School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland
The history of Irish cinema is littered with comprehensive strategic reviews of film policy with prescriptions for creating and developing a sustainable industry. Follow-through on the recommendations contained in these documents has often been patchy, however.
As Minister for Industry and Commerce in 1942, Sean Lemass was so disappointed with the gloomy conclusions regarding the prospects for an indigenous Irish film industry contained in the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on the Film Industry, that he decided not to publish it at all.
A quarter of a century later, another Minister with the same portfolio, George Colley, entirely embraced the more optimistic conclusions of the Film Industry Committee’s 1968 report (often referred to as “The Huston Report” after its chairman John Huston) which outlined a step-by-step plan for creating a native film sector from scratch. That plan was more or less cut and pasted into the 1970 Film Bill which would have seen the early establishment of an Irish Film Board. However, despite receiving a first reading in the Dail, the legislation was never pursued and lapsed with the close of the 19th Dail in 1973.
Although the ground for Michael D. Higgins’ revival of the Film Board in 1993 and the subsequent expansion of Section 35 was laid by a sequence of reports in 1992 – the Independent Television Production Sector Report, the Report on Indigenous Audiovisual Production Industry (aka the Coopers and Lybrand Report) and the Report of the Taoiseach’s Special Working Group on the Film Production Industry – Higgins’s actions were as notable for the manner in which they cherry-picked some recommendations whilst ignoring others, such as the suggestion that the Irish Film Board (IFB) be entirely replaced with a more market-oriented industrial development body.
Perhaps as a consequence, although the first decade after the Film Board’s re-establishment was marked by a remarkable flowering of film production, it was less notable for the number of sustainable production entities which emerged. From 1999 onwards, however, with the publication of the Strategic Review Group’s Report on the sector (aka The Kilkenny Report), there has been a consistent emphasis on developing the Irish audiovisual sector primarily as an industrial sector, one potentially less vulnerable than other sectors to competition from other lower-wage locations contemplated by international capital. The early part of the 21st century saw the IFB appoint a business development manager (Andrew Lowe) and various slate funding and company development schemes introduced aimed more at establishing self-sustaining firms rather than directly funding production. (Inevitably Element Pictures, established by Ed Guiney and Lowe in 2001 was an early recipient of such funding.) That emphasis on business development was echoed in an emphasis on developing marketing skills and on the importance of retaining IP wherever possible.
It is in this context that June 2018 saw the launch of the latest such report by Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan: “The Audiovisual Action Plan”. Many of the recommendations contained therein were anticipated by the “Investing in our Culture, Language and Heritage 2018-2027” plan launched by Madigan in April 2018, which committed €1.2bn to capital projects related to culture and creativity as part of the government’s overarching Project 2040 strategy to improve the nation’s social, economic and cultural infrastructure.
The Audiovisual Action Plan is Pillar Four (one of five) of the “Creative Ireland Programme”, the main vehicle for the priorities identified in Culture 2025 policy published by the Department in July 2016. Growing out of the warm, fuzzy feeling evoked by the various 1916 centenary, Creative Ireland has been tasked with some ambitious objectives, encouraging the integration of creativity and culture into education, developing local authority capacity to encourage local participation in arts activities, renewing the existing national cultural infrastructure (not least at the level of individual buildings) and helping shape a coherent international brand for Irish culture. However, the fourth pillar of the project is unquestionably more hard-nosed, focused on the development of Ireland as “a global hub for the production of Film, TV Drama and Animation”.
The Audiovisual Action Plan identifies 29 action points, organised under 8 headings. These are largely shaped by the conclusions of the “Economic Analysis of the Audiovisual Sector in the Republic of Ireland” document, published simultaneously but originally commissioned in 2016 by then Minister Heather Humphries from London-based consultants Olsberg/SPI and Nordicity (OSN). However, the Action Plan also includes a particular emphasis on skills, an area which, though referred to in the OSN report, is also heavily influenced by the May 2017 “Strategy for the Development of Skills in the Audiovisual Industry in Ireland” (produced for Screen Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland by consultants Crowe Horwath).
