- 20 Mar 01
That a bonefide Irish film industry actually exists is no small achievement, but with a new Minister For The Arts now in place, this is hardly the time for complacency. To ascertain how best the industry can be maintained and developed, Hot Press film critic, cathy dillon, canvassed the views of a number of key players.
Shortly before he left office there was a bit of a hooley in honour of Michael D. Higgins at the Irish Film Centre. The Minister, who had been told that a couple of friends wanted to meet him for a quiet drink, was astonished at the number of filmakers and others within the industry who turned up to express their thanks and good wishes. Though they are often surrounded by yes-men (and women) and toadies, it is rare to see such an outpouring of genuine affection towards a politician.
The main reason for this goodwill was not that Michael D. Higgins did wonders for the film industry (though the general consensus is that, overall, he did an excellent job) but that he was perceived to have a real interest in, and love for, the Arts.
Not that, post-Michael D., everything is perfect in the film industry a recent article in the Irish Times raised questions about the use of Section 35 in the financing of the sci-fi movie Space Truckers, for example, and in recent issues of Film Ireland, the magazine s editor Ted Sheehy has made a number of pithy observations about the financing and distribution of Irish films and raised a number of questions about the grant aiding of schlockmeister Roger Corman s Concorde studios in Connemara.
What few will deny though is that there is now a real Irish film industry to discuss and argue about, which was not the case a decade ago when there was no film board and, in the words of one of the filmakers interviewed for this feature, it was a miracle if anybody managed to make a film at all.
More than ten major productions either feature films or TV dramas are scheduled for filming in Ireland between now and the end of September, including Ferndale Films Dancing At Lughnasa, John Boorman s Once I Had A Life, based on Paul Williams book The General , and Thaddeaus O Sullivan s Ordinary Decent Criminals, written by Gerry Stembridge and exploring the same theme. TV adaptations in the pipe-line include Deirdre Purcell s novel Falling For A Dancer which will be filmed on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, and John McGahern s Amongst Women. Meanwhile, the BBC s popular drama, Ballykissangel, will also continue shooting up to October.
Sile De Valera is the new minister for the revamped ministry of Arts, Heritage, the Gaeltacht and the Islands. As yet no-one knows what her plans are for the Irish Film Industry. She has so far been rather silent on the subject but it seems fair to assume that she has spent the summer studying the brief and coming up with ideas.
Fianna Fail did publish a 10-year plan for the film industry in December of last year. Among the ideas put forward were: the establishment of a film and television school; the restructuring of the Film Board to include television in its brief; the pursual of co-production treaties; the expansion of Section 35 to include tax relief on development as well as production; the regularisation of PAYE payments; greater co-operation between Forbairt and An Bord Trachtala in relation to the film and television sector; the further development of technical facilities (including the upgrading of Ardmore Studios, of which the State owns 31%); and the establishment of an industry think-tank.
The document also called for the establishment of a Film Commission which Michael D. Higgins duly delivered shortly before leaving office. The Commission functions as a committee of the Film Board and its brief is to facilitate productions coming into Ireland from abroad. In other words, it is designed to sell Ireland as a location to non-Irish producers a task which has become even more important since the recent British budget in which the new government announced a tax incentive which allows filmakers to write off production costs if they have budgets of less than #15m.
Northern Ireland is now placed at a distinct advantage, as productions there can source funding both in the Republic and in Britain. BBC Northern Ireland is spending a whopping #23m on productions in Ireland North and South this year.
Overall, however, it seems unlikely that the British incentives will do too much damage. If the level of production shoots up in Britain, a shortage of crews could mean the cost of labour will rise too, so Ireland might again find itself at an advantage. Alternatively, Irish crews may once again cross the Irish Sea to take up the slack.
Ted Sheehy of Film Ireland argues that while it is generally felt that Section 35 should be retained here, more beneficial still for Irish film-makers would be if the Business Expansion Scheme could be used for the development of film projects.
It would be a practical way to get development investment, he says. Production companies generally have very little money. They may have office space but they tend not to have cash for development. they generally have to depend on the Film Board or the European Development Fund or those kinds of sources.
He, along with the majority of the filmakers interviewed for this article, expressed regret that RTE is not more involved in filmaking here. ( I suppose complaints about RTE are an ongoing refrain, said one filmaker wearily when I asked him for this thoughts, and he was right.)
