Irish Film and TV Industry Spreads Its Storytelling Wings on the World Stage

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Tim Dams
·10 min read
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Ireland has long been known as a nation of storytellers, home to giants of literature and theater such as Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, W.B. Yeats and James Joyce.

In recent years, Ireland’s storytelling tradition has started to thrive in the screen industries too. Indigenous successes include Element Pictures’ films “Room,” directed by Lenny Abrahamson, “The Lobster,” directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and “The Favourite,” also helmed by Lanthimos, and the company’s hit TV series “Normal People”; John Crowley’s “Brooklyn,” co-produced by Ireland’s Parallel Films; and Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Oscar-nominated animated feature “Wolfwalkers,” produced by Cartoon Saloon.

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The country has also become a magnet for international production, lured by fiscal incentives, stunning Irish locations and highly regarded crews. Apple TV series “Foundation” – the largest production to film in Ireland to date – wrapped last year. So too did Ridley Scott’s upcoming historical epic “The Last Duel.” Netflix’s “Vikings: Valhalla” is due to wrap in June.

The screen industry’s contribution to the Irish economy has more than doubled in the past decade, from €164 million ($195 million) in 2010 to €357 million ($424 million) in 2019, according to figures from development agency Screen Ireland. The Irish film, television and animation sector has a gross value added of €692 million ($823 million).

The animation sector has been a notable success, almost quadrupling in size over the same period. Irish animation now accounts for almost 50% of all production spend in the country, with Ireland home to leading firms such as Cartoon Saloon, Brown Bag Films, Boulder Media and Giant Animation.

Coming from a small nation of nearly five million, Irish producers have long had to look outwards to partner on projects, building working relationships around the world. Ireland has co-produced with almost every European territory, as well as Canada, Australia and South Africa. Cartoon Saloon, for example, has built up long-standing relationships over the years, resulting in the Ireland-Luxembourg-France co-production “Wolfwalkers.”

Partnership is also a key focus for funding agency Screen Ireland, which regularly links with the likes of national public broadcasters RTE and TG4, and Irish and international content distributors, to help fund Irish content. Screen Ireland also works closely with government agencies the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to support the industry.

Leading Irish producers say the country’s creative talent has been able to develop with the help of long-term support from the government, notably in the form of the Section 481 tax incentive – which is worth 32% of budget, rising to 37% for projects shooting in the regions.

Rebecca O’Flanagan of Treasure Entertainment, who recently produced RTE thriller “Smother,” says the industry is reaping the dividends of consistent investment by organizations like Screen Ireland, broadcasters and other agencies over the past 20 years. “For a number of years we have been more of a cottage industry within Ireland. Now it feels like we are on the precipice of something much bigger and much more mature.”

Highlighting the government’s ongoing backing for the industry, Screen Ireland was handed a €9 million ($10.56 million) increase in funding last year, lifting its capital budget 52% to €26.2 million ($30.75 million) for 2021.

Screen Ireland has also broadened its support for the industry in recent years to encompass TV and film production, reflected by its 2018 name change from the Irish Film Board.

The agency is involved in every aspect of the screen business in Ireland, with funds to support development, production, marketing and distribution, and exhibition. It has recently created 20 separate funding schemes to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

Chief executive Désirée Finnegan lists a swathe of them – including a €3 million ($3.57 million) stimulus to support TV drama, a €5 million ($5.95 million) Production Continuation Fund to help producers cover the costs of COVID-19 shutdowns, a fund to support exhibition sector, and a €400,000 ($476,000) Concept & Creative Innovation Development Fund for animation. “We have a really important role to play in supporting the industry, now more than ever,” says Finnegan.

Despite COVID-19’s disruption to business, producers appear upbeat about the future.

“The Irish industry is feeling very confident and optimistic,” says Katie Holly, managing director of Blinder Films, which has just started shooting Regency-period romcom “Mr Malcolm’s List,” starring Freida Pinto, Sope Dirisu and Oliver Jackson-Cohen, on location in Ireland. “There’s a wave of really strong talent who are coming on stream with their first or second feature films.”

Following in the footsteps of internationally acclaimed directors such as Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan and Aisling Walsh has come a new wave of Irish talent that includes John Carney (“Modern Love,” “Sing Street”) and Lenny Abrahamson (“Normal People,” “Room”) alongside up-and-coming talent such as Lee Cronin (“The Hole in the Ground”), Lance Daly (“Black ’47”) and Lorcan Finnegan (“Vivarium”).

Finnegan has just gone into production on psychological thriller “Nocebo,” which stars Eva Green, Mark Strong and Chai Fonacier. Cronin, meanwhile, is to direct the psychological thriller “Box of Bones,” to be produced by Wild Atlantic Pictures.

Wild Atlantic juggles working on its own productions like “Bag of Bones” and “Black ’47,” as well as acting as the Irish producer on big incoming shoots such as Apple TV’s “Foundation” at Troy Studios in Limerick. CEO Macdara Kelleher says production “seems to have gone through the roof in the last three or four years.” He adds that COVID-19 shutdowns last year have had a knock-on effect this year, driving up demand for studios and crews.