Noting that in 2016 the Irish audiovisual sector (defined as including not just film and television but also radio and the digital games sector) “supported employment of 16,930 full-time equivalents” (of which 10,560 were directly employed) and “generated €1.05 billion in gross value” the OSN report points to policy changes which it suggests might result in a doubling of sectoral turnover and employment by 2022. This would be accompanied by great inward investment across the sector, a concomitant increase in the production of screen texts within Ireland and the increased provision of “Irish cultural products to Irish audiences and their export to international audiences”.
OSN justify this optimism by adverting to the ongoing rapid and global growth in screen content production, suggesting that it is expected to continue for at least the medium term as the transition to online consumption of content gathers pace. Ireland, they suggest, is potentially particularly well-placed to benefit from this increased demand for content given: our “track record of creative and technical skills’; the existence of state supports with tax credits (Section 481); soft funding (Screen Ireland and the BAI) and; as the report delicately puts it, “an ability to bring all the resources of the country to bear in making solutions work” (for which presumably read such measures as the deployment of the Defence Forces in the making of films like Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan). However, in a pointed nod to Brexit uncertainty, the report also stresses Ireland’s (soon to be unique) status as an English-language speaking member of the EU and the availability of “a first world infrastructure” (including presumably the rapidly expanding provision of studio space at Ashford Studios and the Troy facility in Limerick), “stunning” locations and a communications infrastructure facilitating rapid transit across the island.
Given this, OSN make a set of recommendation on how to build on these strengths, again under eight headings: Section 481; the need to review all sources of film funding; the need to increase funding to bodies such as Screen Ireland and its various activities along with project development supports for games companies; skills development; regulatory reform, particularly as it impacts on the revenues of RTE; support for games and traditional screen media presence at international markets; a miscellany of other recommendations relating to retention of Intellectual Property, support for Irish language production and access to affordable premises.
However, in an acknowledgement of the failure to follow through on earlier strategies, it is the final OSN recommendation – the need to identify an agency with specific, longterm responsibility for actually implementing the suggested policy changes – that is placed at the forefront of the Audiovisual Action Plan itself. The OSN plan itself was overseen by a Steering Group drawn from the Departments of: Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; Communications, Climate Action and Environment; and Business, Enterprise and Innovation along with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and Screen Ireland. OSN suggested keeping the Steering Group intact to oversee the implementation process, an idea embraced by the Action Plan which also envisages expanding the Group to include representatives from the Departments of Finance and Education and Skills. (Other groups, including Screen Producers Ireland, have also sought representation on the Group.)
In what presumably reflects the priority accorded to the various measures the second section of the Action Plan concentrates on changes to the Section 481 tax break, long held to be a critical component of the financial infrastructure drawing overseas producers to shoot in Ireland (as well as supporting indigenous production). OSN proposed: extending the operation of the credit beyond its then current end date of 2020; increasing the maximum eligible expenditure (and thus the amount of money potentially available to productions via the scheme) from €70m to €100m; extending the relief to digital games production along with; a variety of other tweaks such as extending the scheme to broadcasters, eliminating the requirement for companies to wait 21 months after their establishment before availing of support and, in general, reducing the bureaucracy associated with applications to the scheme. To support these recommendations OSN produced figures suggesting that Section 481 expenditures delivered “value for money on both a fiscal net benefit and economic net benefit basis” (6). In other words, for every euro of Section 481 funding granted to productions via the tax credit mechanism, OSN suggest that €1.02 was returned to the exchequer, a small return but a return nonetheless. Using the much broader measure of economic net benefit to the Irish economy, OSN suggest that each euro of Section 481 expenditure generated a remarkable €2.82.
