It has been another up and down year for the Irish audiovisual sector. In December 2006, the publication of the IBE Confederation Annual Review of the sector confirmed what was obvious to anyone working in the industry: film production activity has declined significantly since 2003. The total value of audiovisual output had fallen from €320.1m in that year to €169.9m in 2004 and €152.4m in 2005.
The collapse in expenditure on feature film production is particularly significant dropping from €244.3m in 2003 to just €33.5m in 2005. The collapse is almost entirely due to the disappearance of international production in Ireland: although low-budget indigenous production has continued more or less apace, non-Irish expenditure on features fell from €191.1m in 2003 to €14.2 in 2005, with a concomitant knock-on effect on the levels of Section 481 funding (availability of which is closely tied to international activity here). This has had a very real impact: 2004 saw employment dip below 1,000 fulltime job equivalents for the first time in a decade, in an industry which in 1999 had been identified by the Film Industry Strategic Review Group as having the potential to quadruple in size by 2010.
When the Irish state introduced a number of measures designed to kick-start the audiovisual production sector in the early 1990s, it was generally assumed that the commercial basis for the industry would be based on producing content for newly liberalised broadcasting markets in Europe. Senior figures in the Irish film industry frequently asserted that the future of the industry lay with Irish film-makers:
Whether it’s Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise or whoever, they may never be back to the country. That’s no disrespect to those individuals, but the nature of the business is that they may not have a project that lends itself to Ireland again, or not for a long time. Whereas, if you develop indigenous film makers, they will make films here this year and hopefully next year, and the year after.1
(Kevin Moriarty, Chief Executive of Ardmore Studios in 1993).
In practice, however, the main focus of audiovisual policy has not been on new markets but on winning contracts to ‘service’ (i.e. shoot) international productions developed overseas. The collapse in such activity has demonstrated both the extent to which the Irish film industry has come to constitute an element of the new international division of cultural labour and its vulnerability within that division. In the first volume of his Information Age Trilogy, The Network Society, Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells argues for the emergence since the late 1970s of a new ‘informational’ economy:
It is informational because the productivity and competitiveness of units or agents in this economy…depend on their capacity to generate, process and apply efficiently knowledge based in information. It is global because the core activities of production, consumption and circulation…are organised on a global scale, either directly or through a network of linkages between economic agents2 .
Film production can perhaps be considered doubly ‘informationalised’. At one level its basic output is constituted by information. However, the project-based nature of production facilitates constant monitoring of the opportunities for reducing costs or accessing ‘soft’ finances across the globe by Hollywood production companies. In the 1990s the Irish film industry reaped the benefits of these cost pressures. Ireland offered Hollywood real cost-savings not just through the availability of Section 481 finance but also less visible subsidies such as cheap access to the defence forces and national monuments. However, reliance on exogenous production left the Irish film industry vulnerable to shifts in international terms of trade beyond the control of the Irish state. The role played by an internationally resurgent Euro in this regard has already been discussed elsewhere by this author3 . However other factors have also been significant. When the Irish government signed up to the European Convention on Co-Production in April 2000, the fact that both of the main UK film tax incentives –Section 42 and Section 48– were available to co-productions with relatively low levels of UK spend allowed producers to structure projects which simultaneously availed of tax incentives in the UK and Ireland. This was a «key factor in attracting major Hollywood films to Ireland»4 .
However, in early 2004, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown announced that both Section 42 and Section 48 would be replaced by a new structure. Since Spring 2006 projects availing of British tax incentives must spend at least 25% of their budget within the UK. Furthermore British cast and crew working in Ireland no longer count towards British spend as had previously been the case. This has greatly reduced the incentive for productions on the scale ofReign of Fire and Tristan and Isolde (both of which shot in Ireland in 2003) to shoot outside the UK. The Irish state has conceded its relative impotence in the face of such exogenous pressures. In July 2004, John O’Donoghue admitted that:
There is very little one can do about exchange rates and the value of the euro against the US dollar. I have no control over the fluctuations on the money markets…we can only control those things which are under our remit and maintain the highest standards in those areas in which we have power5 .
That the outlook for the Irish audiovisual sector as a whole is not even worse is largely due to a perhaps unexpected expansion in production for television. Having long come in for criticism from the independent production sector for failing to commission, RTE has, over the past five years hugely increased the resources devoted to doing just that. In part this was forced upon the station by the introduction of mandated minimums for independent commissions by the Broadcasting (Amendment) Act of 1993 which also led to the establishment of the Independent Production Unit within RTE. However, whilst the station was initially slow to embrace the concept of external commissions, in recent years expenditure on independent commissions has leapt from €51m (in 2004) to €70m in 2006, far in excess of RTE’s mandated minimum spend (€29.4m in 2006).
