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Friday 19 September 2014

Movies and shakers behind Irish cinema and TV success

Irish cinema is enjoying a commercial and critical purple patch, but while it's the actors who put the bums on seats, who are the behind-the-scenes power-brokers making it happen?

Published 04/05/2014 | 02:30

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Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe
Michael Fassbender as Frank Sidebottom
Siun Ni Raghallaigh

The rude health of Irish cinema and television will be obvious to anyone who has stepped inside a multiplex. Billboards for John Michael McDonagh's Sligo-set Calvary are everywhere, alongside those announcing the arrival next week of Frank, Dublin director Lenny Abrahamson's highest profile movie to date.

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Cinema chains, meanwhile, are toasting the recent success of The Stag, a home-grown gross-out romp (with a gooey centre) that proved a surprise hit and demonstrated that Ireland can do throwaway comedy as effectively as anyone else.

On the small screen, too, the outlook is bright. Visitors to Dublin this spring may have been surprised to see swathes of the south inner city tricked out like a Victorian slum, complete with dusty store fronts and men in armour-plated tweed chugging pipes. Thus did Penny Dreadful, the new blockbuster series from Sky and its partners, announce itself.

Developed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes and starring Josh Hartnett and Eva Green, it imagines a 19th century London in which characters such as Frankenstein's monster and Dorian Gray co-exist. It is tipped to be the new Game of Thrones.

Alongside all this, Amazon has announced it is taking over from the BBC as producer of the acclaimed Ripper Street, part shot, like Penny Dreadful, at Ardmore Studios in Wicklow, while the small-screen adaptation of John Banville's Benjamin Black novels, a hit on RTE, are due to air on BBC4.

A few years ago, Ireland was regarded as a cinema basket case that specialised in low budget, low-fun art-house fare. Not that there's anything wrong with depressing movies made on a shoestring budget – it's just they are chiefly of interest to cineastes, not the popcorn-chomping masses.

The reasons for the revival are complex. An overhaul of the tax break system for overseas film-makers has played a part (let's not fool ourselves that global business is here for our twinkling charm).

Alongside the more competitive Section 481 scheme, however, it is undeniable that the indigenous sector has arrived at a healthier place too, becoming more ambitious and engaging with the international entertainment industry with confidence.

The face of Irish cinema remains A-listers such as Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender and Saoirse Ronan. But those driving the recent renaissance are less well-known. Here, then, is a who's who of the new power brokers.

Ed Guiney, Element Pictures

If you're looking for the fulcrum of Irish cinema's optimism, the starting point must be Element Pictures.

Element is the production company behind John Michael McDonagh's The Guard, Lenny Abrahamson's What Richard Did and the forthcoming Frank (with Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal).

The firm was founded in 2001 by Guiney and his friend Andrew Lowe. The more voluble of the two men, Guiney has become Element's public face.

He once ran the production company Temple Films (Sweety Barrett, Disco Pigs) and Lowe was head of business affairs at the Irish Film Board. Several years ago, Element opened a British office (movie distribution in Ireland is coordinated from the UK) and Guiney divides his time between Dublin and England.

Element also makes Ripper Street for Amazon and oversaw the adaptation of John Banville's Quirke novels. Alongside its production work, in 2012 it took over Dublin arthouse cinema The Lighthouse.

Stuart Murphy, Sky

Understanding that viewer loyalty is nowadays to an individual television series rather than to the network on which it is screening, Sky has invested millions in original content.

Several productions have landed in Ireland. Penny Dreadful is shooting at Ardmore, while pirate adventure Moonfleet (starring Ray Winstone) filmed in Kildare and Dublin.

Highest profile of all, perhaps, is Moone Boy, a vehicle for Roscommon comic actor Chris O'Dowd currently in season three post-production.

A driving force behind this is the director of Sky's entertainment channels, Stuart Murphy. Just 42, he was born in Leeds to a Mayo family and is proud of his Irish heritage.

"We don't need every single drama to work," he told the Irish Independent recently. "The ones people do want to watch, we want them to absolutely crawl over broken glass to see.

"There was a time you would come home from work at eight o'clock, see what was on television and watch three hours non-stop. Now, after 20 minutes, I might put on the planner to see what else is on. I might put on a DVD. I'm a lot more selective.

"What plays in our business are a few properties that blow everything else out of the water."

Naoise Barry, Irish Film Board

With the enviable title of "Irish Film Commissioner", Dubliner Barry has helped facilitate international productions in Ireland including the Bollywood blockbuster Ek Tha Tiger (featuring song and dance routines in the quad of Trinity College and high-speed Luas chase).

He also had a hand in attracting TV shows such as The Tudors, The Borgias and Arthurian saga Camelot. Movies he has wooed include Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, the Glenn Close cross-dressing drama Albert Nobbs, and Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place, featuring Sean Penn mooching around the Aviva Stadium.

"Dublin is a little city – a mix of wonderful period architecture, beautiful Georgian streets, but also a contemporary city full of modern architecture," he said recently. "We double for New York and London."

Morgan O'Sullivan, producer

O'Sullivan is a veteran producer whose credits include Braveheart, Angela's Ashes and Veronica Guerin (he was also managing director of Ardmore Studios until 1990).

Last year he co-produced Vikings, a lavish drama from America's History Channel. It was shot at Ashford Studios, an enterprise set up by entrepreneur Joe O'Connor on his Wicklow estate.

O'Sullivan, who began in showbusiness as a child actor, developed Vikings with the screenwriter Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors). Season one was worth an estimated $27m (€20m) to the economy. It was recently renewed for a third series.

"We want to use the best [talent] now that we've got to a stage where we've pretty much got the best here in Ireland," O'Sullivan told Variety magazine in 2013.

Siun Ní Raghallaigh, Ardmore Studios

The one-time head of marketing at TG4, Donegal-born Ní Raghallaigh was appointed as chief executive of Ardmore in 2012.

Arguably the spiritual home of Irish film, Ardmore opened in 1958 and has been utilised by The Tudors, Camelot, Braveheart, My Left Foot and Veronica Guerin.

Under Ní Raghallaigh, the Bray studio's facilities have been upgraded extensively, helping win new business in the form of Moone Boy and Penny Dreadful, although it suffered a setback in 2013 when the $70m (€50m) Dracula movie was at the last minute wooed to Northern Ireland instead.

Still, Ní Raghallaigh has steadied the studio, which was set to break even last year after losses in 2012.

Speaking in December, she emphasised that state support was vital to the future of the film industry here. "With the tax break set to remain in place until at least 2020, the industry is in a good position to grow a strong, lasting content creation business," Ní Raghallaigh said.

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