Ireland has a lot to offer incoming film producers, quite apart from our tax incentives. Our locations are excellent. Our country is safe and welcoming to visitors. We speak English . . . We have quite low levels of bureaucracy, and those making films in Ireland can achieve access to very senior people, both in the Irish Film Board and in Government, far more easily than in many other locations. We have quite an informal ‘can do’ attitude, with a flexible approach to overcoming any obstacles that may arise. Perhaps most importantly, our film professionals, and those who support them, are accustomed to meeting and are very capable of meeting the highest international standards.
John O’Donoghue, Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, May 16, 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
Notwithstanding the optimism of John O’Donoghue’s speech, 2005 has been a catastrophic year for film production in Ireland. The last large scale Hollywood production in Ireland – Jerry Bruckheimer’s $100m King Arthur – completed its 90 day Irish shoot in September 2003. There have been other medium scale productions since – The Honeymooners completed a seven week shoot in Ireland in September 2004 whilst the latest version of Lassie (Sturridge) shot in several locations around Ireland from May 2005 – but there has been nothing on the scale of previous productions like Braveheart, Reign of Fire or Veronica Guerin. This is reflected in the fact that, measured in terms of production activity, 2005 has been Ardmore Studios’ worst since before the re-establishment of the Film Board in 1993. (Furthermore the studios saw no production at all in the first half of 2004.)
Alongside the fall-off in visiting international productions there has been a similarly depressed level of indigenous activity. In a March 2005 Film Ireland article director Liz Gill (Goldfish Memory) criticising the operation of the Irish Film Board’s Low-Budget and Micro-Budget Feature Film Initiatives, noted that although 11 films were funded under the initiatives up to August 2003, only one – Studs (Paul Mercier)– had been ‘greenlit’ (given the go-ahead) under either initiative since that date. As of October 2005, only five of the 16 films awarded Production Finance Loans by the Irish Film Board since Oct 2004 had gone into production. For Irish producers such loans often represent the first step in assembling a finance jigsaw: the apparent consistent absence of other funders suggests a lack of confidence in the sector.
Of course, all industries go through slumps but with the occasional blip, the story of the Irish film industry for the last decade has been an unfettered ascent. In 1993, for example, the industry created the equivalent of 480 fulltime Irish jobs. By 2000 this reached a peak of 1,742. And as a consequence many people working in the industry have never known it to do anything other than expand. Hence the current sense of crisis.
Why has this crisis come about? Analysis of the downturn in both sectors (international and domestic) of the industry reveals a different set of answers. With regard to overseas production, the stated reasons for the fall-off usually point to “uncertainty” over the future of the Section 481 film investment tax incentive in the run-up to Christmas 2003 when then Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy kept the industry guessing as to whether he’d retain it or not. However, given that McCreevy subsequently guaranteed the section’s retention until 2008 – thereby creating certainty – it’s difficult to understand how this can still be having a substantial effect, two years on (notwithstanding lengthy lead-in times necessary to feature-film production).
Therefore it is more likely that overseas producers have been put off by changing terms of trade that have made Ireland Inc. less competitive internationally. In practical terms, Ireland is now perceived – with some reason – as an expensive place to shoot. Indeed it is an expensive place simply to live in – a recent survey by the Economist1 described Dublin as one of more expensive places to live on the face of the planet. Added to these basic costs, producers have argued that union inflexibility imposes additional artificial costs, making Ireland even less competitive. For example, SIPTU, No. 7 Branch which represents the majority of film workers in Ireland, insists that crews working more than 40 miles outside Dublin City Centre or Bray must be paid ‘per diems’ (daily expenses over and above their standard wages) to offset the hardship experience by their members as a result of such long “commutes”.