It is true that RTE tends to be slow to invest in drama production on the kind of scale which would make it an effective partner, Sheehy says. They have been developing more projects in-house and through the IPU (Independent Production Unit) but have become less inclined to invest in one-off films at a later stage. They seem to prefer to be involved from the development stage rather than at the last minute, and some people in the industry would argue that that is a cop-out. They say they are starting to become more involved time will tell.
They recently held an in-house course for drama producer/directors and they have been making a series called Making the Cut based on stories by Jim Lusby, which is quite a large commitment, he adds.
In his Film Ireland editorial, Sheehy also raises questions about the kinds of indigenous films which are being financed and their potential in terms of the world market.
Generally, because of the way films are financed, the producers often have to give away the ownership of theatrical rights in other countries, he elaborates. For example if a film is a co-production with a German broadcaster, or with Channel 4, often these broadcasters will retain the theatrical rights in their countries. So producers, in order to raise the finance to make the film, must give away some of their film s earning potential. What is left for them is the Irish market and Irish films, with very few exceptions, have been doing poorly on the Irish market.
The ones which have done well would be films like In the Name of the Father, Some Mother s Son and The Last of the High Kings, and, obviously, Michael Collins. But there are others which have been released in the Multiplexes which really shouldn t have been put there. It makes them look bad and it creates a sense among distributors that Irish films in general won t do well.
I am all in favour of subsidised auteur filmaking but I think it should be funded through the Arts Council rather than the Film Board. I would have no problem with the Arts Council giving a grant of #200,000 to a film which is not commercial and there should be a space to show films that are not commercial. The thing is that if the Film Board is investing in films and this is investment, not grant aid then you would have to wonder whether some of the decisions are commercially sound.
We have been conditioned to see big box-office as the yardstick of success, Sheehy says, but we must decide whether we in this country want to fund filmaking as a means of creative expression which offers a cultural return rather than an economic one. We must stop trying to have it both ways, he insists.
Finding the balance between the yin and yang of art and commerce is an ongoing process in all areas of the arts but it is more important in film than in other media because film is the most expensive of all art forms. Hollywood has solved the dilema by allowing the market to completely dictate the kind of films that are made but this has lead to such a poverty of ideas that it is constantly filching storylines and talent from Europe and the American independent sector. The French, on the other hand, are fiercely protective of their filmakers artistic integrity and, as they proved in 1993, are prepared to disrupt the GATT world trade negotiations in oder to protect French films from being completely swamped by Hollywood product.
Here, the Arts Council has announced that it is to conduct a review and analysis of its policy and funding for film, in the course of which it will no doubt be looking at this question.
In the meantime it seems clear that the new minister is taking over in an area which is healthier than it has ever been. We can only hope it continues to grow.
But how do Irish filmakers see the future? We asked a random sample, all of whom have made at least one full-length feature, how they would like to see the industry develop.
MARTIN DUFFY: I have to say I m not entirely familiar with the new minister s plans, but I believe there is a possibility that Section 35 will be restored to its former glory, which would be a good idea. I just hope the momentum that made it possible for me to make The Boy From Mercury isn t lost. I think in general people here are starting to realise that the film industry is a very strong, labour intensive industry, that it s not just self-indulgence, but actually creates a lot of employment.
One of the things that I think should be looked at is the idea of establishing an arthouse circuit. The Boy From Mercury is currently doing very well on that circuit in Britain whereas here it was released in the multiplexes and was pulled from one after three days. In England good word of mouth is drawing the audiences and it s not in competition with Batman and Robin.
Overall, though, things have improved a lot, with the new film board and the tax incentives. It used to be a miracle if someone got a film made in Ireland, but that s not the case any more.
Martin Duffy is the writer and director of The Boy From Mercury which was released here last year and is curently on release in England. Through his company Apollo he is seeking finance for his next feature The Wish, which is due to go into production at the end of 97 or early 98.
GRAHAM JONES: I believe that in order for us to really develop a national cinema in this country we have to start looking at feature films in a different way. We don t think of films in terms of a business investment. A number of things are helping the industry, like the re-establishment of the Film Board and the Section 35 initiative, and the general buzz is good, but I don t think producers here are thinking commercially enough. It doesn t mean that the films must be shit it is possible to combine the commercial and artistic elements. Films like Trainspotting and Four Weddings and A Funeral did wonders for British film because they were seen all over the world
We got turned down by the Film Board when we approached them about How To Cheat In The Leaving Certificate, but it didn t really mean much to us we just got a lot of people to invest in the film. There was a certain amount of goodwill because we were young and these people liked what we were doing, but they also felt that it had the potential to make money.
