas and funding marketing campaigns to drive post-lockdown audiences back into theatres, there is a realpolitik tone which considers how Irish content might exploit the affordances of on-demand, online and streaming services.
As lockdown conditions gradually eased over summer 2021, audiences did return to cinemas. Comscore figures for the UK and Irish markets, suggest that total box office revenues for the combined markets increased by 85% from 2020 to 2021. However, this needs to be placed in context: in each of the five years up to 2019, the UK/Ireland market was worth in excess of £UK1.3 billion. This plummeted to £324 million in 2020. Thus, while 2021 represents an improvement over the previous year, it is starting from a very – and artificially – low base. Furthermore, Comscore has noted that within the five regions captured in their survey of the UK/Ireland market, the Republic of Ireland’s 2021 recovery was the weakest, up just 59% on 2020 figures, due largely to the maintenance of tighter restrictions (a 50% theatre capacity cap for example) than in the United Kingdom. In consequence, Ireland’s long-held status as the most avid cinema-going nation in Europe (on a per capita basis) is likely to have been undermined (even if the removal of all Covid restrictions by March 2022 will almost certain see cinema attendance rebound).
The apparent paradox of increased production at a time of reduced cinema attendance is obviously not especially puzzling. The rise of streaming services in particular over the past decade has seen an apparently inexorable shift in the screen industries’ centre of gravity towards the small-screen. Amazon Prime’s May 2021 move to acquire MGM for $8.5 billion (finally approved without condition by the European Commission in March 2022) is just the latest demonstration of the logic of new media’s absorption of older, legacy firms. The acquisition would immediately bolster the Amazon Prime Video library, potentially offering it access to, for example, elements of the James Bond franchise, at a cost which, though significant, was less than the tech giant’s annual spend ($US11 billion in 2020) on content production and acquisition.
The impact of this for production in Ireland remains evident. While slated for a big-screen release, Disney’s Disenchanted (sequel to 2007’s Enchanted) which completed its Irish location shoot in July 2021, will also enhance the roster of the Disney + platform. Similarly, of the other large-scale productions in Ireland in 2020 and 2021, only 20th Century’s The Last Duel (directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon) was not directly commissioned by a streamer. Having ceased production in March 2020, Apple TV+’s adaptation of the Isaac Asimov Foundation sequence, recommenced in October 2020, initially with a view to September 2021 platform release. (In October 2021, extras casting began in anticipation of the production at Troy Studios of the second series.) For its part, the near back-to-back filming of seasons one and two of Netflix’s Vikings: Valhalla ran from October 2020 to November 2021, through the strictest lockdown conditions. Netflix also commissioned Dublin-based Boulder Media to produce the 3D-animation reboot of the My Little Pony cartoon franchise (which premiered in September 2021) and in February 2021 the streamer commissioned a second series of Fate: The Winx Saga which shot in Wicklow between July and October 2021.
However, the influence of streamers on the Irish screen ecology extends beyond the libraries of on-demand services. Both of RTE’s high profile autumn drama offerings – Kin and Hidden Assets – were penned by veteran screenwriter Peter McKenna who, having cut his teeth on RTE’s On Home Ground and The Clinic, moved onto UK drama standards via the BBC Writer’s Academy before creating Red Rock for TV3 in 2015. Kin and Hidden Assets also shared financial support from New York-based AMC Networks Inc. In the case of the latter, AMC’s streaming subsidiary Acorn TV directly funded the production (along with RTE, Screen Ireland and Screen Flanders.) (Denis Murphy writes on this in more detail in one of his contributions to this year’s review.) In the case of Kin, another AMC subsidiary – streamer AMC+ – acquired English- and Spanish-speaking territory rights for the series after production was completed. Remarkably, at their Autumn programme launch in August 2021, RTE announced the addition of a third AMC-funded series to their schedule, the Jane Seymour, Dublin-set thriller Harry Wild. The implications of this transatlantic influence were spelled out by McKenna in an Irish Times interview in October 2021 in advance of the broadcast of Kin: “It has been produced with one main goal in mind; to be successful in the US… Success in Ireland won’t deliver enough money to keep it going.” (Lally 2021)
These are not the only dramas to have appeared on Irish television: having screened in Spring 2021, RTE’s Smother (reviewed here by Stephanie McBride) was re-commissioned and the second series is on air as this year’s review goes to press. Though developed by the BBC, RTE was the main funder but some reviews noted the reluctance of the script to overly explore the specificities of the local settings. This may have accounted for the series’ successful international sales to the US, US, Australasia and several European countries. For its part Virgin Media, which has already experienced considerable international sales success with the first and second series of the Adrian Dunbar-starrer Blood, saw filming commence on another series – Redemption – in April 2021. Like Blood, the international market is coded into Redemption’s story structure, centred as the narrative is around a Liverpool detective who finds herself working with the Irish police. In an April 2021 press release highlighting Virgin’s ongoing search for new post-watershed drama series, the station emphasized the importance of “gripping and compelling” stories that would “resonate with viewers here and all over the world.” (Emphasis added.) More material in this vein is already in the pipeline: in October 2021, filming commenced on North Sea Connection, an RTE co-production with the Stockholm-based Nordic Entertainment Group, commissioned for broadcast in Ireland and for the Swedish company’s Viaplay streaming service.
