Monday 26 September 2016

Plunder and pillage: reaping the rewards of a Viking invasion

The Irish film industry will inject over €200m into our economy this year. Our journalist travelled to Ashford in Wicklow to see how local business thrives as a direct result

Graham Clifford

Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30

Vikings producer Morgan O'Sullivan and writer Graham Clifford on the set at Ashford Studios, Co Wicklow.
Vikings producer Morgan O'Sullivan and writer Graham Clifford on the set at Ashford Studios, Co Wicklow.
One of the Vikings set at Ashford Studios, in Ashford Co Wicklow.
Oonagh Ward who was an extra on Vikings and also works at The Cafe Latte in Ashford Co Wicklow, pictured outside the cafe.
Costume designer Joan Bergin pictured in the costume design studio at Ashford Studios where Vikings is being filmed.
Fourth series: Travis Fimmell as King Ragnar in Vikings

He sits with legs crossed, reading intently. The legendary and striking Viking, King Ragnar Lothbrok, brutal in conflict and the scourge of the English and French, is deep in thought. But as he turns a page, the friendly waitress asks 'would you like another coffee?'

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"Ah yeah, Travis comes in a good bit, he likes it here, and sometimes he sits out the front there learning his lines," explains Oonagh Ward, who works in the Café Latte in Ashford, Co Wicklow.

Travis Fimmel, the 35-year-old Australian actor, plays the lead role in the Vikings TV series filmed just up the road at the impressive Ashford Studios.

Later this month filming will begin on the fourth series of the hugely popular historical drama and local traders are gearing up for a few more months of increased business as a result.

"We'll spend something in the region of €40m directly in Ireland to make this series alone and would have done so with the three previous series as well," explains Morgan O'Sullivan, executive producer of the Vikings on a behind-the-scenes tour of the set in Ashford.

As we amble down a ninth century Parisian street, he continues: "As a result, local businesses inevitably proposer such as restaurants, shops, hotels, security firms, builders, carpenters, material suppliers and so on.

"There was a myth that because of tax incentives, film-makers were coming into Ireland, making their films, pocketing the profits and leaving again, but this shows how positive the industry can be to the Irish economy as a whole. We can achieve so much here if we do things right."

And the figures don't lie. Last year alone, direct expenditure from independent film, TV drama, animation and feature documentaries in Ireland came to almost €200m, signalling the highest production activity levels on record. Indirect expenditure on the back of this financial injection into the economy inevitably runs into many hundreds of millions.

Including all other production activity, such as television, then the overall spend from the industry is thought to be nearer the half-a-billion euro mark annually.

And the benefit to our tourism industry is said to be massive. We've come a long way from the quaint Ireland shown across the Atlantic in the likes of The Quiet Man (1952) and Ryan's Daughter (1970) and now the dramatic and rugged beauty of the country can be seen by, literally, millions across the globe with an itch to travel. Tourism Ireland couldn't ask for better advertising.

The more successful the film or television series produced here, the more international viewers who'll see it - and potentially visit Ireland. That's good news for anyone involved in the service industry so the recommissioning of an Irish made series by a major US television network signals euro signs across the board.

For people such as John Cameron, the movie trucks moved into Ashford at just the right time. He runs Bray Building Supplies, and sources and delivers timber, plywood, plaster and other building materials as soon as the production team on Vikings need it.

"The bottom had just fallen out of the economy when we got the call from the studios requesting materials, it came just at the right time," he says.

"Without their orders we wouldn't have survived, plain and simple - we would have had to close the doors. We have four lads employed here and, without the Vikings programme, they would be out of a job and their families would have felt the knock-on impact - so we're so grateful to those up at the studios for using us.

"The production team in Ashford are superb to work with, but when an order comes in from them, there's no messing around - you need to be able to deliver rapidly, no matter the time, day or night."

Back at the Café Latte, Oonagh tells me that she worked as an extra on the programme for the first three series. In recent weeks, 9,000 people (five times the population of Ashford) flocked to casting calls for extras at auditions in Temple Bar and Wicklow town - the figures surprised even those behind Vikings.

"That's a huge figure, extraordinary, and it shows how popular the programme has become both in Ireland and internationally," explains Morgan O'Sullivan. "We even had two guys who came from as far away as New Zealand just to try out for some extras work on the series."

On a continuous basis during the filming of Vikings, about 725 people will be employed at Ashford, these include 300 crew, 25 principal cast members, 350 extras and 50 stunt experts.

Additionally contract staff will assist the main body of employees and there are the necessary ancillary services such as on-site caterers, drivers, bus operators and much more.

"Often we'll have carpenters and crew members popping in for a quick bite to eat or grabbing a coffee on the go, they always seem to be rushing. Sometimes to save time they'll ring ahead to place their food orders," explains Andrea Merriman, who runs the Café Latte and is a huge fan of the programme.

"This year I think they're filming more episodes of Vikings than in the other series, and will be up there until Christmas, which is an added bonus for us and everyone in the village. I started the café here two years ago and, to be honest, at the time it didn't cross my mind that you'd have the studios just up the road from us. They've been great for business really and there are plans for expansion so it's good news all around."

The cast and crew pop into the local Centra shop on a daily basis, and at the bakery and food hall in the stunning Mount Usher Gardens they even get a discount. Many of the Viking workers flock to the Avoca Garden Café on a Friday morning for breakfast.

