Wednesday 22 November 2017

And the Oscar goes to … the Irish film industry?

James Hickey has seen the Irish film industry in the best and the worst of times. With a record ­number of Irish films up for ­Oscars, he spoke to Donal Lynch

James Hickey by Jon Berkeley
James Hickey by Jon Berkeley
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

James Hickey has the quietly satisfied air of a man who has just been vindicated in the most public way possible. And why wouldn't he? When billions of people tune into tonight's Oscar ceremony, they will see what is as close as anyone could dream to an extended ad for Irish film. Seven of the nominated Irish movies benefitted from film-board funding. And its CEO brandishes this fact like a golden statuette. The accusations that the board is a quango, vulnerable at all times to the bean counting of cutbacks, must seem very far away. Little wonder that Hickey calls it "a watershed moment for Irish film".

He will be in LA this week, but doesn't stay for the Oscars themselves. By then he's likely to be already burnt out from jet lag and the exhaustion of meetings between himself and US studios, distributors, talent agents, content platform providers, film financiers, and entertainment technology companies. By Monday morning, he reckons, he might be asleep. To be roused, possibly, only by a spray of champagne to the face should Saoirse Ronan or another of our emissaries in Tinseltown manage to bring home the bacon.

The Oscars themselves bring home the point that Ireland's presence on the world stage is cultural more than anything. The movies and numerous TV series that have been filmed here, have woven a beguiling myth about the oul sod. They have rom-commed us into seeming sexier. They have provided ice breakers and points of reference from Dubai to Dallas. They have sold us as a tourist destination. The Oscar nominations, like the soccer and rugby successes, improve the national mood and remind us of the early 1990s when films like My Left Foot and The Crying Game won big. Their Oscar wins seemed to presage a decade of artistic and economic prosperity for the country.

And yet, despite these current and past successes, the Film Board, which helps to finance many of these projects, seems to be an almost permanently embattled entity. Over its lifetime there have been two serious attempts to abolish it. More recently it has been a victim of austerity; since 2008, the board's funding has been cut from €20m to €11.2m. €30m has been stripped from the Arts Council in that same period. Over the past few weeks, notable beneficiaries of film council funding - Lenny Abrahamson, Jim Sheridan and Room producer Ed Guiney amongst them - have lined up to sing its praises and argue for a reinstatement of previous funding levels. But if, several years after the worst of the cuts, Irish film are enjoying this level of success, can the argument also be made that our artists and producers can make it on their own?

"No," Hickey responds. "The current success took 10 or 15 years to build and the current situation, with regard to funding, risks putting that pipeline in jeopardy. Take Lenny Abrahamson (who directed Room, which has four nominations tonight): we have put money into several of his films and it took that kind of investment, over those years, to bring him and us to where we are now. The real cuts have only taken place in the more recent period - over the last four years. Without our support, people wouldn't be able to develop the kind of careers they've had. If there was no funding, the number of films that would be made would be extremely low. Just to put it into perspective, the one film over the past few years that could have been made without funding was Mrs Brown's Boys. A small number of films might get made where the people don't really get paid and the production values would be very limited. But is that what we want?"

A large part of the reasoning behind the bid for an increase in funding is that film is now seen not just an art form and cultural activity, but also an important industrial activity in its own right. The Irish film sector is estimated to be worth in excess of half a billion in turnover annually and the Irish Film Board is now working together with the IDA as part of a drive to strengthen Ireland's reputation as an innovation hub. The all-important Section 481 Tax Credit, which has been the financial catalyst for attracting TV series like The Tudors to this country, has been extended to 2020, in line with the recommendation in 2011's Creative Capital Report. Hickey also speaks in glowing terms of the promotional value of films like Brooklyn, which beams its images of stunning Irish beaches to an audience of millions. It makes sense, particularly in the current climate, he says, for the board to align itself with business and tourism interests, but how does this new focus on film and TV as economic activities square with the board's remit to encourage Irish artistic endeavour, and which of the two goals has primacy? "The most important aspect for us is supporting Irish creative talent," Hickey responds. "Our funding comes in development funding. As with research and development funding in other sectors, software for instance, that gives an opportunity for industry and talent to flower. We also fund production and distribution. There is no guarantee that any film will get an audience. We have three project managers and they have an understanding of how screenwriting works.