We have noted in previous years the growing orientation of television drama towards the international. However, as of 2021, this no longer feels like “a certain tendency”. Rather it has clearly become the default approach. And, given Virgin Media Television’s global parentage (as part of the US-headquartered but de facto transnational Liberty Global group) and the ongoing financial travails of an RTE facing both declining commercial and licence fee revenues (in real terms), it is hard to imagine that there remains any significant scope for drama commissions which exclusively address an Irish audience.
Piquantly, however, having long been identified (not least in the pages of this review) as sometimes almost frantically concerned with identifying “universal” narratives that might travel, Irish feature production in 2020 and 2021 has at least “felt” far more locally engaged. For all that companies like Element continues to plough an international furrow with their involvement in Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter and the most recent Yorgos Lanthimos production Poor Things, it is striking that some of the highest profile (though much delayed) local releases in 2021 have been filmed in Irish. Tom Sullivan’s Arracht (reviewed here by Tony Tracy) is the outstanding example in this regard but so too was An Cailín Ciúin which though not yet available for review achieved the notable achievement of being the first Irish feature to win a prize at the Berlin Film Festival (in February 2022). Arracht’s lead actor Dónall Ó’Héalaí also played the protagonist in Sean Breathnach’s well-received feature debut Foscadh and though generally the subject of more mixed reviews, Damian McCann’s noir-ish Doinnean built around the performances of Peter Coonan and Brid Brennan rounded out a remarkable year for Irish-language feature production, strongly endorsing the value of Cine4, the TG4/Screen Ireland/Broadcasting Authority of Ireland-backed support scheme which had funded most of these titles.
Beyond these lay an almost bewildering array of lower-budget features. We have written before of the increasing difficulty in attempting to capture all of these but in 2021, the lack of access to cinema releases in the first part of the year made it almost impossible to track the emergence of these films across the myriad on online platforms that played host to them. March saw the release of Treasa O’Brien’s ultra-low budget, Arts Council-backed Town of Strangers via the Irish Film Institute’s IFI@Home platform. This came just days after the release of the Tailored Films’ thriller The Winter Lake across at least seven digital platforms including iTunes and Google Play. A month later, the crowdfunded Be Good or Be Gone (following two young convicts on temporary release) debuted on iTunes and Amazon to be followed two weeks later by the impressively cast Trainspotting-esque Here Are the Young Men on Google Play, Apple TV and, ultimately Netflix. (The latter would subsequently receive a limited release in November at the Light House Cinema in Dublin.) As cinemas gradually re-opened in the summer, release strategies gradually pivoted back towards the big-screen platform: thus although July saw the thriller The Green Sea launch as a VOD title in the UK, Ireland and the US, the award-winning Irish-Polish production I Never Cry (following a young Polish woman’s attempt to retrieve her father’s body after his death in Ireland) was one of the first indigenous productions in 2021 to receive a limited theatrical release in both the UK and Ireland.
The limited profile of these films prompted Screen Ireland to assess the impact of cinema closures and reduced theatre capacity on the ability of Irish distributors to bring indigenous productions to a wider audience. There appears to be an acceptance that the cachet of a theatrical release at home remains essential if a film is to break out of the Irish market (whether digitally or offline). In October, Screen Ireland would announce the establishment of a Structural Marketing and Distribution Support scheme making up to €200,000 available in match funding for marketing and audience development.
This came too late for vampire-themed comedy-horror Boys from County Hell and for the low-budget midlands-set comedy Redemption of a Rogue both of which made muted impacts after their August cinema releases. The Bright Side, Ruth Meehan’s adaptation of comedienne Anne Gildea’s cancer memoir fared somewhat better after its August 20th release but still largely sank without trace.
Remarkably, however, September saw three Irish features – all well-reviewed – enter cinemas. Cathy Brady’s debut Wildfire featured a commanding central performance from Nika McGuigan (alongside Nora-Jane Noone) filmed before her untimely death from cancer in 2019. Though offering a compelling depiction of tense sibling relations, Wildfire didn’t quite catch the eye of local audiences who appeared more open to triumph-over-adversity tone of Herself helmed by Phyllida Lloyd, taking the opportunity to work with a smaller canvas than that afforded to her by her previous films Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady. Built around a emotive central performance from Kin’s Clare Dunne (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Herself confidently shifted gears from social-realist domestic abuse drama to a heart-warming family/community-centred narrative. That the protagonist struggles to put a roof over her head (ultimately building her own home) clearly resonated at a point when only Covid cold relegate a realworld housing crisis theme to a secondary political priority.