Given these positive assertions, one might imagine that the Action Plan would actively embrace OSN’s proposed changes. Yet, in contrast to some of its other elements, the document is remarkably circumspect in this area and essentially makes no commitments. In practice, the October 2018 budget saw just two changes made to Section 481: an extension of the scheme until December 2024 and the introduction of a “regional uplift” which permits productions shot outside the Dublin-Wicklow area to access an additional 5% in Section 481 funding. The reluctance to more actively embrace the OSN recommendations is clearly informed by the parallel review of Section 481 – the first since it switched from an investor-led to a tax credit model in 2015 – carried out by the Department of Finance’s Tax Policy Division in the lead-up to the 2018 budget. Clearly adopting significantly more conservative cost/benefit metrics than OSN, the Tax Policy Division concluded that between 2015 and 2017 Section 481 had directly cost the state €243m and indirectly – factoring in the opportunity cost of not spending that money elsewhere (or the “shadow cost” of public funds) – had cost €315m. In consequence the Division concluded that Section 481 had resulted in a net economic cost to the state of €112.4m across 2015 and 2016. Despite this the Division did not, as might have occurred in the past, automatically propose suspending the operation of the tax credit scheme. (Indeed, elsewhere in their assessment, the Division acknowledges the unwieldy nature of the scheme and offers several proposals for streamlining its bureaucracy suggesings an expectation that the scheme will continue to operate into the future.) The Division acknowledges that their calculations do not include “other indirect benefits such as accommodation spend by cast and crew, trickle-down spending in local economy, increased tourism as a result of productions based in Ireland” (235), i.e. precisely the kind of factors OSN presumably did consider. Yet strikingly, notwithstanding a perception that the Revenue Commissioners have historically regarded Section 481 with a jaundiced eye, the Tax Policy Division espouses a willingness to countenance the notion of a “cultural dividend” that might be worth supporting with public funds:
the unquantifiable benefit of developing a robust film industry in Ireland and the related Irish cultural impact referred to in the analysis as the ‘cultural dividend’. In essence, the cost identified in the analysis is the price paid for the cultural dividend of having a thriving film sector in the State. (Tax Policy Division, Department of Finance, 2018. 220)
In effect the Division acknowledges the impossibility of comprehensively capturing the economic benefits of the cultural return to Irish society stemming from the presence of an active screen production sector. Thus while the Division may not be willing to contemplate an increase in the cost associated with the operation of Section 481 it is apparently willing to tolerate the current level of costs to unlock “the revealed value which society implicitly places on this cultural dividend”.
Addressing some of the other Action Plan’s recommendations lies more straightforwardly within the gift of the Steering Committee members, not least Screen Ireland. The OSN-originated recommendation for a “root and branch” review to identify “alternative and innovative approaches” to film funding has – as of the time of writing (March 2019) – already begun to be addressed by way of a Screen Ireland-commissioned study of state funding models in other countries. Similarly, responsibility for the Plan’s recommendations on Skills Development have been largely placed into the hands of Screen Ireland’s subsidiary Screen Skills Ireland (formerly Screen Training) alongside a skills-dedicated Screen Ireland sub-committee. Thus in addition to augmenting their existing work on business skills development for the sector, Screen Skills Ireland has, pace the OSN report and Crowe Horwath’s report on the audiovisual sector’s training needs, begun assessing how to match industry skillsets with the trajectory of the wider sector and how to ensure greater coordination between the kind of formal training offered by third level institutions and the actual needs of the industry. In this latter regard, Crowe Horwath called for a sequence of censi, to establish both existing industry skillsets and what third level institutions are actually offering. The Action Plan envisages this been carried out by Screen Ireland and, coincidentally or otherwise, three weeks before the Action Plan was launched, Screen Ireland announced the appointment of a Training Manager at Skills Training Ireland.
In other areas, however, movement has been much slower. Section 4 of the Action Plan calls for a series of funding increases for, in order; Screen Ireland; Co-Production Funding; Development Funding (not only for films but also TV drama and TV formats); TV drama via a new dedicated fund; games prototype development; business development funding; the Irish Screen Commission and; regional production. The Action Plan also calls for the creation of a clear map of production funding. Indeed several of these recommendations had already appeared as elements of the April 2018 “Investing in our Culture, Language and Heritage 2018-2027” plan which, while committing €200m to media production and the audiovisual industry over that decade, envisaged specific emphases on:
- “Co-production funding to support the development and production of more projects such as Room and Brooklyn which were Irish and international co-productions;
- Development funding to increase the value of Irish productions in the marketplace by ensuring they are fully developed before entering production;
- Funding to encourage the production of new Irish TV drama content. In recent years, there has been very little Irish domestic TV Drama and new funding will allow Ireland to take its place in this growing international market as well as reflecting our own cultural experience;
- A Regional Production Fund aimed at assisting with the cost of filming outside of the Dublin and Wicklow regions.”
