As the Irish government considers scrapping the Irish Film Board, Simon Perry tells Geoffrey Macnab why the board is vital to Irish film culture.
As Simon Perry reflects, these are topsy turvy times for the film industry in Ireland. Some 25 films went into production in the country in 2008 — a record-breaking year. However, 2009 has been difficult as the Irish Film Board (IFB) seeks to adjust to the economic turmoil. It was only in early summer that the board had its budget confirmed for this year, down to $24m (¤17m) from $28m (¤20m) last year.
“It’s only the Irish Film Board that makes Irish films happen”
Simon Perry, chief executive, Irish Film Board
Then, just when it seemed that a measure of stability had been achieved, a report by economic experts commissioned by the Irish government was published, calling for the abolition of the IFB. Perry and his colleagues are therefore preparing to battle for the board’s very existence.
He contends the authors of the report are not aware of the extent to which the audiovisual industry has grown in Ireland over the last decade. Nor do the authors realise the catastrophic effect the disappearance of the board would have on production.
“It would mean no more Irish films being made,” he claims. “They [the report’s authors] say the tax incentive [section 481] is there and that should be enough… the tax incentive only works properly in conjunction with direct investment through the Irish Film Board and it’s only the Irish Film Board that makes Irish films happen.”
Perry is used to such battles. The late Alexander Walker, the waspish film critic of the London Evening Standard, once wrote that Perry resembled “[David] Puttnam in the days before his beard had been brushed”.
This was intended as a compliment. It is not only the beard that Perry has in common with Puttnam, but the energy and entrepreneurialism as well as being a former film producer who has brought a crusading zeal to public life and to debates on film policy.
In real terms, the money available for new production in 2009 is down 30%.
In response, the IFB has cut the amount it invests in any individual production from a standard $1m (¤750,000) to $850,000 (¤600,000).
“We got away very luckily. Other areas of the economy are being far more fiercely cut. It’s brutal in Ireland, it really is,” Perry reflects. He believes producers are “responding well” to what are newly straitened times and are pragmatic about the way they tailor new projects.
High-profile Irish movies set to hit the festival and market circuit in late summer include Neil Jordan’s Ondine, starring Colin Farrell and Stephen Rea — to be unveiled in Toronto — and Danis Tanovic’s Triage, also starring Farrell, which will contend for a berth at a major festival. Meanwhile, Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse was a hit at Tribeca and was picked up for the world by Magnolia, which will release the film in the US.
New projects are continuing to filter through. Perry has high hopes for Ken Wardrop’s feature documentary His And Hers and Ian Fitzgibbon’s Perrier’s Bounty. Another long-gestating title bound to interest international buyers is Stella Days, which Thaddeus O’Sullivan is set to direct with Martin Sheen playing a priest in 1950s Ireland who launches a cinema.
The film board is still heavily involved in co-production — one area that might have been expected to dwindle in the wake of the crisis — and the Irish remain committed members of Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s fund for the co-production, distribution and exhibition of European films. Perry has long argued that Ireland benefits hugely from being the only English-speaking country that is a member.
The board is also investing in distribution and exhibition as it strives to increase the visibility of Irish films at home. “Being a colonially owned sub-market of the UK has done so much damage for prospects for Irish films in Ireland. We have to assert our independence and have a standalone market.”
Now, though, the IFB must win the public battle to justify its continuing existence. Perry is confident economic and cultural arguments are on its side. Once it is realised the abolition of the film board will lead to the loss of several thousand private-sector jobs, he believes it will be preserved.
“Here [in Ireland], the big panic is all about the haemorrhaging of private-sector jobs,” he explains. “The country has gone from having full employment a year ago to more than 10% unemployment and rising fast. Close the film board and you’re creating more people without employment. This is an argument we’ll be bringing to bear, never mind the arguments about projecting the Irish way of life and Irish film being good for trade and tourism.”
- Born in 1943 and educated at Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, Perry entered the British film industry in 1974, working as an independent film-maker (Knots, 1975; Eclipse, 1976), as a film trade journalist and as head of the National Film Development Fund.
- In 1982, he set up Umbrella Films, which has produced or co-produced 10 features to date, including Michael Radford’s Another Time, Another Place (1983), 1984 (1984), White Mischief (1988) and Patrick Dewolf’s Innocent Lies (1995).
- In 1991 he was appointed chief executive of British Screen Finance, the national investor in film development and production. He ran the organisation until 2000 when it was absorbed by the UK Film Council.
- Since 2000 Perry has worked for the International Filmschool in Cologne, as a film selection correspondent for Cannes, and in 2003-04 as director of co-productions at Ingenious Media. He is president of Ateliers du Cinéma Européen.
- In January 2006 Perry was appointed chief executive of the Irish Film Board.