The far more cerebral Rose Plays Julie from arthouse stalwarts Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (or “Desperate Optimists”) struggled to find an audience, notwithstanding a nationwide release on September 17. By contrast, THE hit Irish film of the year arrived three weeks later. Funded by Screen Ireland, the BAI and Virgin Media, the film (reviewed here by Maria O’Brien) earned €59,000 on its opening weekend, making it the most successful Irish opening since The Hole in the Ground in 2019. The dark but broadly comedic depiction of a working class community coming together (around a hair-dressing salon) to defend themselves from gangsterism and (scarcely distinguishable) political corruption evoked elements of the Barrytown screen trilogy and the sold-out screenings helped sell the film to international distributors Myriad Pictures and – at last count – nine online platforms. These included Netflix where by mid-January 2022 it was the most-watched film in Ireland.
Taken together though, the body of feature work released in 2021 does suggest a conscious re-engagement with the local. Even the more generic work released or shot in 2021- horrors from Conor McMahon (Let The Wrong One In) and Jon Wright (Unwelcome), thrillers from Stephen Fingleton (Nightride) and Lorcan Finnegan (Nocebo) – appear not to entirely eschew local signifiers even when, as with the casting of Eva Green and Mark Strong in Nocebo and Hannah John-Kamen and Douglas Booth in Unwelcome, the lead protagonists are not Irish. (Indeed outsider status of its leads is critical to the narrative of Unwelcome as a young English couple struggle to integrate into Irish rural society.)
A similar observation might be made about this year’s Irish documentary releases. While recent years has seen non-fiction characterised by a distinctly outward glance, in 2021, it was hard to identify an Irish documentary not actively focused on the local. Although Tadgh O’Sullivan’s mesmeric and lyrical To the Moon combined footage shot across the globe with found footage fragments from a myriad of international cinemas in its meditation on our relationship with our planet’s most obvious satellite, other works largely derived their visual palettes from within Ireland. Released on VOD platforms in June, Jason Branegan’s Breaking Ice followed the travails of the first Irish tram to compete in the bobsleigh (at the 1992 Winter Olympics), combining archive footage with talking heads and simple but effective animation to recreate the build-up to the Games. Supported by Science Foundation Ireland and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in the US, David Burke’s sumptuous Father of the Cyborgs profiling the life and work of Irish neuroscientist Phil Kennedy was a welcome addition to the still slim ranks of Irish science documentary. Having long been the “natural” home for hour-long doc on historical subject, Tomás Seoighe’s TG4-supported feature length drama-doc The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell revisited the notorious events surrounding the conviction and execution of the titular Irish nationalist, securing berths at a number of international film festivals. There were – coincidentally? – a sequence of Irish docs focused on the arts. Premiering at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2021, Pat Collin’s The Dance traced the development of choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan’s astonishing MÁM from rehearsal to it Autumn 2019 premiere. There were also three (!) docs centred around Irish musicians: Emer Reynolds’ Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away was released in cinemas in June. While perhaps overly respectful, it nonetheless provided a useful reminder of Lynott’s ground-breaking role in putting popular Irish music on the international stage. Indeed, arguably Lynott contributed to the conditions in which the subjects of Michael McCormack’s decade-in-the making Breaking Out and Ross Killeen’s Love Yourself Today, both released to theatres in November 2021, could even contemplate musical careers. Breaking Out traced the life (and death) of Fergus O’Farrell, lead singer of Irish indy sweethearts Interference, charting his determination to overcome the physical limitations imposed on him by muscular dystrophy. A fortnight earlier, Love Yourself Today celebrated the near-shamanic qualities of Dublin singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey: part concert film, part social excavation, the film was at least as focused on the lives of four fans attending one of Dempsey’s legendary Christmas concerts and proved a remarkable document of the communal bond established between the artist and his audience.
That sense of communal engagement also pervaded The 8th co-directed by Lucy Kennedy, Aideen Kane and Maeve O’Boyle. Closely following key figures in the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution (originally introduced in 1983) prohibiting abortion, the film movingly captures an extraordinary moment in the emergence of a more humane and progressive society and is considered at length by Kate Antosik-Parsons elsewhere in this year’s review.
Lally, Conor (2021). “Kin maker: ‘There’s nobody in this that bears any resemblance to the Kinahans’” Irish Times (October 3). https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/tv-radio-web/kin-maker-there-s-nobody-in-this-that-bears-any-resemblance-to-the-kinahans-1.4686757
Herself (Phyllida Lloyd 2020)
The 8th (Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O’Boyle, 2021)
Frank of Ireland (2021)
Hidden Assets (2021)
Positive Vibes: Love Yourself Today (Ross Killeen 2021)
Deadly Cuts (Rachel Carey 2021)
Groundswell (Johnny Gogan, 2021)