Sunday 26 May 2019

Hollywood comes calling for Element Pictures

Fox Searchlight deal puts Irish filmmaker at centre of global movie market, writes Samantha McCaughren

Ed Guiney and Andrew Hanlon from Element Pictures. Picture: David Conachy
Ed Guiney and Andrew Hanlon from Element Pictures. Picture: David Conachy

The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle - a breakthrough film for Dublin's Element Pictures back in 2011 - was a very Irish movie, a black comedy set in rural Ireland.

But since that success, Element's output has taken on a far more international tone, with Room, for which actress Brie Larson won an Oscar, bestowing a new level on respect on the company in Hollywood. Co-founders Andrew Lowe and Ed Guiney say that in LA Oscar success means they are now part of an elite club of companies which agents will trust Hollywood's most sought-after talent with.

Despite the allure of Tinseltown and a slate of new international releases coming down the tracks, Element says it remains committed to Irish drama and film.

"It's not that we are doing less here, it is that we are doing more internationally," said Guiney, who points to Roddy Doyle's Rosie as an example of a local production.

But a new deal with Fox Searchlight, the studio/financier behind Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water, will almost certainly reinforce Element's credibility in the international 'Smarthouse' genre.

Fox Searchlight and Element first came together on The Favourite, which recently took two major prizes at the Venice Film Festival, and it was announced last week the US studio has entered into a 'first-look' deal with Element.

This gives Fox Searchlight the right to get first refusal on projects that Element brings to them and the hope would be that Fox Searchlight will jump on board many of those productions.

"We have other partners we work with - BBC Films, Film 4, the Irish Film Board - so we retain the independence to develop those projects ourselves with those partners," said Lowe.

"At the stage we are ready to go to market to finance the film we would bring it to them. They have the right to fully finance the film or they have the right to co-finance with somebody else. And they will take worldwide distribution so they will release it worldwide."

The deal, which also involves a financial consideration, is full of potential. Earlier this year, Fox Searchlight was taken over by Disney. The media giant is developing its own streaming service and it will be hungry for quality content, so the expectation in the industry is that Fox Searchlight will have a key role in fulfilling that need.

"There is a real opportunity with those guys right now," said Guiney. "It feels like they are on an upward trajectory. We hope it will give lots of opportunities to the company and film-makers we deal with. They are interested in a lot of the people we work with."

They include Yorgos Lanthimos who directed Element's hit The Lobster, as well as The Favourite, which Fox Searchlight is putting a big push behind.

The Fox deal, together with some significant hires, should also put the film and TV arm of Element Pictures on a strong growth trajectory (they also own cinemas and a distribution business). Net turnover is around €5m (not including production budgets) for the company and Lowe expects strong growth in that.

The company employs 25 people in Dublin and five between London and Belfast, excluding cinemas. That includes three in-house producers and it recently hired Anna Ferguson, an executive producer from Sky, as head of its television drama.

Among the many projects they are working on is Normal People, written by Irish author of the moment Sally Rooney. It will run on BBC as a series, directed by Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, who also directed Room.

They are also working on another bestselling Irish book from a different genre, Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling.

Guiney said that the Irish TV drama scene remains tough, although they welcomed that appointment of RTE's new head of drama and comedy, Shane Murphy.

"We would love RTE to be doing more. We think they should be doing more. In order for them to survive as a relevant organisation in modern Ireland, they need to be doing more.

"And there is a sense here that the community feels under-appreciated by RTE. When I say the community I mean the talent here.

"The problem with that is the good ones are in such demand in the UK and the US that if they don't feel appreciated here they just high-tail it to London or LA."

Element's acclaimed soap Red Rock has come to an end at TV3/Virgin, but Guiney and Lowe are very proud of it. "It was really important in terms of giving writers and actors and directors a chance to shine and I think we were much better at doing that than RTE were on Fair City, for instance," said Guiney.

"It was a really brave decision by David McRedmond (former TV3 CEO) to commit resources and at a station that didn't have any licence fee," added Lowe. "If you look at what they invested and what they achieved with that and contrast that with RTE, it puts them to shame a bit.

"They are in receipt of €180m a year in licence-fee money and they can't find €4m to do something interesting. It's a question of priorities.

"If you are in an existential crisis and you have all sorts of technology coming up around you, drama is the one thing that will help define your channel," said Lowe. Another challenge for Irish programme-makers has been delays in Section 481, the new version of a tax incentive for the film and television industry.

"It has been frustrating," said Lowe. "When the scheme was overhauled there was a commitment to mirror the feature of the old scheme and one of the selling points of the old scheme was the money was advanced up front.

"In truth there has been long delays in securing 481 certification for a myriad of reasons. It's partly a communications issue and Revenue acknowledges that it needs to issue new guidelines to bring clarity.

"We actually have cases of projects that have gone over a year, year-and-a-half, two years waiting to get the certification back from Revenue to get the cash. The problem is we have borrowed, say, for four months - and 18 months later the loan is still out.

"We are a bigger company and we've been able to borrow, but it all comes at a cost. The problem is those funds, if they are lent to project A they are not available for project B."

The international film and television industry competes fiercely for projects, with a country's tax credits usually a key selling point.

How do the kinks in the Irish system reflect on the industry here?

"It doesn't do us any favours. We've shot in the US, we've shot in the UK. The system in both is seamless, it works very well and there is no concern over cash flow and timing and that should be the same here.

"The system, the way it has evolved - not the way it was designed - is not working."

The good news, Guiney added, is that it is "very fixable".

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