However, the key factor is unquestionably changing exchange rates. As of 14 November 2005, one US dollar bought €0.85. In mid-June 2001, however, the Dollar’s peak versus the Euro in the last decade and a half, that same dollar bought €1.19. Such buying power made Ireland a very attractive location for the producers of The Count of Monte Cristo, Reign of Fire andVeronica Guerin all of which were shot in 2001 and 2002, with cumulative budgets of over $150m. Subsequent exchange rate fluctuations up to 2005 have made Ireland 30% more expensive for Hollywood companies to shoot in than in 2001. (Even this is an improvement on December 2004 when the Dollar hit a 10 year low against the Euro, making one dollar worth just €0.77.)
Meanwhile, with regard to domestic films, Liz Gill claimed – in the article referred to above – that the decline in indigenous production was at least partially the result of adjustments to the operations of the Film Board’s two low-budget initiatives, made under the tenure of Chief Executive Mark Woods. Gill asserted that projects seeking low-budget funding now needed tohave a sales agent, distributor or bond company on board before applying, conditions that many Irish producers were finding hard to fulfil. In effect, she argued, the Board’s editorial choices were based on commercial rather than cultural or aesthetic criteria. Interestingly, in response, Woods tacitly conceded that this was the case. However, he defended the need for market money arguing that Board decisions to fund production which lacked the tacit imprimatur of marketplace partners, were open to charges of “spending taxpayer money on personal choices.”
Given all this, how have stakeholders in the Irish film industry responded? Again the answer depends on whether one is referring to foreign or indigenous productions. With regard to the dearth of overseas productions, there has been an increased emphasis on the promotion of Ireland as a location (see John O’Donoghue’s speech above) and further changes to section 481 aimed at large-scale (i.e. overseas) productions have been mooted.
At the Cannes Film Festival in May 2005, John O’Donoghue announced that the Irish Film Board would shortly make arrangements to appoint a Deputy Film Commissioner, based in Los Angeles, to liaise with the major studios there and to effectively link these studios with the services and supports available in Ireland. (As of December 2005 the position has yet to be created due mainly to the lengthy absence of a Chief Executive at the Film Board – see below.)
Similarly, in July 2005 the Film Board announced the introduction of new management structure axing the positions of Head of Production and Development and Head of Marketing. (Production and Development functions would in future devolve to the Chief Executive.) But the Board took the opportunity to entirely refocus the efforts of the marketing department onattracting inward production with other marketing requirements (i.e. those related to selling indigenous productions) being outsourced as and when needed.
Finally, on 10 November, at a launch for the Irish Film Archive’s “Reel Ireland” touring programme, John O’Donoghue again acknowledged that the competitive position for Ireland as a production location had become “less favourable… particularly with regard to the attraction of inward international productions.” He went to suggest that it was necessary to revise Section 481 “particularly with regard to big-budget productions” and hinted that he was attempting (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to steer Brian Cowen’s December 2005 budget announcement accordingly.
With regard to indigenous production, O’Donoghue had announced four weeks earlier on 5th October, the unprecedented provision of “up to a total of €1.5 million of additional funding” for the Irish Film Board to be spent by close 2005, as a response to the decline in production activity in 2005 and to prevent what he termed the potential erosion of infrastructure, under-employment and emigration of skills from the sector.
And with regard to both overseas and indigenous production, in October 2005, David McLoughlin, Chief Executive of Screen Producers Ireland (SPI), a representative group for Irish film and television producers, noted that having been in negotiation with SIPTU since November 2004, that he hoped “very soon” to reach agreement on more flexible terms and conditions of film employment.
So, what is the net result of this? To begin one should acknowledge that, despite the unfavourable production climate discussed above, some films have been made in Ireland this year. Studs completed shooting at the start of the year. Ken Loach’s War of Independence drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and Tom Collins’s Dead Long Enough were both started and finished this year. In addition there have been several micro-budget features, including Ronan Glennane’s Pride and Joyand the astonishingly low-budget – €25,000 – Triple Bill. And several overseas projects using Ireland as a location were shot here – in addition to Charles Sturridge’s Lassie, Ireland was the location for the Charles and Camilla telemovie, Whatever Love Means.
Furthermore, as this article goes to press (mid-December 2005), five further projects went into production – The Front Line, Speed Dating, Middletown, In Like Flynn and animated feature Brendan and the Secret of Kells.
