Pictures of success

IN 1993 Michael D Higgins, then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, took the fateful decision to re-institute the Irish Film Board, the national film development agency, which had run briefly between 1980 and 1987.

Twenty years on, the board’s rebirth has certainly fed enormous change in the Irish film sector.

Current chief executive, James Hickey, remembers well the pre-1993 days. He was then providing legal advice on films such as The Field and My Left Foot.

“You only have to think about what it was like then to realise how far we have progressed,” he says. “In those days if we were doing three or four films a year we were doing well. The change is enormous. The board funded over 30 projects in 2012 and the industry has grown very, very significantly. There were only five or six hundred people working in the industry in 1992 and now there are 6,500 people working full-time equivalent jobs.”

IFB-supported projects to be released in 2013 include Calvary, the new film from writer-director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), the Hardy Bucks movie, and big budget TV fare like Quirke, an adaptation of the Benjamin Black detective books.

Hickey was appointed CEO of the Film Board in February 2011. A former chairman of the Project Arts Centre and the Abbey Theatre, he has practised media law for over two decades. The latter has made him a key figure in filmmaking circles, and Hickey has had an input into a slew of Irish films over the years, among them Intermission and Once.

Like other State agencies, the IFB’s funding has suffered consecutive cuts in recent years. Its budget for 2013 is €11.9m, down 10%. Yet despite the country’s financial crisis the sector has posted impressive results in recent years. Employment in the audio-visual sector — film industry is becoming a more and more passé term — is up 20% on 2008. Meanwhile, foreign investment saw levels of production rise 30% last year. Another big coup was the recent announcement that the tax incentive Section 481 will be extended to 2020.

It’s all a far cry from 2009 when the McCarthy Report suggested that the Irish Film Board might have its functions absorbed by the Arts Council. Hickey credits his predecessor Simon Perry, and the board’s long-running chairman James Morris, with navigating the agency through challenging times.

“We needed to change a perception around the creative industries in Ireland, that not only are they good for their cultural impact but that they also create a large number of jobs and have a strategic value,” he said. “In fact, the EU estimates that the total value of the creative industries in the EU as a whole is somewhere around 5 or 6% of GDP.”

The significance of Europe to Irish audio-visual production is not to be underestimated. The great majority of new Irish films and television shows are collaborations with funding agencies from around the continent. Hickey is very much committed to pursuing this practice of trans-national financing.

“It’s absolutely essential,” he says. “A lot of the funding of Irish productions actually comes from the UK and we have very close relations with European countries too, ranging from the larger countries like France and Germany as well as Spain and Italy, and then countries like Holland and Belgium. It’s hugely important. It would be impossible for us to be involved in 30 film projects a year otherwise.”

It has turned out some decent films, too, most notably last year’s This Must Be The Place by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. That project starred Seán Penn as a tortured ex-rocker living in Dublin, although it could easily have been any other city in Europe. The Dublin setting was not an integral part of the script, but rather a direct result of negotiations between various funding bodies and investors. It’s in little curios like this that the trade-off between the creative and industrial sides of filmmaking comes into sharp focus. You can’t help but wonder if the artistic content isn’t compromised, however.

The compromises that have to be made in order to achieve the production of any film are many and various, says Hickey. “You’ve got to support the creative thrust of the project,” he says, “but you also have to balance the economic arrangements in such a way that the various contributing countries do get a return for their investment, while ensuring that the overall creative aspect of the project is maintained.”

Of course, the IFB is famously charged with a two-fold mandate. On the one hand the board exists to nurture a healthy industry here, providing a platform for new talent. On the other hand, and much more vaguely, it has a remit to facilitate the production of films of distinctive cultural value. “The challenge is to try to balance both objectives and find a way of doing it that serves both,” says Hickey.

One of the triumphs that it has achieved is its nurturing of an industrial environment in which some very successful production companies have emerged. Element Pictures — producers of The Guard and What Richard Did, as well as Quirke — are the foremost example. The emergence of such confident, self-sufficient companies is vital to the success of Irish film and TV.

“Creative self-sufficiency is hugely important,” says Hickey, and he points to Vikings, a slick new TV drama produced here by Octagon (makers of Love/Hate and The Tudors) in association with the History Channel. “It wasn’t as if a Hollywood studio came to them and said ‘we have this great project’ and asked them to be service providers. The project was developed by Octagon themselves, working with Michael Hirst (writer of The Tudors), and they pitched it to the US broadcasters.”

The latter is a sign of a mature industry and, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, the IFB can be commended for playing a huge part in its generation. It can also take some credit for assisting some rare Irish talent, for example filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did), to flourish.

Yet some of the old challenges remain, not the least of which is the problem of enabling Irish audiences to see Irish films, the great majority of which don’t make it to cinemas or TV screens.

Elsewhere, changes to the status quo may be afoot. The Creative Capital Report of 2011 suggested that funding offered by the Film Board and funding offered by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland should be synthesised so that there is a single funding agency in place.

How that would impact on the Film Board is anyone’s guess, but Hickey says he would welcome such a move if it comes.

“What’s really important is that we’re all working together,” he says.

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