Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board (IFB) is Ireland’s national film agency. Reconstituted by Minister Michael D Higgins in 1992, the day to day operations of the IFB are directed and managed by the Chief Executive who reports to the board. This position was held by Rod Stoneman from 1992-2002 and Mark Woods 2003-2005. Simon Perry became the third CEO of the Film Board upon his widely welcomed appointment in November 2005.
Tony Tracy met him in his Galway office in February, 2008.
TT: Since you are not likely to be well known to the majority of readers of Estudios Irlandeses, let’s start by hearing a bit about you; where you came from, and the expertise you’ve accumulated — and how that’s relevant to your current job.
SP: Fundamentally I’m a producer and in the 1970s I started being an independent filmmaker / would-be producer. I did a bit of film journalism for Variety, which is where I learnt how the business works. But I always really wanted to produce. I did try directing but I didn’t enjoy it. At the start of the 1980s I set up my own film company and through the 1980s I made a number of independent British films mainly, but also a number of French films. I worked with Michael Radcliff; we made three films together — Another Time Another Place, 1984 and White Mischief. The films were getting bigger as we went along.
I also made a couple of films in France as I wanted to understand more about the rest of Europe and in particular the French way of making films. That started a whole conviction in me that for the future of independent cinema in Britain, and I now believe it to be true of Ireland as well; that if we want to make the films we want to make, we need very good allies in the rest of Europe, we need to be part of that network for financing films. This came out of a context of growing up in Britain where cinema was for many decades dependent on Hollywood. I fundamentally thought that that was unhealthy.
In the 1990s, I ran an organisation called British Screen for 10 years which was the national film fund for new British feature films. During my 10 years we made more than 140 films possible, including The Crying Game as well as films by Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Those particular films would not have been possible without funding from the rest of Europe. The British filmmakers who I think are the most interesting have always have had a large audience in the rest of the world. I feel in those 10 years we dragged Britain into Europe and showed them the possibilities of co-production. We also were co-producers of other films that came from the rest of Europe. It was an interesting strategy and it was very different for Britain to be involved in films in that way and not simply a small player in English language cinema which was what it had always been condemned to be.
British Screen was then taken over by the Film Council which was a new institution set up by the New Labour. I didn’t really agree with that because I didn’t think that was what Britain needed, I still don’t, so I took it as an opportunity to teach and to consult for film festivals and to do other things until this job came up here.
TT: What’s the attraction of a job like this?
SP: I find it very interesting to use public money to try to make a difference to the way the capitalist market wants to make things happen. You need public money to nudge the boat in different directions. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I still believe in the benefits of European partners. There is a long dependence of Irish Cinema on the British which needs to be broken — we need to get over the post-colonial relationship. I believe that Irish filmmakers will be better equipped to make their films if they have partners elsewhere in Europe as well in the UK and the US of course.
TT: I have to smile when I hear the 2nd British Chief Executive of the Irish Film Board saying that we have to get over our post-colonial relationship with Britain!
SP: [laughs] Well, what I mean is in relation to distribution particularly; the fact that Ireland is locked-in with the UK as a single territory is really destructive; it’s just kept the distribution potential here in Ireland so small and so strangulated.
The normal pattern is this – if you’ve an Irish film and you want a strong distributor as opposed to one of the local small ones, you really have to go to London and talk to Pathé, Momentum, Optimum or one of those. If it’s an Irish film, they will only take the UK rights if they get Ireland as well. The power is in London for Irish film.
TT: I want to go back and ask you about this idea of becoming more closely involved with European co-production. Does that have an impact on the kind of stories that would get made, the kind of stories that would be advanced for funding to co-production partners?
SP: Well certainly you pick the co-production partners where you think the film will be of interest. But that doesn’t mean to say that you tailor the film to suit that particular market. I think it’s very liberating to have the opportunity to approach several different countries as film partners, maybe even several partners on the same film. I saw British film- makers for years endlessly trying to study what would work in America and try to come up with good ideas and cast people that would give them that American deal. I think that’s fatal. I believe that Ireland can be successful if we do what European cinema does best which is quality auteur work. I think the most exciting work in world cinema comes from directors with very strong signatures, something to say and a powerful way of saying it. That’s not to say that I totally subscribe to the idea that the director is the author of the film, films are made by a variety of collaborations, but what we see at the moment is that the films which can compete in the world are those which have something strong to say.
TT: Is that what the IFB is trying to promote? I was looking at your most recent trailer on ‘You Tube’ and wondering what it said about Irish cinema. It seems very ‘tourist-driven’ and mainstream — all U2, helicopter shots and landscapes.
