Ireland’s Element Pictures is ramping up its international co-production activity and is increasing its focus on Irish distribution. As the firm marks its 10th anniversary, Screen talks to Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe and Lee Magiday

Ireland may be going through a national economic crash, but you wouldn’t know it from the banner year had by Dublin and London-based Element Pictures.

The company co-produced Jerzy Skolimowski’s Venice award-winner Essential Killing, wowed Sundance with John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard [produced with Chris Clark and Flora Fernandez Marengo for Reprisal] — which sold to Sony Pictures Classics for the US and is opening this month’s Edinburgh International Film Festival — and was a co-producer of Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place, which landed a Competition berth at Cannes. High-profile projects in the works include James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer, starring Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough. In addition, Element also runs a successful Irish distribution business with plans to launch a VoD platform.

Clearly the Element formula is working. Indeed, the Irish economic situation is not as dire as it may seem, at least in regards to film. Element co-founder Ed Guiney explains: “While Rome is burning, one of the few things that are seen as a possible solution are the cultural industries and film in particular.”

Co-founder Andrew Lowe pays tribute to the stability of film support from the Irish government in times of crisis, particularly its continued funding of the Irish Film Board. And there is a silver lining to the larger economic collapse as shooting costs tumble. Ireland also benefits from being the only English-speaking country that is a member of Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s co-production development fund.

Element’s focus is certainly not just on Ireland. When the company was founded in 2001 — by Guiney, who was coming from his banner Temple Films and Lowe, who had been a production accountant and was then head of business affairs at the Irish Film Board —the principals knew they needed international ambition.

‘We’re keen to make English-language films out of Europe with European talent’

Ed Guiney, Element Pictures

“Part of the ambition in setting up the company was looking around the industry in Ireland and we wanted to be a little more businesslike and aspire to make a mark internationally,” says Lowe. Element has done that with films ranging from Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, Pete Travis’ Omagh, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley and Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage.

“What we get excited about is a filmmaker, a writer, a director — a voice of originality, of distinctiveness,” Guiney says. “That’s what we respond to. We’re very much a company that wants to be in business with people for the long term.”

One such relationship is with Abrahamson, director of 2004’s Adam & Paul and Garage in 2007, who has a special umbrella with Element: Element A. His next project is Blackrock, a low-budget murder story to shoot this autumn. Then in spring 2012, Abrahamson will direct Frank, written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan; Element is producing with David Barron and Stevie Lee at Runaway Fridge, with Film4 backing. The film, a hardboiled comedy with a more commercial sensibility, is about a musician seeking fame. Guiney reveals: “It offers great parts for British, European and American actors. We’ll be ambitious [about casting].”

Talent pool

Further projects in the works include an English-language period drama with Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos and new projects with the likes of Jim Sheridan, John Carney, Gabriel Range and Andy DeEmmony.

Co-productions are key to Element’s strategy. The company has 16 employees in Dublin, as well as head of development and production Lee Magiday in London, along with new addition Tom Leggett, working on the Abrahamson slate.

In 2006, Element recruited Magiday, former VP of acquisitions and production, Europe, for Focus Features and an ex-PolyGram executive. She was eager to get back into production with a company working across borders. “I had the base of how the marketplace works internationally, that was fantastic, but I wanted to get back to where the core of my beliefs were, which was in building talent and building relationships,” Magiday says. “With Ed and Andrew, I felt in sync with them about the kind of movies we wanted to make, the kinds of directors we wanted to work with.”

That London arm is crucial, they say. “We’re very keen to develop those relationships with European producers and European film-makers, to build on our existing track record,” Guiney explains. “We have a lot to offer in terms of Ireland and access to the Irish Film Board and Eurimages. We’re keen to make English-language films out of Europe with European talent.”

In one such example, Element was a natural fit for Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place, having worked with the film’s Italian producer Lucky Red on The Magdalene Sisters. Guiney explains: “They were thinking about either the UK or Ireland. One of the reasons they looked at Ireland was Eurimages, and then they came to talk to us.”

Another hot international title will be Marsh’s early-1990s Belfast-set thriller Shadow Dancer, with Riseborough playing a woman brought up in an IRA background who is forced to become an informer. Owen will play her handler. Guiney notes: “It’s terrific, it’s a great script. And James has a lot of particular ideas about how he wants to do it, to distinguish it from what’s gone before.”

Shadow Dancer is being sold by Wild Bunch, and is backed by BBC Films, the BFI, the Irish Film Board, Molinare, LipSync and is also using both Ireland’s Section 481 and the UK tax credit. Element is producing alongside Chris Coen for Unanimous.]

Element also works in TV, and is planning (with Tyrone Productions) a BBC project about mysteries in Dublin in the 1950s based on books written by renowned author John Banville under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.

Another important component of the Element puzzle is the company’s move into distribution in Ireland, which started with Garage in 2007 (Audrey Sheils is the company’s head of distribution). Lowe explains: “Ireland is part of the UK for distribution purposes, and it’s a curious one. The traditional distributors — the studio arms — and the London distributors couldn’t really figure out what to do with [Garage], so we decided it was a great opportunity. And it resulted in it being the highest-grossing Irish film of that year.”

Element distributes its own productions, acquisitions — primarily other Irish titles such as Lance Daly’s Kisses and Ken Wardrop’s hit documentary His & Hers — and also handles Irish distribution for Optimum Releasing in an ongoing relationship.

“Increasingly, where possible, we do look to keep the Irish rights to our films, so The Guard was an opportunity to do that. We acquired the Irish and UK rights with Optimum,” Lowe explains (the Irish Film Board was involved in supporting the acquisition). The Guard will be launched theatrically in Ireland on July 8, after its screening at the Galway Film Fleadh on July 6.

There is, of course, resistance to such a plan from some UK distributors who want those Irish profits themselves. Guiney counters: “You can argue with sales companies and distributors that a company based in Ireland with Irish contacts is going to do a better job, making more money for your movie than someone out of London.”

They can also tackle grassroots campaigns — such as the mobile cinema they successfully took to smaller towns and villages for His & Hers.

The company is also set to launch its VoD platform, Volta. “We decided it was important early on to establish a presence in that market,” Lowe says of the venture. “A lot of the big players don’t have local marketing and they don’t have local contacts.”

Guiney notes of innovative releasing in general: “One thing that’s good about Ireland is that because of its size you can try things out there, it’s got flexibility.”

Ed Guiney

Prior to co-founding Element Pictures in 2001, Ed Guiney produced various titles under Temple Films, including Paddy Breathnach’s Ailsa (1994), Stephen Bradley’s Sweety Barrett (1998), and Kirsten Sheridan’s Disco Pigs (2001). He started his career as development manager at Dublin’s Windmill Lane Productions.

Andrew Lowe

Prior to co-founding Element Pictures in 2001, Andrew Lowe was head of business affairs at the Irish Film Board (1999-2001) and a freelance production accountant in feature film from 1993-99, having qualified as a chartered accountant with Coopers and Lybrand in 1996.

Lee Magiday

Before joining Element in 2006, Lee Magiday was VP of acquisitions and production, Europe, for Focus Features, where she brought in projects including My Summer Of Love and Swimming Pool. Prior to that, Magiday worked as executive director, acquisitions, at Universal Pictures International, and spent three years as acquisitions executive for PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.