Irish film industry entering new era of prosperity

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Irish actor-producer Gabriel Byrne was asked recently if he considered his native country's film industry to be enjoying a major resurgence. "You are assuming there was ever a 'surgence,'" he responded. He was referring to the fact that although Ireland's green valleys and misty mountains have been the setting for countless movies over the past 50 years and more, the existence of a distinctly Irish film industry has only been a reality for little more than two decades.

Recent years have seen a boon time for Ireland's once-nascent film and TV sector. Big-budget incoming productions from Hollywood and elsewhere have been thick on the ground, international co-productions with Irish filmmakers are multiplying, and the indigenous industry is blooming.

This week (Feb. 18-22), in celebration of Ireland's high visibility on the global media scene, the Irish Film Board is leading a trade mission to Los Angeles with more than a dozen successful Irish producers and other film and TV talent in tow. The aim is to develop new and existing business relationships with North American filmmakers. The IFB is also looking to attract U.S. productions to base in Ireland, while also seeking U.S. partners for Irish film and television projects.

The visit will allow the board to engage in some well-deserved bragging on the "surgence" of an industry that just a couple of decades ago was struggling to find a foothold. Years of enthusiastic government support and an ambitious and savvy film board have helped create a cauldron of Irish film talent that is making a mark on the world stage.

Last year alone the IFB supported more than 130 projects, including the Oscar-nominated "Once," directed by John Carney; the enormously acclaimed and award-

winning "Garage," directed by Lenny Abrahamson; and "Kings," directed by Tom Collins.

Meanwhile, major international productions that have recently shot on location in Ireland include Showtime's "The Tudors," "The Escapist," starring Joseph Fiennes, the Weinstein Co.'s "Dorothy Mills," and last year's "P.S. I Love You," among others. (The number of incoming projects has slowed down in the past two years due to certain changes in the British film support system that prevent Irish and British tax advantages from being combined. But efforts are under way by the Irish industry to surmount that issue.)

It was estimated that IFB-funded film and television projects contributed some €63 million ($92 million) to the Irish economy in 2007. The Board's funding currently stands at a little more than €23 million ($34 million) for 2008.

IFB chairman Simon Perry, a veteran filmmaker from the U.K., says he's genuinely "astonished" at how much support for the industry there has been in Ireland over the past few years. He hastens to add that there are still hurdles to be surmounted, but in general the government has been enthusiastically behind the industry -- particularly with its film investment tax relief scheme called Section 481, along with generous funding for the IFB.

"The uplift in our funding is remarkable," Perry enthuses. "I spent decades in the U.K. toiling to convince governments and ministers that the arts and culture is as important to life as education, transport or health. But here in Ireland that's just taken for granted."

Under Section 481, a production can get up to 20% of its qualifying expenditures back in cash on the first day of principal photography, with an upper limit of €10 million. In addition, the IFB can invest up to €1 million in equity from its International Production Fund for incoming productions from the U.S. and elsewhere. The government has oversight of Section 481, while IFB controls how its annual funding is spent.

Perry points to the fact that the IFB's activities are three-pronged: Support the indigenous industry; facilitate

co-productions with filmmakers from such countries as Canada, Australia and France; and encourage major projects from overseas to utilize Ireland as a base of production operations.

To that end, the IFB established an office in Los Angeles several years ago, headed up by Jonathan Loughran, vp Irish Film Commission U.S., whose job it is to liaise with and assist U.S. companies looking to film in Ireland.

"We have a proven track record in serving high-end feature projects such as the more recent 'P.S. I Love You,' the cable TV series from Showtime, 'The Tudors,' and 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998) or 'In America' (2002), for example," he says. "But it's important for incoming producers to be aware also of the strength of our indigenous sector, with films like 'Once' (2007), 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' (2006), 'Garage' (2007) and so many others. The point in emphasizing that is to underline just how strong and experienced the crew base is in Ireland."

