Saturday 21 October 2017

Lights, camera, inaction - how Ireland is failing to attract big movie productions

King Arthur (2004)
King Arthur (2004)

Trina Y. Vargo

Big budget films aren’t being made in Ireland. The last one was King Arthur in 2003, with about €45m spent in Ireland on production. Indigenous producers have done well and are to be congratulated for securing and originating television shows like Camelot, The Tudors, Vikings and Penny Dreadful. But the opportunity exists for Ireland to play a much larger role in international film production and to even secure tentpoles, which bring jobs, significant spend in the country, and tourism.

A decade ago, as founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance, I created the annual Oscar Wilde Awards in Los Angeles and spend enough time there to have learned that many Hollywood producers have not based productions in Ireland because there are too many obstacles.  And a new generation of promising Irish producers, directors, writers, actors and technicians are leaving Ireland for places like the US and UK – where they feel facilitated rather than thwarted. 

Two years ago, the Irish Film Board promised American producers that Ireland’s tax incentive would be improved.  The tax incentive has now increased to 32% of the production spend in Ireland. This nicely positions Ireland beside the UK’s booming film and TV industry at a time when that jurisdiction is running at nearly full capacity.

However, if foreign producers want to make a film in Ireland, they are required to have an Irish co-producer to access the tax credit for them and the Irish co-producer then takes a percentage of the incentive as their own fee.  US based studios and TV companies often choose to co-produce and even develop content with local producers. However, those who do not wish to do so should not face this unnecessary barrier to qualify for local subsidies.

The tax incentive can only be paid to an Irish production company that has been trading for at least 21 months and continues to trade for at least 12 months after the delivery of the production that claimed the incentive -- i.e. the Irish government will only pay the incentive to an Irish company that continues to trade as a film producer on an ongoing basis. 

While some foreign companies might consider setting up their own production companies in Ireland, many American producers are excluded because a production company cannot be a broadcaster or connected to a broadcaster.  While this reportedly exists to keep the state broadcaster RTE from double dipping on state funding, it also prevents many major US studios from setting up fully scaled production companies in Ireland. Disney is connected to ABC.  ABC is a broadcaster.  Universal is connected to NBC.  NBC is broadcaster, etcetera.

With every step forward, there is a step back.  I encouraged and welcomed the decision to make the payable tax credit available to all cast and crew working in Ireland, not just EU citizens.  Changing that was necessary if a film involved a highly paid non-EU actor, but it’s not sufficient.  Tentpoles can have $200 million dollar budgets but Ireland caps the incentive at €50 million, another disincentive.  

There also is not enough studio space in Ireland, a major reason the country is unable to attract tentpole films.  I have been encouraging Pinewood Studios Group to build a studio in Ireland as they have in Atlanta, Toronto and Wales to name a few.  The expansion of existing studios would be great, but a major international studio should not only also be welcomed, but actively courted. 

Another problem is the revolving door at the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht.  Unfortunately, there is a perception that the position is a political backwater, a portfolio to be endured rather than an opportunity to be embraced.

A few years ago, when I told a civil servant that the Minister supported something, I was told, “the Minister won’t be here for long.” 

Last summer, J.J. Abrams, the director of the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, filmed for three days on Skellig Michael.  As someone who had long encouraged him to shoot in Ireland, I’m thrilled for Ireland that that happened – the visual of Skellig Michael in Star Wars can mean millions for Irish tourism.  STAR WARS was easy in that it was a couple days, in and out, from the base of Pinewood UK.  But it would be a mistake to consider that indicative of the possibility of major productions basing in Ireland as long as obstacles remain.

Some of these obstacles can be easily and quickly addressed.  The question is whether or not there is a desire and will to do so.

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