SP: Well, that’s a trailer aimed at attracting productions to this country. It’s explicitly saying ‘You can make big features in this country’. We have two sides to our work here. We are looking to support new voices in Irish cinema – Irish ideas and Irish films. And also, for economic reasons, we’re looking to sell Ireland as a location. That’s why we have the tax break .
TT: I can see where difficulties may arise there — balancing an Irish film industry with a film industry in Ireland.Can we talk a little bit about the benefits a vibrant international industry brings?
SP: The benefits are in the skills and the infrastructure. The UK is quite a good example of that. It has very highly skilled visual effects companies as well as the studios (Shepperton and Pinewood) and a good resource of very skilled technicians from this combination of quite a vibrant indigenous industry and big international productions.
In Ireland it’s started to happen too, but there’s room for tremendous development here — especially in the digital age — for a visual effects industry.
TT: And then the tricky thing is that it could swamp your local industry.
SP: Yes, the danger is that if that becomes the default position in the industry, then the indigenous industry becomes very quickly forgotten in the minds of those who give money like the politicians. And it can become a distraction for those who want to get involved in making films — away from local stories and into an ‘international style’.
TT: As a former producer and film journalist, how do you account for the success of Once? Do you think the Sundance audience award was the tipping point for its success?
SP: Oh yes, absolutely. I remember seeing it at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2006 and thinking that there’s something very credible happening between these people; it is a very accomplished work on the part of the director to achieve that. It was shown to various festival organisers in Europe to very little response before the Sundance win. The Americans just seemed to understand the film emotionally and they have the ability to make or break something. What was written about this film in the LA Times was just wonderful; you could never buy that publicity.
TT: You’ve raised a curious paradox — if you look at In America, The Crying Game, My Left Foot — all films that triumphed in America, and then the Europeans either followed, or as in the case of Jim Sheridan’s films in UK, showed no interest at all. The argument for European co-funding you made earlier is interesting, but it’s also interesting that the biggest Irish hit of recent years was turned down by European festivals who don’t get it, and yet the ‘big bad cultural enemy’ said ‘yes, we love it’!
The other aspect of Once which strikes me as interesting is this issue of an auteur cinema and budget. John Carney’s a good instance of someone who previously made a film – On the Edge – with studio funding (and the backing of Hell’s Kitchen) and it didn’t go anywhere and yet with the limitations of budget he’s created something truly personal and original … or is that fanciful?
SP: Yes, there’s something in that. I agree with you, although the directors never will! I don’t believe that money is liberating in filmmaking. I don’t believe the quality of the ideas necessarily gets better the more money is being spent. At the same time I don’t want to be heard to say that artists should be starving in garrets — I don’t believe that. So it’s a tricky one and very interesting that you raise it.
TT: Let’s talk about how the IFB funds Irish film. Maybe you’d outline to me the general way in which you go about your business and your funding structures.
SP: What I particularly wanted to do when I came here was to change the attitude that the Film Board had towards the industry and the attitude the industry had towards the Film Board — which on both sides had suffered a considerable erosion of trust. I think the Film Board had somehow manoeuvred itself into a position of remoteness that was in danger of making it unpopular but also unable to do the job of inspiring confidence which is what I think we should be doing, as well as giving money. Being rigorous in your selection is part of setting standards of what filmmakers should aspire to. They may not agree with you all the time but if you’re prepared to defend your decisions face to face rather than through some official letter then a different relationship starts to develop.
There is a very vibrant and creative animation sector in this country so we’ve now put funding structures in place and are strongly looking after them. Rod Stoneman had previously decided that the Film Board would be involved with documentaries, which was also something new to me. We have now begun to focus on bigger and more international documentaries, with more theatrical potential. We now turn down a lot of smaller subjects that are 52 minute RTE docs, because we believe that RTE should do this stuff themselves.
I also wanted to encourage the production of more Irish feature films. In terms of a strategy to get them made, we’re connecting to the European funding partners as well as other co-production partners like Australia and Canada, and communicating at every opportunity that we’re co-producers of films on a reciprocating basis. This type of strategy is the bedrock of what I’m about.
TT: So the idea of a self-financing, self-subsidising national film industry is not really viable in this era?
SP: Well, it’s not even really viable in a market like France which has a vibrant industry and local audience; they are out looking for co-production partners now for the first time ever. I don’t believe it would ever be viable in a small country such as Ireland.
TT: Talk to me about the new low-budget initiative, CATALYST. What was the thinking behind that?
SP: Well it was born out of necessity. I’ve mentioned that it is harder to get feature films made and one of the results of that is that the budgets are coming tumbling down, not just here, but also in the UK. In the 1990s the average budget for a British film was £2m, now it’s less than £1.5m. Most of the films made in Ireland last year cost less than €1.6m. CATALYST is a response to the great difficulties in raising money in the market, the need to understand what it takes to make a film on a very small budget, what it means to conceive it and write it for a particular budget.
