Oscars put spotlight on Irish film

Published on Sunday 7 February 2010. By John Reynolds 

Despite recent successes in animation, film makers here need more support if the industry is to continue to punch above its weight, says John Reynolds

WHILE an Oscar nomination may have so far eluded Carlow-born actress Saoirse Ronan, Irish film makers and animators who work on the other side of the camera did succeed in winning international recognition this week, receiving five Oscar nominations.

There was a further flow of national pride when last September’s Toronto International Film Festival saw a record seven Irish films officially selected for screening, one of which was independent director Margaret Corkery’s debut dark comedy Eamon, made with a budget of just €275,000 and filmed in Wicklow’s Brittas Bay.

On this basis — and despite economist Colm McCarthy’s proposal that the Irish Film Board’s (IFB) functions be brought under the control of Enterprise Ireland — we might claim that there’s a thriving niche of creative talent here, one that also helps to nurture areas of the digital economy such as the computer game industry, for example.

The industry supports 7,000 jobs here and contributes about €570m to the economy, according to IFB figures. It also has an important spin-off effect. Eighteen per cent of tourists visit our shores as a result of seeing Ireland on TV or in a film, Tourism Ireland claims.

As Steven Soderbergh’s Knockout prepares to start filming in Dublin, and in light of recent productions filmed here such as comedy thrillers Perrier’s Bounty and The Guard, both of which star Brendan Gleeson, the same trickle-down effect is also evident in the production sector itself. For every euro the IFB spent between 1993 and 2008, €10 was generated from other sources, of which €6 was international investment, meaning it is cost positive.

While the work of the IFB is fundamental to the success of the industry, another arm of the State, RTE, is far less supportive, explains Cathal Gaffney, MD of Brown Bag Films, which received its second Academy Award nomination for its short animated film, Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty.

“As a public service broadcaster, RTE’s remit is to produce children’s programmes just as they commission drama and documentaries. Irish children have as much right to quality home produced TV as their parents do.

“However, its schedule is almost entirely full of imported animation from the US and Europe. Unless there is a change in policy, Irish children will learn to speak with American accents.

“Who knows what success the animation sector could achieve if RTE were to commit just 5 per cent of its programming budget towards animation?”

In stark contrast, overseas broadcasters such as Nickelodeon and the BBC have both recently commissioned animated series from firms here; most recently Olivia from Gaffney’s company, and Roy from Jam Media, who are currently working on Tilly and Friends and who produced the successful Funky Fables series.

Gerard O’Rourke, producer at Monster Animation, says that RTE is largely unsupportive because it can earn so little ad revenue from children’s programmes. “Its lack of support for animation would indicate its policy is more about chasing commercial revenues than its public service remit,” he says.

The fact that Irish broadcasters have slashed their homegrown production spending in the wake of plummeting ad revenues has also hurt the sector.

Film makers have to hope that success abroad will reap benefits at home and continue to attract Irish and foreign film makers to make movies here.

In the meantime, given that the now state-owned Ardmore Studios — where the high-budget TV series The Tudors has been filmed — is now 50 years old, perhaps the industry might benefit from a landmark scheme of some kind, perhaps involving a new studio or other means of specialisation, which would add another reason for movie makers to come here.

But when Morgan O’Sullivan, managing director of production company World 2000, sought planning permission to build a special effects studio in Ashford in Co Wicklow, it caused ructions among county councillors, who feared it would threaten the viability of nearby Ardmore Studios. O’Sullivan declined to comment on this or any future projects, however.

Local political battles aside, Minister for Arts Martin Cullen provided vital support to the sector by ensuring that the Section 481 tax incentive was safe until 2012.

With that in mind, a bit more support on a more practical level might provide further ammunition to the industry, which now has to fight locations like Eastern Europe, where the costs of doing business are much lower, when bidding for new projects.

The likes of rising star director Ken Wardrop — whose feature documentary film His ‘n’ Hers won an award at the Sundance Film Festival last month — along with our skilled animators are proof that we already have the talent.

But whether we can build on these strengths to get through what Sean Stokes, chief executive of industry group Screen Producers Ireland, calls “very difficult times”, remains to be seen.

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