Informal and fun, Ireland’s Galway Film Fleadh (July 5-10) is also becoming a significant European co-production hub.

In early July, there is only one place to find anyone of significance in the Irish film industry — at the Galway Film Fleadh, whose 23rd edition runs July 5-10. Plenty of international visitors will be there too.

“It is 50% business… and 75% pleasure,” says UK financier Paul Brett of Prescience. “There is nothing finer than to drink a pint of Guinness with your favourite Americans who are rediscovering their Irish roots. People like Eamonn Bowles [of Magnolia] and Bingham Ray [formerly of October Films and United Artists] are big fans.”

Attendees wax lyrical about the informal atmosphere and late nights. Serious business is done too.

“Everyone goes to Galway,” says Carey Fitzgerald, managing director of London-based sales and production outfit High Point Media Group. “We, as a company, always do Galway. We know we’re going to see everybody there. You’re going to see everyone from the Irish Film Board and from Northern Ireland Screen all in one place, at one time. And it’s fantastic fun. It’s the Irish hospitality that makes it. You normally need a bit of a detox when you get back.”

‘It is just a goddam great event, if I say so myself. We’re not elitist, there isn’t a sense of us and them’

Miriam Allen, Galway Film Fleadh

Their enthusiasm is matched by that of local producers. Ed Guiney of Element Pictures, whose new film The Guard receives a gala screening this year ahead of its Ireland and UK release, points out the Fleadh is “a brilliant place to launch a film to an Irish audience as well as to a strong cross-section of international buyers and film professionals”.

But these are challenging times for the Fleadh. The festival, run on a budget of around $650,000 (€450,000), is having to withstand cuts to its funding in the wake of the economic crisis in Ireland. Ask Fleadh managing director and co-founder Miriam Allen if the event’s financing is stable, and she replies wryly: “No, is the short answer.”

Over the last two years, the Fleadh has seen its budget shrink by around 25% (its main backer is the Arts Council of Ireland, which Allen says provides around 40% of the budget). Wages have been reduced, there is less money for marketing and there is a squeeze on the amount of accommodation the festival can offer industry visitors.

Goodwill hunting

But there is such a positive feeling toward the Fleadh that high-profile international guests continue to attend Galway. Among them this year is Eamonn Bowles, president of New York-based Magnolia Pictures. “There are a lot of chances to meet and greet the people you want. It is also one of the most egalitarian festivals,” he says. “Everybody gets treated the same way and there are not all the different strata you find at many festivals. Everybody is in it together, which is kind of nice.

“At the Film Fair, you get compact pitches. It’s done in a very efficient manner and you see the broad sweep of what’s happening in Irish production. There is a great reservoir of talent.”

The screenwriter-in-residence this year is US-based Gill Dennis, who co-wrote Walk The Line and Return To Oz. The director-in-residence is Scotland’s David Mackenzie, who has two films screening, You Instead and Perfect Sense. Both Dennis and Mackenzie will give masterclasses.

The Fleadh has also become an important co-production hub. As Ireland has long been part of Eurimages, the Irish Film Board (IFB) under former CEO Simon Perry looked to strike alliances with European partners and became an ever more outward-looking body. That policy is expected to continue under his successor, James Hickey, who took up the reins in June. The Film Board is keen to alert potential international partners to the fact Ireland has a tax incentive worth 28% of qualifying expenditure and a small army of local producers ready to work with foreign partners.

That is one reason why Galway’s co-production market, the Film Fair (July 7-9), has become such a key networking event. “The Galway Film Fleadh and Film Fair has been instrumental in helping to create new co-production relationships, particularly within a European context,” Hickey notes. “The fact that a new co-production treaty between Ireland and Luxembourg will be signed this year at the Galway Film Fleadh is testament to this.”

Attendees at the Film Fair, where around 650 meetings are scheduled, include sales agents (Celluloid Dreams and High Point among them), financiers (including Prescience and Ingenious) and plenty of film-makers and producers with projects to present.

‘At the Film Fair you see the broad sweep of Irish production. There is a great reservoir of talent’

Eamonn Bowles, Magnolia Pictures

Industry visitors point out that projects in the Film Fair tend to be at an early stage of development. Even so, festival organisers and visitors are able to cite many examples of movies that were fired into existence through Galway. Will Collins’ My Brothers, which opened last year’s Fleadh, began life when the Cork-based writer-director presented the idea at the Fleadh pitching event.

High Point’s Fitzgerald says her company picked up Tom Collins’ Kings, starring Colm Meaney, thanks to the Fleadh. “It was just a project. I bumped into Tom Collins in Galway. We’d never met before but that’s how we became involved. The film got made and then it premiered in the Galway Film Festival.”

Another poster child for the Fleadh is John Carney’s low-budget musical Once, which was a world premiere in Galway in 2006 before going on to win the audience award at Sundance. It was released in the US by Fox Searchlight and won an Oscar for best song.

Last year, Dieter Auner’s documentary Off The Beaten Track, an Ireland-Romania co-production about a shepherd family in Transylvania, was picked up for world sales by Eastwest Distribution after screening in Galway.

‘Edgy’ selections

If this year’s programme is taken as a measure, Irish production remains relatively robust in spite of the economic turmoil experienced by the country as a whole. Allen suggests new programmer Gar O’Brien, who has taken over from Felim MacDermott, has introduced a new “edginess” to this year’s selection.

The Fleadh is showcasing such varied Irish titles as John Michael McDonagh’s Sundance crowdpleaser and Edinburgh opener The Guard; Rebecca Daly’s The Other Side Of Sleep, fresh from its Directors’ Fortnight premiere in Cannes; Terry McMahon’s macabre low-budget thriller Charlie Casanova, which screened at SXSW; bare-knuckle boxing documentary Knuckle; and Darragh Byrne’s Parked, starring Colm Meaney, which opens the festival. Lelia Doolan will be presenting her new feature documentary about political activist Bernadette Devlin.

The Fleadh will also give a world premiere to Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Stella Days, starring Martin Sheen as a priest who fights to open a cinema in a small Irish town. Films Distribution is handling sales. Sheen will be in town to pick up Galway’s Hooker award.

“In terms of Irish cinema, I think this year has been fantastic,” says Allen.

The Fleadh has four full-time staff who have a long association with the festival and a fierce loyalty towards it. “It’s just a goddam great event, if I say so myself,” Allen states. When the Fleadh started, she remembers, there were only three screens in Galway, all showing mainstream Hollywood fare. Whatever else it has done, Galway has extended the range of movies local audiences can see. Next year, the festival will open The Picture Palace, a three-screen arthouse cinema that will be at the heart of the festival and also screen films throughout the year.

In 2010, admissions at the Fleadh were around the 18,000 mark. According to Allen, one of the qualities visitors most relish is that there are no barriers between industry delegates and the public. “We’re not elitist. One thing people like about Galway is our festival club, the Rowing Club. Everybody goes there. There isn’t a sense of us and them. Everybody can get in — you don’t need a badge with 25 stars on it.”