Incoming producers are required to work with local producers in order to access the benefits of Section 481 -- a process Loughran helps facilitate. "The main benefit of 481 is that it pays out a known cash amount on the first day of principal photography. It's a spend-based incentive, so you access the money based on what you are spending in Ireland," he explains.

The weakness of the U.S. dollar as compared to the euro obviously makes things more challenging right now, he concedes. But he adds that the IFB took action to counter that decline in 2006 by introducing its International

Production Fund. "The idea of this fund is to keep Ireland competitive by allowing the IFB to actually invest money in a production. We always did this with indigenous

productions, but this is the first time that we have been able to do so with visiting productions, such as (last year's Miramax film) 'Becoming Jane' and 'The Tudors.'"

Loughran insists that without this investment project Showtime and Miramax "would have chosen another

territory in which to shoot."

The IFB's Perry, in line with many of Ireland's leading producers, describes the relationship between incoming film production and the indigenous scene as being wholly symbiotic. For instance, 10 or 15 years ago it would have been extremely difficult to crew multiple incoming projects with Irish film professionals. But today -- according to Morgan O'Sullivan -- thanks to years of training on big-budget films shot on the Emerald Isle, as well as state-of-the-art training facilities, Ireland can easily facilitate half a dozen or more major productions simultaneously. O'Sullivan, an executive producer or co-producer on scores of projects such as "Moll Flanders" (1996), "Angela's Ashes" (1999), "The Count of Monte Cristo" (2002) and, currently, "The Tudors," is regarded as one of the principal architects of today's Irish film sector. "We have been very lucky with the bigger productions, through which we can give young people a start in the industry and bring them through the ranks," he says.

One of those bigger productions, of course, is "The Tudors," Showtime's hit series starring local-boy-made-good Jonathan Rhys Meyers. O'Sullivan says he always felt that an Irish-produced major TV series for the U.S. would greatly benefit the industry in terms of training and experience. "My big ambition was always to make a big TV series in Ireland for America, and so when the script of 'The Tudors' came in we jumped at the chance of producing it," he says.

"If all we did here were low-budget feature films, the industry would not survive," adds producer Andrew Lowe, who, with partner Ed Guiney, heads up the successful Dublin production house Element Pictures, which made the acclaimed "Garage" and co-produced Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," among many other TV and film credits.

"When Ed and I first set up Element, we recognized that, as well as developing our own slate of films, we were also going to have to co-produce incoming projects," he says. "That not only helps pay the bills but also develops other relationships by working with other producers from outside Ireland."

Another factor contributing to the Irish film sector's growth is the fact that the so-called Celtic Tiger economy has made Ireland one of the richest nations in Europe "There's loads of money washing around everywhere, though accessing it is a skill set of its own" declares producer Alan Moloney, whose company, Parallel Film Prods., has been responsible for Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on

Pluto" (2005) and, more recently, "The Escapist." "We are not going to the studios that we would have gone to in the past: the mini-majors. We are financing here on the basis of sales estimates. ... In that sense I suppose there is certainly an element of self-sufficiency."

While "Kings" director Tom Collins is pleased by the recent success of mid- to low-budget Irish productions, he'd like to see what the country's vibrant talent pool could do with more money. "I think there is a tendency -- which is fair enough -- to applaud films because they're made on a shoestring," he says. "(But) we have to think about trying to get bigger budgets for our films."

David Collins of Samson Films, who produced the famously successful "Once" for less than $200,000 (the film has grossed an estimated $16 million worldwide to date), places less emphasis on the film's budget than he does on the vision of writer-director John Carney. "It was the talent of Carney that at the end really made it possible," he declares. "He was able to create a modern film musical with very modest resources and in a really pure way of storytelling."

In fact, David Collins, a veteran of the Irish film scene who made a low-budget film called "Eat the Peach" just over 20 years ago, believes that if Irish filmmakers -- regardless of their budgets -- are going to continue to connect with larger audiences, they need to draw on that gift of storytelling.

