Irish cinema lights up
A wave of local film-making talent, ambitious producers and attractive co-production options are helping Ireland shine on the world stage. Leon Forde reports
Spacious and cool, Dublin’s Light House Cinema is emblematic of the confidence building across the territory’s film sector. Situated in the city’s regenerated Smithfield area, the four-screen cinema was built at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom but went into receivership in March 2011. It reopened in January last year, with Element Pictures taking a long-term lease to run the cinema.
Element is one of a number of ambitious Irish producers working with the territory’s strong seam of talent, which includes such film-makers as Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did), Lance Daly (Kisses), John Carney (Once), Kirsten Sheridan (Dollhouse), Anglo-Irish film-maker John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), Ruairi Robinson (The Last Days On Mars), Juanita Wilson (As If I Am Not There), Rebecca Daly (The Other Side Of Sleep), Gerard Barrett (Pilgrim Hill), Carmel Winters (Snap) and Brendan Muldowney (Savage) — not to mention established names such as Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan.
“The industry here is in a very healthy state at the moment,” says director Lenny Abrahamson, currently in post on his much-anticipated Frank, which stars Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson. “I do feel that a certain critical mass has been reached.”
Irish film-makers are notable for the diversity of their projects, many of which tell Irish stories but have real resonance overseas. “The talent in Ireland is world class,” says Miriam Allen, managing director of Galway Film Fleadh, “and I think because we’re a small country we definitely punch above our weight when it comes to talent, when it comes to writing, to directing and definitely to producing.”
There is also confidence in genre, a thriving animation sector (see sidebar) and a strong documentary scene, with acclaim for films such as Ken Wardrop’s His & Hers and Nick Ryan’s The Summit. “It’s really vibrant and it’s filled with confidence,” says Grainne Humphreys, director of Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
“There is an alleged Irish trait of being able to tell a story well and I think documentary is really, really doing that,” she adds.
The Irish Film Board (IFB) has been central to the growth of local film, and short film schemes run by the board and other organisations such as Filmbase and the Galway Film Centre support new talent, alongside respected film schools. Indeed, Ireland has had eight live action or animated short Oscar nominations — and one win — since 2002.
“For the size of the country, we’ve always had a healthy shorts culture,” says John McDonnell of Fantastic Films, which he runs with Brendan McCarthy. Fantastic’s shorts include Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter, which was co-produced with Missing in Action Films and Funny Farm Film and Television and won an Oscar in 2006.
With a focus on genre, Fantastic’s feature credits include Conor McMahon’s Stitches and Wake Wood, which was written by McCarthy and directed by David Keating. Upcoming projects include horror films The Cherry Tree and Let Us Prey — a co-production with Makar After Dark in Scotland — and Ruairi Robinson’s sci-fi The Last Days On Mars, which Fantastic co-produced with Qwerty Films in the UK and which premieres in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Other films co-produced by Fantastic include Bollywood film Ek Tha Tiger, which shot in Ireland last year, and The Summit. The company also has a three-picture deal with MPI Media Group in the US.
Irish producers are savvy when looking for overseas co-producers, or acting as co-producers on projects that originate abroad. “In a way it’s [because] we live in a small island, a small market,” says Andrew Lowe of Element, which has co-produced titles including Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley. “You can’t survive unless you broaden your horizons.”
Founded by Lowe and Ed Guiney, Element is a vertically integrated business that spans production, distribution, exhibition and Irish VoD platform Volta.ie. Forthcoming projects include anticipated English-language projects from two major European directors: The Lobster from Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), and Safe From Harm from Oscar-winning Austrian Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters). The latter is a Europe-set thriller budgeted at approximately $13m (€10m), and due to shoot in spring 2014. The company also has a close relationship with Lenny Abrahamson, having been involved in producing all of his films, including the forthcoming Frank and several projects in development. Other titles in development include Ten Dates With Mad Mary, Darren Thornton’s adaptation of his hit play.
“From a finance point of view, it’s an inevitability,” Macdara Kelleher of Fastnet Films says of co-producing. “If you come from a country this small, you can’t finance your film above a certain budget. You have to co-produce with someone.”
Fastnet, which is run by Kelleher, Morgan Bushe and Lance Daly, has co-produced films including the forthcoming The F Word, a Canada-Ireland co-production directed by Michael Dowse and starring Daniel Radcliffe that partly shot in Ireland last year. The company is also currently financing Mammal as a co-production. An entrant in the Berlinale Co-Production Market this year, it is the latest from Rebecca Daly, whose The Other Side Of Sleep premiered in Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in 2011. Other Fastnet projects in development include The Ranger from PJ Dillon, and a contemporary anthology film based on James Joyce’s Dubliners.
Samson Films’ Martina Niland points to the fact Irish producers are proactive in seeking out new partners. “There is a lot more confidence about co-production now in terms of not just having to go to the UK… but going further afield, looking at places that we maybe haven’t looked at before,” she says. Producer of John Carney’s low-budget breakout Once, projects from Samson — which is run by David Collins with Niland as its lead producer — also include Grabbers, Snap and Run & Jump, the debut feature from Oscar-nominated short director Steph Green which world premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in April. New projects include Singapore co-production Mister John and John Banville adaptation The Sea.
