Tuesday 23 April 2019

Irish film: The Force is with us

Skellig Michael joined an illustrious list of Irish film locations this week. But how does the domestic industry fare in this notoriously cut-throat ­business? Joe O’Shea reports

Return of the Jedi: Mark Hammil as Luke Skywalker.
Return of the Jedi: Mark Hammil as Luke Skywalker.
Royal seal of approval: Game of Thrones, filmed in the North, has boosted tourism in the region and it is hoped that Kerry may benefit from a similar ‘Star Wars’ effect
Green shoots: Frank, starring Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson, was an international hit

They have just felt a great disturbance in The Force in Belfast, Toronto, Copenhagen and Croatia.

As the new Star Wars movie begins shooting on remote Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast, many across Europe and further afield will be looking with envious eyes to Ireland’s latest, most spectacular screen coup.

The Skelligs may only feature briefly in Star Wars: Episode VII, with online fan forums predicting the sheer sea-cliffs and beehive huts will host Luke Skywalker’s Jedi academy.

But the fact that Ireland was able to attract what should be one of the biggest movies of this decade (budgeted at €150m and predicted to earn at least €1bn at the box office) will cause consternation in the countries that now compete with us for the Hollywood dollar.

It is also represents a huge win for our tourist industry and Kerry can look forward to its own Game Of Thrones Affect. The HBO series which airs on Sky Atlantic has greatly boosted visitor numbers to the region around the Giant’s Causeway (a UNESCO World Heritage site, just like the Skelligs) and the new Star Wars movie will be seen by many millions worldwide. 

The decision by Disney Pictures to use the Skelligs will not have gone down well in Belfast. Northern Ireland Screen, which has previously brought big-hitters like HBO, Universal and Playtone to the North, had earlier this month announced a new €55m scheme to bring in even bigger productions. Seeing the latest Star Wars movie locate in Kerry may have them choking on their popcorn.

Ireland now competes with the likes of the UK, Canada, Denmark, the Czech Republic and newer arrivals such as Poland and Croatia for a slice of the billion dollar film, TV and animation industry.

We were one of the first countries in Europe to offer tax breaks for foreign production companies. The late Jack Lynch, as Taoiseach, created them as part of the Film Act of 1970 and successive governments have expanded the breaks on a regular basis. We have also proved willing to facilitate major productions in innovative ways, such as loaning the defence forces to Mel Gibson for the battle scenes in Braveheart.

Ireland has continued to lead the way with incentives, with a level of success that has persuaded others, most recently the UK, to take note and copy.

The British government had to deal with heavy lobbying on the issue by major industry figures in 2011. The message from the industry was clear; Ireland, because of its tax-breaks, had grabbed a big lead in film, TV and especially animation production and was “stealing” business that should have been going to the big studios and production companies in the UK.

British Chancellor George Osborne responded in his 2012 budget with a new tax credit scheme — based largely on the Irish system.

The introduction of Irish-style tax breaks in the UK and elsewhere in Europe has levelled the playing field. But the industry in Ireland is continuing to punch far above its weight.

Siun Ni Raghallaigh is the CEO at Ardmore Studios in Bray, Co Wicklow, where the new series of the Showtime/Sky Atlantic series Penny Dreadful, is currently being shot. She believes the tax breaks, which will be increased to 32pc of a film or TV production’s budget from 2015, are a huge factor.

“The choice between Scotland, the UK and Ireland can be made for range of reasons, not just the tax incentive, although that is a massive attraction,” says Siun.

“Ireland is also very much favoured by US producers due to level of skills here and the fact that we are an English-speaking country.

“We have been providing film crews to foreign productions for many years. Ardmore Studios has been in operation since 1958 and as a result, the area around Bray has many skilled crafts people located here.

‘‘Take Penny Dreadful as an example, the detail of the sets to recreate Victorian London is world class and has been acknowledged as such. These are all local crew. The level of expert skill we have is world class”.

James Hickey of the Irish Film Board played a part in getting Star Wars to land on the Skellig rocks, even if he is reluctant to talk about the specifics of the deal that brought what he calls “the movie currently shooting in Kerry” to Ireland.

Mr Hickey says big productions shot here, either for TV or the Big Screen, can have a “multiplying effect”, attracting more productions, boosting domestic talent and careers and selling Ireland abroad as a tourist destination.

“It’s a very busy time for the industry here in Ireland, we have quite a few major productions including Penny Dreadful in Ardmore, Vikings in Ashford Studios, also in Wicklow, and the new series of Ripper Street in Clancy Barracks in Dublin,” he says.

“Recently, we’ve had Irish movies such as Calvary and Frank, which got widely distributed internationally. So you have the major foreign companies coming in, and also Irish talent, directors, technicians, writers, all working and gaining experience in a very busy, internationally connected industry here”.

NI Screen estimates that every £1 of public money invested in film and TV production results in £5.50 of private sector money generated for the Northern Irish economy.

In the Republic, around 6,000 people are directly employed in film and TV production. Over 540 small and medium companies are involved and the number of investors availing of Section 481 breaks in 2013 rose by a quarter.

The cost to the exchequer of Section 481 tax breaks in 2013 was €73.1 — but those who support the incentives say the returns in terms of jobs, inward investment and the promotion of Ireland abroad represent multiples of this figure.

Ireland’s TV and Film industry is experiencing a boom-time and it seems everybody is getting in on the act. Coillte, the semi-state agency that manages our forests, has just launched a website — CoillteOnFilm.ie — that showcases 25 locations available for hire for film and TV shoots.

The site is targeted at production companies all over the world.

Those working in the industry now say Ireland has the potential to “scale up” and become a major international production hub.

“There is a lot of global demand for quality content in the form of long-running TV series and franchise movies,” says Siun Ni Raghallagh of Ardmore Studios.

“And Ireland has the opportunity to be a serious player, attracting large-scale productions”.

However, the Ardmore boss says continued tax breaks and Government support for skills, training and infrastructure will be a key part of building on recent success.

Star Wars may only be making a brief visit to our south west coast this summer. But the fact that the latest instalment of the billion-dollar sci-fi franchise is here at all underlines what has been a rare, recent success story for the Irish economy.

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