Tuesday 17 July 2018

Giving up yer aul sin of piracy may protect Irish jobs

Team spirit among studios, tax breaks and learning from the business models of computer gaming firms can ensure a happy ending for the award-winning animation sector, says Cathal Gaffney

IRELAND has in recent years won a reputation as one of the best producers of television animation in the world.

Animation is a fusion of commerce and art, and the Irish animation community has successfully created internationally focused businesses that represent the very essence of a smart economy; it has a high level of permanent full-time employment and a highly skilled workforce in a hi- tech environment producing content for a global market. The sector is almost entirely export focused and invests in both content and technology R&D. It is a high growth sector that has evolved organically with such success that Ireland is currently producing more animation per year than all of Germany (so yes, Angela Merkel knows we're working!).

Ireland has a long tradition in animation dating back to the studios of Don Bluth and Murakami Wolf in the early Nineties. But those studios have long since closed or moved back to the US, and what is particularly exciting is that the Irish animation sector is now entirely indigenous (curiously most of us went to Ballyfermot Animation College as well).

This year Ireland was hailed at the International Animation Festival in Annecy, France, where a showcase of Irish animation was celebrated by over 7,000 international industry professionals. The Irish are well known for music and literature; well, it's time to add animation to that list. One of the competitive advantages of Irish animation is the camaraderie of the studios.

In 2008 we established Animation Ireland, a group of studios to promote Ireland as the best territory in the world to produce animation.

We decided to work together to strengthen Ireland's position in the global market which is somewhat unique to Ireland as in most other countries producers compete fiercely against one another.

Brown Bag Films is probably best known in Ireland for our Oscar-nominated short films Give Up Yer Aul Sins or Granny O'Grimm, but it may surprise you to know that we have almost 120 full -time staff and every week almost five million children watch a programme that we produced in our studios in Smithfield, Dublin. That's a great and well-deserved tribute to the work that our hugely talented, passionate and hardworking team produces; we consistently set new standards in terms of quality and technological innovation that our competitors struggle to match.

Our recent series Doc McStuffins, for Disney, is currently the highest rating pre-school show in the US and will air here this autumn. We're also busy getting a second season of our Bafta-nominated The Octonauts finished for the BBC, and are proud as an Irish owned and managed business to be working with Ireland's Children's Laureate Niamh Sharkey to bring a series based on one of her books to a global market as The Happy Hugglemonsters. This will also air on Disney worldwide this autumn.

When people think of animation, they usually assume we draw pictures all day. In fact, we use technology to tell stories, and our computer programmers work side by side with the more traditional artists to realise the artistic vision of the director. We think of computers as really just expensive pencils -- with lots of additional functionality!

So how do we build on the momentum the Irish animation sector has achieved and ensure sustainability and growth?

The Section 481 tax incentive has been at the heart of the successful film and television sector over the years. In the Nineties it was the brainchild of Michael D Higgins and while Ireland was the first country in the world to introduce a film and TV tax incentive it has since been copied widely and improved upon.

Increasingly Ireland is competing with production incentives in the US and Asia, and recently the UK Chancellor George Osbourne announced that he intends to introduce generous tax reliefs for the UK audiovisual sector.

It is essential that we retain and evolve our tax incentive structures if we are to maintain the development of our animation industry in a competitive global market.

But it's not just tax incentives that are key to our continued momentum.

In 2011 the Department of Arts commissioned a report chaired by Brendan Tuohy entitled Creative Capital. It identifies the Irish audiovisual sector as a pillar of Ireland's creative industries with the potential to deliver growth and jobs to the Irish economy over the next five years.

It has many excellent recommendations (most of which have no cost) to achieve its aim to double the turnover of the Irish audiovisual industry from €500m to €1bn and double jobs by increasing exports. This report should be implemented in full.

RTE has always been a good support for Irish producers when going to international broadcasters to finance programmes, but according to figures released in the latest Ibec report, our public service broadcaster spends less than 1 per cent of its independent production budget on animation -- despite 25 per cent of our population being children. So, there's a tremendous opportunity for RTE to provide quality home produced animation, as I believe children have the same right to quality programmes as their parents.

We also have some excellent supporters in Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Film Board. Enterprise Ireland's team help support animation companies to innovate and scale their businesses globally. The Irish Film Board is another forward-thinking organisation and has seen four Oscar nominations, and Emmys and Baftas being delivered as a return on their investment. If their terms of reference could be extended beyond primary support for 'film' to encompass the audiovisual industry, we would have an ideal structure to support our content producers regardless of medium or genre.

And these supports have never been needed more than they are currently as we adapt to the most significant changes in the television market in a generation. Producers and broadcasters alike are struggling to maintain revenue levels as the audience fragments, seeking ever more specialised content, the ability to consume content on multiple screen platforms and the freedom to access content when they want it, not when they're given it.

This is particularly true for children. RTE Jr was at the forefront of RTE's online expansion and its website continues to receive huge traffic as children access content online. Children's websites like Fight My Monsters or Moshi Monsters are actively taking the audience share from broadcasters like Cartoon Network.

Content production businesses equally have to adapt to radical shifts in their business models. Where traditionally their end customer was a broadcaster (Business2Business), they now need to explore models where they are selling directly to the consumer (Business2Consumer).

We have a lot to learn from the social gaming companies who make it very easy for their audiences to spend a euro on their site but possible to spend €100, and where only 10 per cent of the audience paying them is enough to make their site profitable.

And there is huge opportunity for synergies between producers of computer games and producers of film and TV content. Once upon a time web design companies and graphic design companies were totally different businesses until they merged, I see the same thing happening between content producers and computer game firms.

Piracy remains a real problem in Ireland and a threat to the growth of these companies. Piracy (of content and software) is not considered a real crime in Ireland but I wonder if the people who feel a sense of entitlement towards pirated content would feel the same if they knew it could cost Irish jobs. I believe the futile attempts at collecting the TV licences should evolve to see a tax on the ISPs addressing the wholesale theft of content.

So, there is much to be excited about, as I believe the animation sector has so much as yet untapped potential. There is a shared ambition and vision among the sector that we can become the best country in the world for animation. We certainly have all the ingredients: our storytelling, world class technology capabilities, successful businesses with multiple awards, and a who's who of delighted clients. The creative economy is ready to play it's part in building the road to economic recovery for Ireland, whilst making millions of kids (and big kids!) happy every day.

Cathal Gaffney is the CEO of Brown Bag Films

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