This impact of this has been felt across programme genres but is perhaps most obvious in the field of drama. From a low point in the mid-90s where RTE Drama was essentially limited to a single soap opera, there is now a constant flow of new broadcast fiction. As this article goes to press, soap stalwart Fair City, is flanked in the schedules by Trouble in Paradise, Dan and Becs and Rough Diamond. Two other high production value series –The Clinic and Showbands– have also become established elements of the Autumn schedule.
These shows have made a significant financial contribution to the audiovisual sector. Perhaps more importantly from a cultural perspective, they are routinely engaging with audience numbers that many Irish feature films could only dream of. A single episode of Trouble in Paradise going out at 21.25 on a Monday night garners upwards of 250,000 viewers6. Compare this with the frankly disappointing theatrical releases of indigenous films like Short Order, Isolation, The Front Line,Middletown, and A Tiger’s Tail in 2006. Furthermore a further phalanx of Irish films made in 2005 and 2006 have yet to receive any theatrical release at all: whitherJohnny Was, 48 Angels, Pride and Joy and Speed Dating?
Despite this, Irish audiovisual policy continues to concentrate its efforts on winning back overseas projects, fine-tuning what incentives remain within its gift with varying degrees of success. In December 2003 Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy increased the ceiling on monies which could be raised via the Section 481 tax break to €15m. When this failed to have the desired effect, 2006 saw further changes allowing producers to avail of 80% of production costs via Section 481 up to a maximum of €35million. There has also been a new emphasis on the Irish Film Board’s promotion of Ireland as a location for Hollywood productions: in October 2006, the Board appointed Jonathan Loughran to run the board’s first US office (the Irish Film Commission US). Thus far, however, these moves have not succeeded in wooing any new large-scale international feature film productions
One initiative –also Film Board-related– has been more successful. In 2005 and 2006, Minister John O’Donoghue secured for the Board an additional €1.5m and €2.3m, to fund a new category of international production loans ‘targeted at high-quality international production that can demonstrate a strong connection to Ireland.’7
Those connections have nothing to do with content: projects thus far availing of the scheme include The Tudors (a Showtime (US) production about the British royal family in the 16th century), Northanger Abbey (a Granada television adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel) and Kitchen (which is set in a Glasgow restaurant and produced for the UK’s Channel 5). Instead announcements of Film Board involvement in these projects heavily stress the involvement of senior Irish crew and their economic impact.
There’s nothing technically untoward about this re-orientation of the Board’s spending. The 1980 legislation establishing the Film Board gave it carte blanche to do anything it saw fit in the interests of creating a film industry in Ireland. Actual practice throughout the 1980s and 1990s, however, assumed the Board would concentrate on indigenous material. Thus when he referred to the need for the Board to «balance its support for incoming productions with its role in promoting the indigenous Irish film sector»8 in a May 2006 speech John O’Donoghue was announcing a de facto shift in practice.
There is no question but that the Film Board’s international loans have succeeded in bringing in new activity. Provisional estimates for audiovisual spending in 2006 suggest that total overall output will rise to €238m, a 50% increase on 2005’s figures. Nearly two-thirds of this (€155m) has been spent on independent television production. Section 481 has also been an element in the fact that the majority of overseas projects attracted to Ireland since 2004 have been television projects: the new tax incentives introduced in the UK in 2004 are not currently accessible for television production. Thus Ireland has, unwittingly, gained first mover advantage in that particular and currently lucrative niche market.
However, the television example again highlights the precarious nature of the current structure of the Irish audiovisual sector. Although in December 2006, the Film Board announced that new series of Murphy’s Law and The Tudors would shoot in Ireland in 2007, the presence of such productions is reliant on Ireland’s constant vigilance in the face of competing incentives elsewhere. In January 2007, an entirely new set of tax incentives came into effect in the UK and the government there was under pressure to further extend even those breaks for use with television production. The question ultimately posed then is that of how far future Irish governments will be prepared to go to compete in what has become an international incentives race.
- Luke Clancy. 1994. «Tax breaks encourage renaissance in the Irish film making industry» Irish Times, May 28. [↩]
- Manuel Castells. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 66. [↩]
- See Roddy Flynn. 2006. «Irish Film 2005: An Industry in Crisis?» Estudios Irlandeses, Issue 1, pp. 158-162. https://www.estudiosirlandeses.org/Issue1/FilmReviews.pdf [↩]
- James Flynn as Chair of AV Federation Film Financing Committee in IBEC’s Film and Television Production in Ireland Review 2005 – p. 6 [↩]
- Marie O’Halloran. 2004. «Major film studios ‘shun’ Ireland» IT, IT, July 2, p. 6. [↩]
- Source: AGB Nielsen Media Research (2007) Top [↩]
- See http://www.filmboard.ie/guidelines.php?type=g&id=14. Accessed 12/9/2006. [↩]
- Speech by John O’Donoghue T.D. Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism Cannes Film Festival On Sunday 21st May 2006 at 6.30pm. [↩]