Veteran producer Morgan O’Sullivan has seen the writing talent, crew base and facilities of the Irish industry steadily grow over a 35-year career that’s seen him work on big budget, large-scale inward investment series such as “Vikings,” “Into the Badlands,” “Camelot” and “The Tudors.” “The big television series allowed us to build the crews,” says O’Sullivan. “Where we maybe had one crew, now we have maybe five or six, and a depth of talent at director and writer level, and at every level.”

O’Sullivan executive produced two major projects last year: “Vikings: Valhalla” and Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel,” and has just finished RTE crime thriller “Kin,” which has just sold to AMC for the U.S.

Indicating the kinds of shoots lining up for Ireland this year, O’Sullivan is executive producing a feature for Disney this May, Martin McDonagh’s next film, which is shooting in August, as well as Dynamic TV, ZDF and Acorn co-pro “Harry Wild” in May. His production company O’Sullivan Productions also produced “Deadly Cuts,” a local black comedy written and directed by Rachel Carey, which closed this month’s virtual Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.

The growth of the Irish industry has brought challenges too. A number of studio developments are being planned to meet demand for space, but these will take time to come to fruition. Among them is Grange Castle in South Dublin, where 12 studios are planned by Lens Media, whose investors include “Saving Private Ryan” producer Gary Levinsohn. Greystones Media Campus, meanwhile, plans to spend Euros 150 million ($178 million) on a 50-acre campus south of Dublin with 14 sound studios, while planning permission has been granted for more than 8,500 sq. m. of studio space at a new complex in Ashbourne, Co. Meath. Established studios are also expanding: Ardmore, Ireland’s longest established studio, is adding a new studio and three new sound stages, while Euros 90 million ($107 million) is being spent on five new sound stages at Ashford, Co. Wicklow.

The inward investment boom also means that crew shortages can be an issue. Kelleher says the industry needs to grow its crew base if it wants to host more shows of scale.

However, the success of the industry could be drawing in more talent on its own accord. Ed Guiney, co-founder of Element Pictures, notes that The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College, which trained nine of “Normal People’s” stars – including lead actor Paul Mescal – has since received a surge in applications from budding actors.

Guiney, however, confesses to a sense of anxiety about an “overemphasis” on offshore production. While stressing the importance of such productions to the Irish industry and economy, he says: “One has to be careful, because it can go away as quickly as it comes – it’s very sensitive to tax breaks in other countries and foreign exchange rates.”

He believes the industry should be putting more resources into developing stories written, created and owned by Irish creative talent and producers which are made for global audiences. “I really think that is the prize, rather than being a giant facility for the world.”

Element has achieved stellar success through backing bold, creative filmmaking. Abrahamson’s “Room” won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, and Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” won an Oscar, a Globe, and seven BAFTAs, with additional nominations for both films at all three awards. “Normal People” received four Emmy nominations and two Globe nods. Previous productions include Lanthimos’ “The Lobster,” an Oscar, Globe and BAFTA nominee, and winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, and Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” won best screenplay at Cannes.

Element’s recent feature work includes Nick Rowland’s “Calm with Horses,” nominated for four BAFTAs this year, as well as Sundance 2020 selected films Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself” and Sean Durkin’s “The Nest.” As well as “Normal People” and the upcoming “Conversations with Friends,” another adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel, its TV output includes “Dublin Murders” and “Red Rock.”

Guiney, who is gearing up to shoot Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” an adaptation of the Alasdair Gray novel, starring Emma Stone, would like to see more of an industry emphasis on development funding – to make Ireland a center of excellence for screen storytelling. “More than anything, the world wants really well-developed projects by outstanding creative talent.”

Screen Ireland has taken steps in this area, announcing €3.2 million ($3.81 million) in slate funding last year to help Irish companies develop projects. Overall, the fund has been awarded across 26 production companies with more than 100 feature films and 65 TV series.

Another major issue for the Irish industry is diversity. “Within Ireland, it had been predominantly male, middle class voices that were finding their way on screen,” notes Treasure Entertainment’s Rebecca O’Flanagan.

Back in 2015, Screen Ireland announced its Six Point Plan to encourage more women to apply for development and production funding. To incentivize producers to work with female writers and directors, the agency also announced enhanced funding measures for female talent and introduced a female development/production scheme called POV. Four POV projects helmed by female filmmaking teams are now in various stages of production.

While acknowledging that there is more to do, Screen Ireland’s Désirée Finnegan thinks there has been “real progress” in that time, noting that projects produced with female directors have risen from 10% in 2015 to 37% in 2019. Projects with female writers, meanwhile, have increased from 27% to 43% in the same period.

Having placed a big focus on gender equality, Finnegan says Screen Ireland is now “very focused on broader diversity inclusion and really aims to reflect the diversity of Irish culture on screen, behind the camera and in terms of the audience we’re reaching.”

For Guiney, an emphasis on diversity – in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic backgrounds, and ability – represents a “massive opportunity” for the industry that will lead to richer, and more original storytelling.

Perhaps it will also lead to a new chapter in the screen history of this nation of storytellers.

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