Irish producers have their work cut out right now. With an 18% budget increase to $34.3m (EUR23.2m) for the Irish Film Board (IFB) there is more money available for low-budget, locally developed projects than ever before. Yet there are also fewer international film projects shooting in Ireland. Previously, projects such as King Arthur and The Count Of Monte Cristo could harness tax benefits from both the UK and Ireland. But changes to the UK's tax relief have made that impossible and Irish location shoots have plummeted.
Last year saw just one major US production, Alcon Entertainment's P.S. I Love You, set partly in Ireland, shoot in the country - for just two weeks. At the same time, John Carney's micro-budget Once, shot entirely in Dublin, was a festival hit, winning the audience award at Sundance. It has snagged an Oscar nomination for best original song and has grossed $16m internationally.
The success of Once has given Irish film-makers a much-needed shot of adrenaline but it offers little prospect of industry sustainability. What the industry wants is a much-improved tax incentive to the existing Section 481 that allows Ireland to compete with other European locations.
Section 481 is worth up to 16.4% of Irish eligible spend, paid in cash on the first day of principal photography. Following changes introduced in the Finance Bill at the end of January, it can now contribute a cash benefit of up to $7m (EUR10m) per project. Projects can also apply for Irish Film Board equity investment from the agency's International Production Fund. Consultants have recommended a new fund be established as an alternative to Section 481, perhaps modelled on the German Federal Fund.
How the Bill adds up
The broad, long-term solution, according to James Morris, chair of the IFB, is a twin-track approach that makes Ireland a financially attractive offshore production base and develops Irish talent at the same time. However, last week the government failed to deliver what the industry wanted - an increase in the amount investors can write off against tax and a broader definition of eligible spend to include US talent working in Ireland. The Finance Bill did amend Section 481 by extending it for another four years, until 31 December 2012 (as previously announced in the 2008 Budget). But the only other change was to raise the ceiling on qualifying expenditure for any one film from $52m (EUR35m) to $74m (EUR50m), subject to clearance with the European Commission.
This will lift the absolute amount that can be raised but it will not lift the net percentage benefit to the producer or affect qualifying spend requirements. Consequently it will not give Ireland a competitive bidding position for footloose productions, nor will it have any appreciable benefit for low-budget Irish films. While it is possible the Bill could be amended prior to enactment, that seems unlikely.
Next month, the IFB will lead a trade delegation to Los Angeles to promote Ireland's locations, talent and projects to Hollywood. Martina Niland of Once producer Samson Films, is one of the producers involved. "We have three or four projects of interest to US partners in different ways," she says. "One needs a US or Canadian director, and another is an Irish story we have been co-developing with a company in LA. I'll also be meeting with the people at Summit and Fox who worked on Once."
Likewise, Zanzibar Films' Edwina Forkin will be speaking with US agents about Emer Martin's script based on her novel Baby Zero. "It's a provocative East-meets-West drama set in LA and the Middle East to which we'd like to attach a US director," she explains. "I'm also hoping there will be distributor or pre-sale interest in two European co-productions we're filming this year: Johnny Gogan's The Straits with Omar Sharif attached, and Swansong with Anne-Marie Duff and Susan Lynch, which we're shooting in May with German partners Florin Films and Kinowelt."
Eugene O'Brien, writer
O'Brien has adapted his award-winning play Eden, about a disintegrating marriage in an Irish Midlands town as a feature for Samson Films, directed by Declan Recks. Eden receives its world premiere at the Dublin film festival on February 24. O'Brien and Recks previously collaborated on Pure Mule, a highly successful 2005 TV series for RTE that took a jaundiced look at life in small-town Ireland.
Contact: Curtis Brown, (44) 20 7393 4400
PJ Dillon, director
The cinematographer of such Irish films as Kings and 32A is moving into feature directing this year with two low-budget projects, Redux and Wide Open Spaces. Redux is the story of a young wife and mother who becomes unsettled when a series of strange, unexplained events lead to the appearance of a friend from her past. Wide Open Spaces is a comedy from Father Ted writer Arthur Matthews and starring Ardal O'Hanlon, Dylan Moran and Pat Shortt.
Robert Sheehan, actor
A look at 20-year-old Robert Sheehan's performance in Peter Foott's recent short An Creatur reveals shades of Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy or Stuart Townsend's earliest appearances on screen. The young actor's first role was a small part in Song For A Raggy Boy and he has since worked his way up to leading roles in the forthcoming UK TV series Rock Rivals and in Martin Duffy's new feature film, Summer Of The Flying Saucer.
Contact: Lisa Richards Agency, (353) 1 637 5000
Irish film & television awards
The ones to watch
The local industry's awards have no shortage of talent to choose from this year, from established creatives to rising stars
The fifth annual Irish Film & Television Awards (Ifta) take place this year in Dublin on February 17. Aimed at celebrating Irish creative talent working at home and abroad, this year's nominees include Atonement actress Saoirse Ronan and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, both Oscar-nominated for their work.
This year's best film nominees are Becoming Jane (Robert Bernstein, James Flynn, Douglas Rae), Garage (Ed Guiney), Kings (Jackie Larkin, Tom Collins) and Shrooms (Paddy McDonald, Rob Walpole).
One of the most keenly watched categories is the Rising Star Award sponsored by the Irish Film Board. The nominees are writer Cecelia Ahern (US sitcom Samantha Who'), producer Mark Mahon (Strength And Honour), actor Martin McCann (Closing The Ring), director Marian Quinn (32A) and Ronan (Atonement).
Deirdre Hopkins, the general manager of Ifta, points to some of the changes being made as the event matures and moves into the historic Gaiety Theatre.
"We wanted to move to Dublin city centre and from the banquet format to a theatre presentation so that nominees can get to the stage," she says.