"They assess the quality of the script. A film is obviously a big collaboration and the quality of the acting talent involved in the film is also a factor in deciding whether to fund it. You can never predict how a film is going to perform."

There is a perception that, going back to the Haughey era, the arts occupy a privileged position in Irish society, but Hickey points out that, in a European context, our funding for film is no better than average. "If you look at Denmark, which is more or less the same size as Ireland, the film industry there receives €40-50m in funding. The total that goes into the industry from funding agencies in Europe is about €3bn, so we are a small slice of that." The funding, Hickey adds, means that Europeans get to see European stories on the screen; it is part of the cultural bulwark against Hollywood's hegemony in film.

How competitive are we, when compared to our neighbour-rival Britain? "We have a film tax incentive, which extends to TV and animation, but so do they," Hickey tells me. "Our offering has been helped greatly recently by the value of the euro, and this, combined with our world-class studios, have made Ireland a very attractive place for the film production sector."

Ireland has now moved from a system of tax relief to tax credits. Has this changed the profile of investor in the industry? "The tax credit that we have now is more similar to the UK system; the one we had before January 1, 2015, was an investor-led tax credit. Now its a direct revenue issue. In Ireland there is no investor tax relief. The people who invest in film range from end users like Film4 and distributors, and then you also have equity financiers - for instance Sing Street (which kicked off the Dublin Film Festival recently) was part funded by a private equity firm. Brookyln garnered support from BBC Films and got funding from state agencies in other countries and from international distributors and sold for $9m at Sundance, which was the biggest deal done there last year."

It has been a year of controversy relating to diversity and inclusion in the Arts. The Academy Awards have been accused of ignoring potential black nominees, and closer to home we've had the uproar over the lack of women playwrights being commissioned by the Abbey. Notably there is also huge under-representation of women in the Irish film industry. In November, Annie Doona, acting chairwoman of the Irish Film Board, reacting to the Waking the Feminists issue, issued a statement suggesting ways to improve female representation. How much has been done in this regard? "We've published a six-point plan, which includes education, training and partnerships," Hickey says.

"We do believe women are under-represented and we are proactively trying to encourage people to change." Given the multiplicity of bodies involved in the production of most major films here, is this even within the power of the board? "It will take everyone working together to achieve progress. There are many complex issues in relation to why there is a problem with gender quality and overall diversity - which is another area of focus for us." Are the arts more inherently sexist and racist than other industries? "Well that's a complex question; there are many industries that suffer challenges in relation to equality. There are broader societal issues at work here."

Hickey's own career has straddled art and commerce. Before his appointment as chief executive of the Irish Film Board, he was head of media and entertainment law at Matheson Ormsby Prentice. He joined the firm in 1992, after his legal work on movies such as My Left Foot and The Field made the firm aware of the chance to expand into this area of law. While studying law at Trinity College, he became involved in the Players - Trinity's dramatic society and felt, he says, considerably more devoted to that than he was to his degree. In the end both would feed into his career.

Following on from his involvement with Players, he nurtured contacts and kept in touch with people who now work in the arts sector in Ireland. He would go on to become an administrator of Dublin's Project Arts Centre and later its chairman. Throughout the 1980s, his work as a solicitor involved representing various artistic types; musicians and film producers. From 1992 to 2001, he was also chairman of the Abbey.

Hickey grew up in Donnybrook but now lives in Ranelagh with his wife, Fiona Mac Anna, an actor and daughter of the late playwright, actor and director Tomas Mac Anna. The couple have two children; Lara, who works in theatre, and Jack, who recently acted in the Irish Film Board-funded Penny Dreadful. Through his mother's side of the family, Hickey is related to the famous Binchys - novelist Maeve and also the Trinity law professor William. Hickey says that his own background as a lawyer helps him in his current role. "The Irish Film Board being involved in the financing of films, my legal background and knowledge of those areas definitely comes into play." Apropos a rumour that the average Irish Film Board staff member earns €96,000, he scoffs and says "not even close, that's more like my salary". Would he not have earned a lot more money if he'd stayed in law? "I believe and hope I'm giving something back to an industry, which has been, from my point of view, at the forefront of Irish life."

And tonight it may be about to take another leap into the national consciousness.

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