In a sense, I think the minister is mostly irrelevant although it s important that the tax breaks are maintained. I think that the one thing she should do is to emphasise that the film industry is a business. At the moment too many people here are making films that don t sell. If we get more capitalistic the artistic side will benefit too.
Graham Jones is the director of How to Cheat In The Leaving Certificate, which received its premiere at this year s Galway Film Fleadh. Jones and the film s producer, Ciara Flanagan, raised the entire production budget through private investment from within film and the arts generally, and convinced 16 Irish celebrities to play cameo roles in the movie.
JAMES MITCHELL: I know what I d like to see happen with the industry here but I m not sure it has much to do with the minister. First of all, I would like to see a lot more Irish producers, real producers who originate projects and see them through. They don t necessarily have to be Irish films, however you want to define an Irish film, but people who are here to initiate and develop projects. There are all kinds of people here serving foreign productions and that s good but we can t rely on that we need to get our own things going.
Secondly, I would like to see RTE finding the courage to be prepared to fail: not to look at drama and say it s too big and too expensive and we re too scared . There should be an outlet there for people who are talented. Take someone in their late 20s or early 30s who has graduated from Dun Laoghaire or what used to be Rathmines and who has made a couple of short films that show promise. For someone like that here, the next step is gigantic. In England or in France they would do a whole lot of TV drama and would be allowed to make some mistakes before they take on a major feature. Here it s like asking a baby to step across the Grand Canyon. Even directors who do come up through RTE and show promise often have to go out of RTE, like Declan Lowney (the director of Father Ted).
MInisters and people can help but we have to try and create an industry that is self-sustaining, that doesn t depend on subsidy. Obviously one would like the minister to look at Section 35 in the light of the new incentives in the UK, which make it much more competitive. But I would like to see it being really thought through rather than just tinkered with. The last changes seemed to be a kind of compromise between the departments of Finance and Culture. One wanted to get rid of it and the other wanted to keep it so there was a compromise and it s a bit peculiar at the moment. On the one hand the ceilings have been raised so people are allowed to invest more in Section 35 but on the other there is a cutback in allowance and the rates for corporation tax are falling so it is barely worth it for people. It seems like there is a kind of move away from the original purpose of the measure. Who is it supposed to benefit? What is it supposed to be doing to the industry? These things should be clarified.
There s another, minor thing which is that I think it would be more convenient if the Irish Film Board was based in Dublin, but that s probably politically incorrect.
James Mitchell is the Managing Director of Little Bird Films, which was involved in producing, among others, December Bride, Into The West and Nothing Personal. He is the executive producer of St Ives, a costume drama recently filmed in Ireland which stars Jean-Marc Barr, Anna Friel, Richard E. Grant and Miranda Richardson.
CATHERINE TIERNAN: The major issue is the support and encouragement of the development of films. You have to invest in development in order to get good indigenous films.
I think the role of the minister is very important. If you look at what the previous minister did, he really made a difference. It is very important for the industry that there is leadership at Government level. For example Section 35 has to be defended at cabinet level and preferably should be extended. I would like to see an improved deal for indigenous productions and preference given to budgets under, say, #2m. I think there should be 100% tax relief for people investing in films with those kind of budgets. It would be a small thing but it would make a difference to us. In addition to the maintenance and enhancement of Section 35 it would be nice if the Film Board got a bigger budget.
I wish that RTE was more involved in co-productions. I ve just come back from five days intensive training at the Media School a European-financed programme based in Spain. There were people from all over Europe there, and most of them get at least 30% of the budget for their films from their national television stations. When you tell people from other countries that you have zero finance from your television station they tend to look at you like you have two heads.
Overall though, I think things are quite positive and there have been some good initiatives like the FAS National Film and TV Training Committee which has done a great deal for people within the indigenous industry.
Catherine Tiernan is the producer of The Fifth Province Element, which won the Best First Feature award at this year s recent Galway Film Fleadh.
ROBERT WALPOLE: I think it is a really interesting time for the new minister to be coming into the job because what has happened to the film industry under Michael D. Higgins has given us the building bricks to create a vibrant and interesting industry that is both commercially and culturally successful. There is a whole new group of filmakers who have benefitted from the changes he brought about. Essentially we have come through Phase 1 and the challenge for Sile De Valera is to find ways to build on that.
