Northern Ireland Screen plans to place the territory at the forefront of the UK industry thanks to an ambitious new investment plan. Sarah Cooper reports.

We like to think we’re competing not with the UK but with the rest of the world,” says Richard Williams, CEO of regional agency Northern Ireland Screen, which has in recent years been instrumental in not only attracting productions such as HBO’s Game Of Thrones to the territory but in helping to create a sustainable indigenous industry.

The scale of Northern Ireland Screen’s ambitions can be seen through its four-year strategy Opening Doors, a $72.3m (£42.8m) investment plan to boost production, development and training across film, TV, games and animation, with a view to making Northern Ireland the strongest screen industry outside of London in the UK and Ireland, a title to which the territory could already make claim thanks to Game Of Thrones.

With backing from Northern Ireland’s government, the new strategy marks a significant increase in funding from Northern Ireland Screen’s previous four-year plan, Driving Global Growth, which saw $46m (£27.3m) being invested between 2010-14. While the previous strategy brought a return of $204m (£121m), it is hoped the new plan will generate $328m (£194m) worth of direct spend in Northern Ireland.

‘We need to get to that moment in indie film where Scotland had Trainspotting and Shallow Grave’

Richard Williams, Northern Ireland Screen

“The whole point of this new strategy is, we need it all,” says Williams of the decision to focus on all sectors of the industry, from large-scale productions through to digital content and animation. “You can’t sustain the infrastructure you need for independent film just through independent film; it needs to be sitting on an economic platform that’s driven by the big stuff.”

Still, growing the indie sector remains a key priority. “Good Vibrations was a critical success but we need that to translate into audience success. We need to get to that moment in indie film where Scotland had Trainspotting and Shallow Grave,” says Williams.

Fund for growth

When it comes to nurturing local talent, Northern Ireland Screen offers script development funding to local writers and production companies as well as slate funding (see below). The agency also invests in local-language projects via its Irish language broadcast fund and Ulster-Scots broadcast fund.

Northern Ireland Screen’s production funding comes in the form of a recoupable loan, usually up to $1.4m (£800,000) for projects that have at least 65% of their budget in place, which will shoot partially in Northern Ireland and can show the potential for economic benefit to the region.

It is a package that is proving popular with both international producers and the local industry. “Northern Ireland Screen has good recognition of major projects that help to put us on the map, while also being very attentive to the local sector,” says Michael Hewitt of Belfast-based production company DoubleBand Films, whose first feature documentary Road was funded by Northern Ireland Screen.

“It’s a very intelligent approach, because it means that if you’re a production company with an independent film and you say you’re from Northern Ireland, people know the quality of material that can be generated from the region,” adds producer Mark Huffam.

Northern Ireland Screen’s new strategy will see an increased focus on training and development, an area the agency already takes very seriously. As well as organising a series of paid placements across Northern Ireland Screen funded projects, it also helps a delegation of local film-makers to attend the Berlin and Cannes film festivals, as well as offer funding for vocational courses.

Another area of potential growth, says Williams, is within the digital sector, with local companies such as 360 Production and Iglu Media already carving out a niche through Northern Ireland Screen schemes such as the Creative Industries Innovation Fund, CultureTECH and Digital Circle.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Screen intends to cultivate Northern Ireland’s growing reputation as an animation hub thanks to the presence of award-winning animation companies such as Sixteen South.

It could be argued, however, that the agency’s most important mission is to find the next Game Of Thrones, albeit this time with a Northern Irish twist. Says Williams: “Within our four-year strategy we aim to have a large-scale project that has an intellectual property relationship to Northern Ireland. That’s a big ambition going forward.”

Funding facts at a glance

  • Production funding — a recoupable loan of usually up to $1.4m (£800,000), to a ceiling of 25% of the overall budget.
  • Script development funding — $3,800 (£2,250) for individuals and up to $68,000 (£40,000) for companies.
  • Slate funding — up to $169,000 (£100,000) is available to independent production companies based in Northern Ireland and European production companies that have an office and staff based in Northern Ireland.
  • Short Film Funding — via the New Entrants Award of $3,800 (£2,250) and Emerging Film-makers Award of $7,600 (£4,500).
  • Northern Ireland Screen offers funding to local-language projects through its Irish Language Broadcast Fund and Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund, both of which invest a maximum of $675,000 (£400,000) up to a ceiling of 75% of total production cost