With all these factors in mind, we conceived CATALYST as a training and production initiative. There were 2 weekend workshops and in order to apply for funding you had to have attended all 6 days of the workshop. We got a huge volume of applications – 47 fully fledged written films — we chose 3 and they are in production now. They were budgeted at €250,000 per film.
TT: That’s the production budget. What about the cost of Prints and Advertising (P&A)? Is that an additional cost for the film’s producers?
SP: Yes, there’s no cost of distribution in there and it can vary quite a bit. In the case of Once, Samson Films got the film finished for €170,000 in time to show it at Sundance. But then it was a big success, was picked up by Summit — a huge sales agent — and the territories started selling and selling, so another €80,000 was needed to make the film ‘deliverable’, so that’s why it cost €250,000.
TT: So in the CATALYST films do you get involved with that at all or are they on their own?
SP: No, the rule is that the producers have got to be able to show in their budgets that they can arrive at a point that the film is basically deliverable. If one of the films was to become a massive success, more money would be needed for distribution.
TT: I notice all the funding you offer is described as a ‘loan’. What does that mean?
SP: Well, it’s always viewed as an investment. Normally there are several investors, and then when the money starts to come back in it’s divided up as it’s earned.
TT: What has the ratio of loan to return been like?
SP: Oh, it’s very low. At British Screen we achieved a very high rate. We got back half of what we put out, but that takes an incredible amount of effort and good luck to get back half!
In Ireland, it’s much much lower. Last year for example nearly €2m came back in earnings from films we back, but the lion’s share of the money we spend comes from the government every year.
TT: Can you offer a broad outline of your annual budget and spend?
SP: We’re up to annual funding of about €20m at this stage. We’ve two budgets — capital and distribution. From the capital budget — in very broad terms — you could say approx €15m is allocated to production and €3m to development, (i.e. screenplays). We have deals now with 10 production companies on a ‘multiple development scheme’ which we brought in last year. Of the (approx) €15m we spend on new film production each year, €7m goes to feature films, €1m to documentaries, €1m to animation, €1m to short films and the CATALYST project last year cost just under €500,000. The other €2m along with any money recouped goes into training as we give a substantial grant to Screen Training Ireland and all the other things we do in the industry — the Film Festival workshops and so on.
We also have a small fund (just under €1m) to spend on new distribution initiatives. We are going to intervene somehow in the digitisation of cinemas, but we’re not entirely sure in what way just yet. Ireland badly needs more cinemas to show world cinema. Even big (‘Arthouse’) hits this year like Garage, La Vie en Rose, The Lives of Othersall did poorly enough in Box Office terms here, and it’s mainly because there are not enough places to show this type of cinema.
TT: Let’s come to the question of funding for productions in the Irish Language. I know that ‘Oscailt’ [short films in Irish language scheme] has recently been abolished and Cré na Cille [discussed elsewhere in this issue] received no funding at all from the board. There seems to be a perception that there isn’t a distinctive – or even a directed – Irish language policy
SP: Well, I wouldn’t accept that. The volume of work in the Irish language since I’ve been here is quite impressive, mostly but not exclusively for TV. We did the first series of Aifric (TG4) which was very nice, we did the series of The Running Mate (TG 4) and we’ve just started a series called Féidh (TG 4). And we continue to be much more open to Irish than to English language TV applications. In fact we don’t really want to do any more English language TV work because we believe that the TV companies should be able to do that. The Irish language projects still need our help, and we have a very special relationship with TG4. And on the film side, we’ve just producedKings which is Ireland’s first submission to the foreign language category of the Oscars.
We are stopping the ‘Oscailt’ strand of funding, yes, but also we’re stopping ‘Short Cuts.’ That’s because I don’t think Irish language filmmaking is benefiting from being ghettoised. The quality of submissions to ‘Oscailt’ had been falling for several years and the great majority of ‘Oscailt’ submissions were rejected submissions from ‘Short Cuts’ translated into Irish. What is the point of that!?
Cré na Cille was very specific and that was about whether we believed the film had theatrical potential and we didn’t. We felt they had the money to make it for TV and that they should make it for that medium.
TT: What’s your take on the skills of the Irish film industry at this point in time?
SP: The most important thing for me is that there are exciting signs of new talent. But as everywhere they’re sporadic and they’re not that many, but I certainly live in hope. There’s the example of Lenny Abrahamson and John Carney. I could tell you about filmmakers who are coming through Short films, and CATALYST and are developing to make their first feature film — there are some exciting people emerging. Talent is the bedrock of any industry and it’s our job to nurture and encourage that
For more information on the board’s activities and filmography to date visit: http://www.irishfilmboard.ie/