'Every week, during filming, they pop in for their pancakes, eggs benedict, scrambled eggs, coffee and breakfast goodies. It's such a lovely setting here and I think they like coming down here to relax between shoots," says the café manager, Bernie Lyons, adding: "The studios are so important to the economy here in Ashford and every time a new series of Vikings is commissioned it's great news for all of us."

The improved Section 481 incentive scheme designed to promote investment in film by allowing tax relief for the investor certainly has turned heads abroad - but Ireland's attractiveness as a location for filming is multi-faceted.

"In years gone by we used to attract the odd big blockbuster feature film like Braveheart which was great. But in many cases, the production crew would have been brought in and once the filming was concluded, they left. I always felt it was imperative to build our pool of talent in Ireland and the way to do that is by attracting major TV series such as Vikings, Penny Dreadful and Ripper Street (BBC)," explains Morgan O'Sullivan.

"By doing that you get to teach each crew member, they climb the ladder series after series, and on the set of Vikings, the huge majority of the crew are talented Irish people who are now up there with the best in the world at what they do. Each year of the series we grow stronger as a result."

Irish costume/production design and hair and make-up crew thrived on past series shot here, such as Camelot and The Tudors - now they're even surpassing those achievements on Vikings.

And as we meet those same crew members, it's clear they can't wait to get their teeth into series four of the programme. Many of the younger professionals might have had to travel outside of Ireland for such specialised work without projects such as this, and O'Sullivan feels, while our film industry is doing well at the moment, there is one major obstacle to further expansion.

"We need more studio space, more stages, more facilities in which to produce. Of course here at Ashford we're looking at expanding, but that whole area needs to be looked at very closely. We know we have the talent, the incentives and the ideal location so now we need more dedicated studio space in which to produce," he says.

But the success of the likes of the Vikings, The Tudors, Camelot, Moone Boy and Love/Hate illustrate how far we have come in a few years.

By the end of this month the plethora of unusual hairstyles on display around Ashford will wrong-foot unsuspecting passers-by as the Vikings return.

The cast will sip coffee and access Wi-Fi at local cafés, enjoy duck and salad rolls at the food halls and return to have their make-up applied… it's as if we're back in old Viking Ireland again!

An explosion in high-end Irish TV drama in recent years has led to a massive jump in production activity never before seen on these shores.

With more TV networks wrestling their way into the market, the demand for such content is growing at a rapid pace.

Also channels which would have normally avoided such content now appreciate its huge importance to ratings and advertising - while non-traditional platforms such as Netflix and others are fighting for a slice of the action.

"Since 2012 we've seen a 37pc increase in production activity in Ireland," says James Hickey, chief executive of the Irish Film Board.

It's an astonishing percentage increase - though 2012 was a relatively slow year for the industry globally. The Irish film industry now employs about 6,000 people on a continuous basis with an estimated 15,000 positions being categorised as temporary.

"As an industry it's growing at an amazing pace. The Section 481 scheme, which incentives companies to come to Ireland to make their films and programmes, has been hugely important. We feel the Government fully understands the significant importance and value of our industry and it's potential for growth," says Mr Hickey.

In 2014, around €200m was spent directly in the Irish economy by film-makers in Ireland (that excludes regular television productions). When all types of filming and film-making (including animation) are taken into account that figure surpasses the half-a-billion euro mark.

This is money that literally stays in the country and leads to indirect expenditure of multimillions more.

"Since the Section 481 scheme was extended in 2013 we've certainly received more queries from international film-makers about doing business in Ireland," says Mr Hickey. He adds: "The enhancements to the tax incentive, together with a modern film studio infrastructure, experienced local producers, award-winning cast and crew and beautiful film locations, makes Ireland a competitive base for international film and television."

Booming film industry here employs 20,000

An explosion in high-end Irish TV drama in recent years has led to a massive jump in production activity never before seen on these shores.

With more TV networks wrestling their way into the market, the  demand for such content is growing  at a rapid pace.

Also channels which would have normally avoided such content now appreciate its huge importance to ratings and advertising — while non-traditional platforms such as Netflix and others are fighting for a slice of the action.

“Since 2012 we’ve seen a 37pc increase in production activity in Ireland,” says James Hickey, chief executive of the Irish Film Board.

It’s an astonishing percentage increase — though 2012 was a relatively slow year for the industry globally. The Irish film industry now employs about 6,000 people on a continuous basis with an estimated 15,000 positions being categorised  as temporary.

“As an industry it’s growing at an amazing pace. The Section 481 scheme, which incentives companies to come to Ireland to make their films and programmes, has been hugely important. We feel the Government fully understands the significant importance and value of our industry and it’s potential for growth,” says  Mr Hickey.

In 2014, around €200m was spent directly in the Irish economy by film-makers in Ireland (that excludes regular television productions). When all types of filming and film-making (including animation) are taken into account that figure surpasses the half-a-billion euro mark.

This is money that literally stays in the country and leads to indirect expenditure of multimillions more.

“Since the Section 481 scheme was extended in 2013 we’ve certainly received more queries from international film-makers about doing business in Ireland,” says Mr Hickey. He adds: “The enhancements to the tax incentive, together with a modern film studio infrastructure, experienced local producers, award-winning cast and crew and beautiful film locations, makes Ireland a competitive base for international film and television.”

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