"The interesting thing is that if you look at 'Eat the Peach,' and then today at 'Once' or at 'Eden' -- which we have just produced -- you see that there are very strong stories," he say. "The thing is not to become focused on finding projects that you hope will appeal to everybody everywhere. We are a small country with the ability to tell local stories that will have universal appeal."

It's a sentiment he shares with Carney.

"There was a feeling in the mid-'90s, after the success of Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, that anybody could do it --that anyone could make a hit film in the American market," Carney says. "But that was a bit of a misnomer in a way, because obviously making a successful film is very hard. I think Simon Perry has a really realistic attitude toward training people and making films for Irish people and kind of worrying about our own market first."   

Steve Brennan is THR's international editor and co-author, with Bernadette O'Neill, of "Emeralds in Tinseltown -- The Irish in Hollywood" (Appletree Press).

Celtic pride

Major players in the Irish film sector:

Element pictures
Element co-produced Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," the most successful independent film ever released in Ireland and winner of the Festival de Cannes' 2006 Palme d'Or. The following year, "Garage" won the Festival de Cannes' C.I.C.A.E. Award.
Credits: "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (2006), "Garage" (2007)
Contact: Andrew Lowe, andrew@elementpictures.ie

Epos films
Established with the intention of producing its own film slate and generating co-productions with international production companies, Epos has also developed a strategic relationship with the Irish post-sound facility Ardmore Sound/Plus.
Credits: "Bloody Sunday" (2002), "In America" (2002)
Contact: Paul Myler, myler@eircom.net

Grand pictures
Producers Paul Donovan and Michael Garland established Grand in 2000 to produce feature films and television drama.
Credits: "Spin the Bottle" (2003), "Puffball" (2007)
Contact: Michael Garland, michael@grandpictures.ie

Hell's Kitchen
Created in 1993 by Jim Sheridan and Arthur Lappin, Hell's Kitchen has more than 20 features films to its credit.
Credits: "My Left Foot" (1989), "In the Name of the Father" (1993), "In America" (2002)
Contact: Arthur Lappin, lappin@iol.ie

Octagon
Established in 2001 by Morgan O'Sullivan of World 2000 and James Flynn of Metropolitan Films -- Octagon produces a wide range of high-profile features and television dramas for the international market.
Credits: "The Tudors" (2007- ), "Becoming Jane" (2007), "Dorothy Mills" (2008)
Contact: James Flynn, james@metro.iol.ie

Parallel film prods.
Alan Moloney established Parallel in 1993 with a view toward producing features and television dramas.
Credits: "Intermission" (2003), "Breakfast on Pluto" (2005),"The Escapist" (2008)
Contact: Alan Moloney, alan@parallelfilms.ie

Samson films
In addition to being one of the leading independent film and TV producers in Ireland, Samson provides logistical support to incoming feature films and television series.
Credits: "Once" (2007), "Eden" (2008)
Contact: David Collins, info@samsonfilms.com

Subotica entertainment
Tristan Orpen Lynch, who formed Subotica in June 1999 with Dominic Wright, was nominated by European Film Promotions for Irish Producer on the Move at the 2001 Festival de Cannes.
Credits: "Small Engine Repair" (2006), "The Daisy Chain" (2008)
Contact: Tristan Orpen Lynch, tristan@subotica.ie

Treasure entertainment
Headed by director Paddy Breathnach and producers Robert Walpole and Paddy
McDonald, Treasure's first feature, "I Went Down," won best new director and best screenplay at the San Sebastian Film Festival.
Credits: "I Went Down" (1997), "Shrooms" (2006)
Contact: Paddy McDonald, paddymc@treasure.ie

World 2000
Morgan O'Sullivan's World 2000 is a major player on the Irish film scene, backing such high-profile projects as Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" (1995) and the Cate Blanchett starrer "Veronica Guerin" (2003).
Credits: "King Arthur" (2003), "The Tudors" (2007- ), "Becoming Jane" (2007)
Contact: Morgan O'Sullivan, morgan@world2000.ie
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