Thursday 20 September 2018

Lights, cameras - now we need action from the State on films

Vikings is being shot in Wicklow.
Vikings is being shot in Wicklow.
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

Last week I spoke to Annie Atkins, a very talented film industry graphic designer who lives in Dublin. Two films that she worked on have received Oscar nominations. 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' has nine nominations. 'Boxtrolls' got a nomination in the animation category.

The latter could lose to 'Song of the Sea', a beautiful animated film made by the Cartoon Saloon company in Kilkenny. These guys are taking on the Goliaths and winning, with their second nomination in four years.

Right now, the latest series of the massive internatonal TV hit 'Vikings' is being shot in Ashford Studios in Wicklow. Just up the road at Ardmore Studios, the next series of TV phenomenon 'Penny Dreadful' is being worked on.

The film industry in Ireland is on a roll. Some of it comes from the growing number of major international TV series being made here. Some of it is down to local talent such as in animation, from the likes of Brown Bag Films or Cartoon Saloon.

Annie Atkins says the big budget TV series that are being made here enable her to live in Ireland. Surely the more people with those creative skills we have living here the better.

Investment in the indigenous Irish film sector is providing a pool of local talent and experience which makes it more attractive for international projects.

Decades ago, the high-end actors and crew flew in to make a film in Ireland. The locals were often just the technicians. Now Irish directors are directing some of the episodes of projects like 'Vikings'.

Last October Finance Minister Michael Noonan gave a boost to the industry by committing to the tax relief scheme until 2020. He also switched it to a tax credit system aimed at costing less to the exchequer while ensuring more money goes to film-making.

It was the first time in living memory that a Budget speech used the word "culture" in the context of the film industry. Noonan didn't slash funding to the Irish Film Board, for the first time since 2008. Its funding has fallen by over 40pc in the recession.

Big budget television producers are now focusing heavily on Ireland. The new tax incentive will see a tax credit for investment on 32pc of all qualifying expenditure, up from 28pc.

Many of these shows from 'The Tudors' and 'Camelot' to 'Vikings' and 'Penny Dreadful' are based on foreign direct investment. They might showcase Ireland in some scenes but a lot happens in studios.

Nevertheless, the spend in Ireland is significant. The first series of 'Vikings' saw around €20m invested here and it employed over 500 Irish cast members. Projects shot by Michael Hirst, the man behind 'Vikings', have seen €140m in direct inward investment to Ireland. But all is not rosy or simple in the film business. It may employ around 6,000 people now with a spend of €550m, but why can't we do even more?

There are a couple of obstacles. Firstly, on the foreign direct investment side, we are running out of studio space. Before Christmas the head of Ardmore Studios said a lack of studio space was hindering possible future job creation.

We have 110,000 sq ft of industry standard space. Another 100,000 sq ft is needed. It might cost anything between €20m and €30m, but could deliver an additional €100m worth in spending here per year. It looks like a no-brainer for the State to even co-fund it.

The wider film industry gets a Section 481 tax break which cost around €46m in 2011. Under the new tax credit system it will probably cost a bit less and more of the benefit will go to the programme makers rather than wealthy investors.

Some within the industry are concerned that the new system will favour big international players over smaller productions.

There might not be much cultural value in filming 'The Tudors' in a studio in Wicklow, but it brings in money. Small-budget Irish films are of huge cultural value but often don't bring in much money. But one is feeding off the other. They both need each other.

Some surveys have suggested that as many as 20pc of foreign tourists say they came here partially because they saw the place in a film or television show.

Ardmore Studios is owned by former U2 manager Paul McGuinness and accountant Ozzie Kilkenny. You could argue that these guys don't need a State infrastructure fund to co-fund the construction of new studios.

Despite the studio being busy, it is not a goldmine for its shareholders. Neither gentleman will get rich on Ardmore or similar operations. Investment in the sector is costly and often with a slow return.

The State can take a long term view. It can weigh up the merits of investing in this creative industry on the basis of the wider gains to the economy and the exchequer. If the rate of activity growth in the sector is sustained, according to James Hickey of the Irish Film Board, over 5,000 new job equivalents could be created in the next five years.

It isn't just about flashy TV series. Investment in smaller, often loss-making, indigenous films simply has to be done. It doesn't just fill a cultural role, it develops Irish talent.

There is a real opportunity to strike while the iron is hot and really grow employment. The danger is that after investing Ireland could go off the boil in a couple of years and productions might stop arriving.

Even if that happened, we would have a solid infrastructure and something to show for our money. If the State put up half the money at a cost of €15m, it would be just 2pc of taxpayer losses on just one of the big developers, for which we have nothing to show.

Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business