However there is also a sense that there is now a need to take stock of what Irish film policy is/should be seeking to achieve. This debate was ignited by Liz Gill’s comments on the Film Board’s low-budget schemes but subsequent events have broadened the discussion. In April 2005, Mark Woods announced his resignation from the Film Board after just 19 months at the post, having been offered a position at Ausfilm, the Australian film production promotion agency. In the press release announcing his resignation, Woods described his period at the Board as “unforgettable”, a carefully chosen adjective, given the perception that Woods had been bruised by the negative response of local film-makers to his tenure.
However, though his comments on the importance of market-oriented finance were hardly welcomed by indigenous directors, they demand further consideration. There is a school of thought which argues that there is little point in spending money on funding films that no one will see and it is undeniably the case that many of the indigenous films supported by the Film Board over the past decade have failed to secure any kind of meaningful distribution. Even in 2003, a year when Irish films cumulatively enjoyed unprecedented success at the domestic box office (e.g. Intermission, Song for a Raggy Boy, Spin the Bottle), many failed to secure a theatrical release outside Ireland: Mystics, Headrush, Bloom and Cowboys and Angels were screened in Irish cinemas but nowhere else. Woods’ (unstated but implied) point was that the involvement of sales agents or distributors hugely increase the chance that the film will receive a theatrical release which may be used as a platform for a release in ancillary (but also more lucrative) markets such as DVD and television. Although the assertion of a decade ago that most Irish producers concentrated on finishing their films before addressing questions of distribution was always overstated it did contain a grain of truth. Furthermore, Woods’ comments suggest a familiarity with the document that laid much of the philosophical groundwork for restarting the film industry in 1993: the 1992 Coopers and Lybrand Report. Although often thought of as giving equal weight to cinema as an artform and an industry, any close reading could hardly fail to notice the stress laid in the document on the need for Irish film-makers to become more market aware. Indeed although the document praised aspects of what the “First” Film Board had achieved during its six-year tenure, it also concluded that its decisions to concentrate on low-budget, locally cast pictures, had condemned the industry to the commercial sidelines.
In short, the great unspoken truth about state support for the Irish film industry since 1993 is that it has been predicated on the assumption that it generates a net economic return for the Irish economy. Any less tangible cultural benefits generated are a bonus but not a prerequisite for support. And hence the stress on attracting large-scale productions which generally have a greater economic impact that their indigenous counterparts. Indeed as PriceWaterhouse Coopers demonstrated in their December 2003 report on Section 481 for the Department of Arts and Tourism, the kind of smaller-scale budgets which characterise indigenous projects are actually unlikely to generate a net return for the economy.
Such films do win critical praise. Mark O’Halloran has been nominated for European Film Award for his Adam and Paulscreenplay. Perry Ogden’s Pavee Lackeen was selected for screening by both the Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice International Film Festival. It was also selected by the Directors Guild of America Finders Series. Critical praise is very hard to measure on a balance sheet, however.
In conclusion, Irish film finds itself once again at a crossroads. The successful balancing act between American and indigenous productions at the beginning of the new century ensured a diversity of activity, widespread employment and a cultural/economic balance which was finally achieved nine years after the report which brought about the re-establishment of the Film Board recommended such a configuration as justifying government involvement. The incoming Chief Executive of the Board, Simon Perry brings with him a seemingly tailor-made CV for this balancing act, having previously worked as former Head of British Screen Finance and as the current President of Les Ateliers du Cinéma Européen (ACE). Having fallen foul of a regime change in British cultural politics (when he lost his BSF job), he is fully aware of the vicissitudes of state sponsorship. But for now, it seems that his experience in weighing the industrial-artisanal tension is exactly the film policy that the Irish wish to pursue.
- The Spring 2005 audit by the Economist had the capital falling one place from 22 to 23 since last year in the cost-of-living survey. Dublin is cheaper than Sydney or Hong Kong but remains more expensive than Rome, New York and Los Angeles. [↩]