After languishing in the doldrums for several years, things are beginning to look up for Irish film. Several local productions are about to start shooting and a slew of Irish helmed projects are hitting the world's cinema screens.
Neil Jordan's latest film, The Good Thief, is getting raves. Similarly Jim Sheridan's In America has won strong reviews after its premiere in Toronto. In common with these two films Thaddeus O'Sullivan's period drama, The Heart of Me, from BBC Films, also launched at Toronto as did Pierce Brosnan's Evelyn, produced through his company Irish Dreamtime. Damien O'Donnell has also had positive reviews for Heartlands which premiered at Edinburgh.
This unprecedented run of festival premieres from Irish directors continues at San Sebastian with Pigs Will Fly from the Germany-based Eoin Moore. If there is a downside to this flowering of Irish talent it is that only one of these films was primarily shot in Ireland - ironically, given its title, Sheridan's In America.
Then there is Peter Mullan's Venice winner Magdalene Sisters which is not just an Irish story but also an Irish co-production, exec produced by Ed Guiney, post-produced at Ardmore Sound like Mullan's debut Orphans, and backed by the Irish Film Board and Section 481. The theme of Magdalene Sisters is well known to Irish audiences both from documentaries and from the recent BBC drama Sinners, broadcast in March and starring Anne Marie Duff who also takes the lead in Mullan's film.
Sinners, which was shot in Ireland, was directed by Aisling Walsh who was back during the summer to direct Subotica Entertainment's Song for a Raggy Boy. Walsh's last theatrical feature outing in her home country was Joyriders, fourteen years ago. Only out and out pessimists would suggest that it could be fourteen years before the likes of Damien O'Donnell or John Moore get to make a feature film in Ireland but, with the notable exception of Conor McPherson, the younger generation of Irish directors are mostly working abroad. Indeed a significant number of the films either in production in Ireland, or being readied for production, are debut projects from first-time directors.
McPherson's The Actors, starring Michael Caine, has now almost finished filming having been the first locally developed project before the cameras this year. Both it and Song for a Raggy Boy were significant recipients of Film Board money, $2.1m of which went to four productions in the first half of the year. The other two projects, MR Films' Mystics and Goldfish Films' Goldfish Memory received around $980,000 between them.
The latter film is the only one of the four not to have benefited from Section 481 tax funding which ten feature projects have used this year. The other titles are - Chasing the Dragon, Dark Eagle-Benedict Arnold, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, Fathers and Sons, Dead Bodies, Ella Enchanted and Intermission. Two of these, Distinguished Features' Dead Bodies and Company of Wolves' Intermission are locally developed projects, and a further three feature films are currently going through the certification process.
Intermission, the directorial debut of theatre director John Crowley with stars Colin Farrell, Colm Meaney and Cillian Murphy, was on a stop-start basis for several months while producers worked around Farrell's availability and tried to put the last pieces of its funding in place. A crucial part of that complicated financial jigsaw was the acquisition by BVI of all UK and Irish rights.
According to BVI Ireland's General Manager, Brendan McCaul; "We have been encouraged to go out and find projects, particularly by Daniel Battsek in London who agreed with us on Intermission which has two driving factors - the script and the talent attached."
BVI UK & Ireland's up-front rights acquisition on Intermission is a first for an Irish production but BVI's interest in current Irish production doesn't stop there. It is negotiating the fine print on an agreement with Grand Pictures on their low budget project, Spin the Bottle, a spin off from the popular Irish TV series, Paths to Freedom. In McCaul's words, 'a contemporary Irish working class comedy with the ability to deliver.' This agreement will be for Irish theatrical rights only while the deal on a third film, Dead Bodies, is an agreement in principle on Irish theatrical distribution only, pending a viewing of the finished film.
Says McCaul: "These are serious commercial contenders, we have to get involved because otherwise these kinds of projects might not see the light of day." McCaul is also looking forward to distributing Chasing the Dragon on its home turf and he will probably also be handling Heartlands, Damien O'Donnell's latest.
BVI may also end up releasing the biggest production of the year in Ireland - Jane Startz's Ella Enchanted, a $35m project for Miramax which films on location and at Ardmore Studios until the end of November. Co-produced by Irish producers Morgan O'Sullivan and James Flynn Ella will allow Ardmore an upbeat ending to a year which had been marked by the absence of a significant tenant.