These suggestions prompt a number of observations: firstly the Action Plan’s launch came eight months after the October 2017 establishment of the WRAP (Western Region Audiovisual Producer’s Fund) by the Galway Film Centre and Western Development Commission. Indeed the WRAP had already announced its part-financing of Calm With Horses, the Barry Keoghan-starring adaptation of Colin Barrett’s Young Skins short stories by April 2018. Thus some of the Action Plan’s funding recommendations were already in train before it was even officially launched. Indeed, in a similar vein one could that an increase in Screen Ireland funding would indirectly lead to an increase in funding for most of the other priority areas identified since Screen Ireland is either already supporting these activities (e.g. co-production, film and television development, and the Irish Screen Commission) or has done so in the past (e.g. business development).
Secondly, since the €200m committed to supporting the audiovisual sector by 2018-2027 seems likely to either largely or entirely go to Screen Ireland, it suggests that the body can anticipate an average annual allocation of €20m each year. This would represent an increase on the €16.5m combined capital/current budget allocated to the Irish Film Board in 2017 and the €18m in 2018 and, indeed, the October 2018 Budget allocated just over €20m to Screen Ireland. Yet, looked at from a longer perspective this simply restored that body’s funding to its immediate pre-crash peak. In other words, although the €200m sounds impressive, it doesn’t immediately suggest an ambition to move beyond where the position reached in 2008 and thus the strong emphasis on increasing funding supports in the OSN report (and rehearsed in the Audiovisual Action Plan) does not appear to be supported by the level of funding envisaged going forward.
The Action Plan estimated that co-production and development funding would have to increase by something in the region of €3.5m and €2m respectively to meet the OSN projections. Even these figures are dwarfed by the €10m the Action Plan identified as necessary for the TV Drama Fund. The Action Plan is somewhat coy as to where this additional €15.5m per annum might be sourced from referring to: the “additional funding provided to Screen Ireland”; the possibility of channelling funding through the BAI and; “RTE’s plans in this area”. We return to RTE’s future finances below but, it’s worth recalling that the OSN report proposed the idea of a TV Drama Fund precisely because it identified that RTE had been forced by its straitened financial circumstances to pull back on its drama commitments. How RTE could therefore be identified as part of the solution in this context is somewhat baffling. Furthermore, given that elsewhere the Action Plan assumes the additional funding granted to the then Irish Film Board for 2018 would be used for skills development and marketing, it’s hard to see how the same money could be spent again on co-production or development.
In practice February 2019 did see Screen Ireland take on responsibility for creating the new TV Drama fund announcing that it would make up to €600,000 available for “Irish producers with a track record in TV Drama production to originate live action TV drama projects.” Though any alternate source of funding will be welcomed by those seeking to assemble a budget for television drama, it’s salutary to consider the limited impact €600,000 might make in the context of modern high end television drama budgets. For example, RTE’s 1916 commemoration drama “Rebellion” (admittedly the most expensive in the station’s history) cost approximately €1.2m per television hour: thus even the maximum award under the Scheme as currently structured would have barely have funded enough screentime to get past the first ad break in the first episode. Furthermore, awards surpassing €500,000 under the scheme seem unlikely in the short term given Screen Ireland’s pragmatic statement that “in light of the pressure on Screen Ireland resources, awards considerably less than the maximum are likely to be offered”.