One of the main things that happened under Michael D. was that finally there was recognition that it is an industry and for the first time it was taken seriously. I think that if you examined it you would probably find that in fact the film industry gets a relatively low level of support compared to other industries, but because it is very visible and perceived as glamorous , the public is very aware of any support it receives. People might not be so aware of support given to other industries like construction or the meat industry or the computer industry or whatever.
I think the enlightened approach by the new British government is a good thing. What is possible there should be possible here too, and there are lots of ways we can work with UK producers and so on. Obviously the British initiatives will draw some work away from Ireland, so the challenge is to solidify what has already been achieved here so that the industry can continue to develop.
Not surprisingly I think that the Film Board could do with more money. They do a great job but they could definitely do with more money to help finance the development of Irish projects and maybe to take on a special development officer who could work with writers and directors.
Robert Walpole is the producer of I Went Down, a comedy/thriller set in Ireland, directed by Paddy Breathnach. The film has been bought for distribution in Ireland and the UK by Buena Vista. It will be on general release in Ireland from October 3rd.
ED GUINEY: I think one of the most important things is that the industry is now established as important in this country s cultural and economic life. The foundation has been built and and Irish people, from producers, directors and writers to technicians and actors have all had the opportunity to get involved in making films.
What I d like to see is a greater sense of ownership of films, that is indigenous films, to see more development of co-financing and executing projects here rather than relying on what is coming in.
I would also like to see the enhancement of the Film Board and Section 35 and RTE being encouraged to play more of a role. In virtually every other film industry in the world the state broadcaster is a key figure, but that s not the case here. There seems to be no partnership between the industry and RTE.
I think there is a feeling that as a film making community we have served our apprenticeship. People have had a chance to try things. The next wave should see that solidifying. People should now be at a point where they push through and make an international impact.
My worry is that if there isn t support for the industry here that everyone will just go to Britian, if they can t find a way of working here. There is so much money in the UK and the new tax breaks there mean that our advantage is gone.
Ed Guiney is a Managing Director of Temple Films and the producer of Guiltrip. He is currently working on Sweety Barrett, a first feature by writer/director Stephen Bradley, which will be filmed in Ireland at the end of this year.
MARY MC GUCKIAN: Michael D. Higgins achieved a great deal but it all came to a sort of endgame this year. Because other countries, particularly the UK, are now offering tax incentives to investors, it is important if we want to compete internationally that that the Section 35 initiative is reinstated.
From our own point of view we are moving abroad and from now on will be based in the UK, mainly because it is more viable to finance the projects we are doing there. It s very sad and if things change we d like to come back.
But we had the chance to make two films in three years (Words Upon the Windowpane and This is the Sea) because of the existence of the Film Board and the Section 35 initiatives. I don t think it would be possible to do that now.
Because of those things a large number of people in Ireland got those opportunities and now know how to make films. I just hope we weren t educated for emigration.
Mary McGuckian s second feature, This is the Sea, a cross-community love story set in Northern Ireland, will be released by Polygram in Ireland and the UK in the Autumn. She is currently working on her third feature, a biopic of George Best, which will star John Lynch and will begin shooting early next year.
NICHOLAS O NEILL: I think the main issues the minister should look at are the kinds of things that organisations like Filmakers Ireland have been going on about for ages. Any scaling down of government involvement would, I think, be disastrous. Section 35 should be changed back so that investors can get 100% tax relief. There is a perception overseas that Section 35 only cancels out the extra cost of shooting here in the first place. I had to cajole and persuade the other producers on Hooligans that that wasn t the case. and that there were real benefits.
There are certain inflexibilities on the parts of the unions that need addressing. I am definitely in favour of unions, and unions within the industry. Hooligans probably wouldn t have been made without the Film Action Plan, which is an agreement under which unions allow their members to work for less on a low-budget, essentially Irish project but I think things could be even better.
What can you say about RTE? As far as I m concerned in terms of feature films they are not even on the map, and they should be. I sent Hooligans to RTE last Autumn and I never even got an acknowledgement of receipt of the project. This was a film that was already 85-90% financed. I mean if you sent it to Korean Television you d probably get an acknowledgement.
Overall though I feel very positive about the industry here. There is an awful lot of talent, and a lot of people who are willing to work very hard. But it s a delicate balance and if the new minister starts tinkering with it in a negative way, it could be disastrous.
Nicholas O Neill is the managing director of Liquid Films. Hooligans, an Irish/UK/Dutch/German co-production, is currently in post-production in London. Shooting on Liquid Films next project Hugh Cullen, written by former NME journalist Sean O Hagan and set in Northern Ireland in 1979, will begin in late Autumn or early Spring. n