Ireland is an attractive co-production partner thanks to its Section 481 incentive, worth 28% of a budget — with improvements to take this to 32% by 2015 — and payable as cash on the first day of production. Irish producers can also bring Eurimages money to the table and there is also flexible support from IFB, in addition to a wealth of locations and renowned local crews. The Section 481 system is well liked among local producers. “The money comes in at the start of production and that’s amazingly important because it’s a big saving and it’s a decent amount of money,” says Fantastic Films’ McCarthy.
Co-production may be buoyant but producers point to a lack of financing options in Ireland beyond the IFB.
Irish broadcasters do not have dedicated film arms, though they do back features — RTE, for example, invested around $640,000 (€500,000) in Irish film last year. If producers have a local broadcaster on board they can also access the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s fund, which invested around $1.3m (€1m) in Irish film last year.
“We are quite unique in that perspective from a European point of view — there isn’t really anybody outside of the film board that you can consistently partner with internally,” says Treasure Entertainment’s Rebecca O’Flanagan.
Treasure’s credits include Paddy Breathnach’s Man About Dog, Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse and the co-production Good Vibrations. Upcoming titles include John Butler’s The Stag, backed by IFB and Treasure itself. “We are definitely about making audience films but we’re also making them with a view to concentrating our energies and relationships that we have with talent on things that can work outside of Ireland,” says Treasure’s Robert Walpole.
Festivals remain an important launch pad in the Irish market, particularly Galway Film Fleadh (running July 9-14 this year) and Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (JDIFF). Holding its 12th edition next year (February 13-22), JDIFF is a major audience event showing around 140 films. It is also a major platform for local films, with world premieres this year of The Hardy Bucks Movie and Black Ice, among others. Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2013, Galway attracts a strong industry showing and holds an annual film market, The Film Fair. Galway has a strong Irish focus: Once had its world premiere there in 2006, while Pilgrim Hill premiered there last year.
The only festival in the Republic of Ireland with Academy Award qualifying status for shorts, Galway has screened early work by the likes of John Moore (A Good Day To Die Hard), Damien O’Donnell (East Is East) and others.
“Over the 25 years we’ve been doing the Fleadh, it’s extraordinary how far Irish film-making has come,” says Galway’s Allen.
With three animated short Oscar nominations and one nomination in the feature category since 2002, Ireland’s animation sector is a real bright spot. Key players include Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon, which produced Oscar-nominated feature The Secret Of Kells and TV series Skunk Fu!, and Dublin-based Brown Bag Films, responsible for shows such as Doc McStuffins for Disney and Oscar-nominated short Give Up Yer Aul Sins.
Ireland’s animation producers have a resolutely international outlook. “The way we’ve always put it is Brown Bag is Irish by geography only,” says Gillian Higgins, Brown Bag’s head of TV production. “It has to be able to compete with any studio.”
Cartoon Saloon CEO Paul Young says: “The audience in Ireland is small so this affects funding and return for both TV series and feature films. But I think this is also the reason why Irish producers are so well known for animation internationally now. We had to focus on exporting our work.”
Cartoon Saloon is in production on Song Of The Sea, from The Secret Of Kells director Tomm Moore. Meanwhile Brown Bag is developing its first family feature with Wind Dancer in the US. Nightglider tells the story of a flying squirrel adopted by tree squirrels who becomes convinced he is a superhero. Brown Bag co-founder and creative director Darragh O’Connell will direct.
Brown Bag is increasingly looking to produce its own original content, both in children’s programming and for the adult market through its recently launched Icehouse label. “We are calling it entertainment for grown-ups,” says O’Connell, “So it’s more prime time and letting ourselves get more into comedy, action, sci-fi, horror. Anything at all that’s not pre-school or family.”
Icehouse recently announced a deal to adapt the video game Dino D-Day into an animated series.
Distributors are looking to develop the Irish market
Often regarded as part of the wider UK market, Ireland is a very particular marketplace with its own tastes.
“It can be the case that some films can work better in Ireland than the UK and vice versa,” says Andrew Lowe of Element, whose release of The Guard became the most successful independent Irish film of all time in Ireland.
Studios release Irish films occasionally — this year has seen the successful release by Universal of The Hardy Bucks Movie, which had grossed $600,000 by April 21 — with local outfits such as Element, Eclipse Pictures and the recently launched Wildcard Distribution releasing local films in addition to international titles. All also handle sub-distribution for UK distributors: for example, Element sub-distributes for StudioCanal, while Wildcard recently handled the Irish release of King Of The Travellers for Metrodome.
Launched this year, Wildcard is a standalone distributor backed by Fastnet Films among others. Headed by Patrick O’Neill, former Irish Film Board distribution executive, Wildcard’s first full release this summer will be Lance Daly’s Life’s A Breeze. The company, whose annual slate will include around six Irish films, picked up UK and Irish rights to music documentary The Swell Season at Berlin.
In 2011 the Irish government’s Creative Capital: Building Ireland’s Audiovisual Creative Economy pointed to a global Irish diaspora of 80 million people, and Wildcard’s model aims to also deliver Irish features and documentaries to international audiences using existing VoD platforms.
“Because the industry is changing so much, we wanted to be multi-platform and multi territory,” says O’Neill.