Against this, the sixth set of recommendations in the Action Plan (again derived from the IOSN report) relating to the impact of regulatory reform on RTE’s finances might yet indirectly improve the terms of trade for drama production if those recommendations are acted upon. The first recommendation is a no-brainer: that Ireland should sign up the recent revisions to the European Convention on Cinematographic Co-Production. However, the second and third recommendations are politically far more sensitive. OSN point out the urgent need to address the scale of licence fee evasion at a point when RTE’s commercial revenues are substantially reduced. In 2008, RTE earned €240m in commercial revenues, a figure which dropped to €145m by 2013. Although it recovered somewhat as the economy picked up, reaching €158m in 2016, the last set of accounts (for 2017) saw it fall back again to €151m reflecting the ever more competitive nature of Irish television (and cross-media) advertising markets. Although the Action Plan does not mention it by name, its reference to the need for a revision of “the licence fee collection model”, appears to invoke the household broadcasting charge first mooted by then Minister for Communications Eamonn Ryan in 2011 and more or less committed to (but ultimately not delivered) by his successor Pat Rabbitte in 2012. The logic of a system which levies a fee to support public service media on all households rather than on television sets seems obvious in the context of the ongoing migration of audiovisual content consumption to the online world. Many other European countries have already abandoned their hopelessly outmoded television-specific licencing systems and there seems little doubt that Ireland would also have done do were it not for the desire to avoid a repeat of the spectacular political fallout following the introduction of the local property tax and the water charges debacle. Nonetheless, that the current system will be replaced seems inevitable, potentially leading to a €30m-€60m (depending on which estimate you accept) windfall for RTE. In a similar vein, the Action Plan recommends removing the existing “must carry” obligations whereby the dominant forces in satellite and cable television distribution – Sky and Virgin Media – effectively receive RTE (and other Irish free-to-air channels) for free. A 2014 report commissioned by RTE from Mediatique suggested that Sky and Virgin (then UPC) stood to lose €19m and €11m respectively if RTE were able to withdraw from their platforms. This suggests that the state-owned broadcaster would be in a position to leverage significant untapped value from its output if given a free hand to negotiate terms with those distribution entities. Although the Action Plan somewhat kicked these recommendations to touch by suggesting that they were under consideration by the Department of Communications, they were given further impetus by the publication of a second five-year review of RTE’s activities by the BAI in October 2018 which recommended that RTE should receive an increase in annual funding of €30m as a matter of urgency. (Indeed the BAI has been recommending to a series of Ministers for Communications that the licence fee – now unchanged at €160 since 2007 – should be increased for almost a decade to no avail.) RTE received some comfort later the same month (October) when it was announced that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection would reinstate its subsidy of the free licence fee for social welfare recipients, augmenting RTE’s finances by €8.6m.
Beyond the recommendations above, section 7 of the Action Plan also points to the need for an increased focus on Marketing although the specific recommendations cited from the OSN report relate mainly to the digital games industry. Notably however, the Action Plan does envisage that alongside Enterprise Ireland and the IDA, Screen Ireland would play some role in developing branding for Irish games at international events, suggesting that the switch from “Irish Film Board” to “Screen Ireland” really does anticipate a significant broadening of the institutions remit beyond cinema. Section 8, a sort of miscellany of left over priorities emphasizes the importance of facilitating Irish companies in retaining intellectual property, accessing affordable premises and promoting Irish language production.
The existence of a long-term strategic plan for the screen sectors In Ireland is to be welcomed, if only because it suggests that policy-makers are conscious that the ongoing presence of high-profile, large budget productions like the Star Wars sequence reboot, Vikings, Into the Badlands and Disney’s Quantico cannot be taken for granted. Furthermore, the document seems to be informed by an acknowledgement that locally-produced culturally specific work for the big and small screens are important from both an industrial and cultural perspective. Yet it is important to stress that most of the remedies put forward by the Action Plan itself and those derived from the OSN and Crowe Horwath reports have been proposed before, in some cases since the 1990s. That the impact of policy emphases on business development has not necessarily been more widely felt is not a criticism of those prescriptions but perhaps a failure to consistently provide the financial and human resources that would see them fully implemented. The OSN report’s pointed criticism of previous failures to clearly identify a single body with responsibility for driving screen policy onwards is well made but it remains to be seen whether the ad hoc Steering Group created to oversee the completion of the Plan is necessarily the best means of addressing this issue going forward, given that it is likely to be composed of individuals with a wide portfolio of responsibilities of which the audiovisual sector will be just one. While pathway dependence means that responsibility for film and broadcast policy is still divided across two department – Communications and Culture – it may be worth considering whether a clearer identification of a single government department with oversight over the screen sector as a whole is necessary to make the Action Plan a reality.