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Irish Film Board – Transition in a changed World

Irish Film BoardA time of transition invites us to look back and assess the accomplishments of an outgoing incumbent’s time in office and also to look forward and ponder what a new office holder will do differently or better. Simon Perry spent 5 years as CEO of the Irish Film Board and it is perhaps premature to measure his achievements or otherwise. For the first year or two of Simon’s tenure, many projects which came to fruition would have been initiated by his predecessor Mark Woods and equally, many projects initiated by Simon will not reach screens for perhaps the next year or two. Nonetheless, part of the process of moving forward is glancing in the rear view mirror and that will happen in due course.

So I began to think about a wish list, if I were to be asked about what changes I would suggest to better serve Irish filmmakers, tax payers and audience (the stakeholders), what would I come up with. There’s one overriding fact we have to bear in mind right now and that is that our country is bankrupt, so doing things the way we always did them is not an option. We have to do things better, more cost effectively, more transparently and with a lot more accountability and of course make films that attract an audience. The Irish Film Board will receive something in excess of €15 million this year while at the same time people are going hungry, doing without heating in their homes many of which will be repossessed and essential services are vanishing.

1. Transparency and Accountability

The application process lacks transparency, that’s not just my view, but the view of many who engage with the process. I suggest firstly that it should be a process that more closely resembles how the industry at large works. In other words it begins with a pitch, followed by a treatment/synopsis, followed by more treatments, followed by a script followed by production support. I doubt there are many bad ideas, just ideas in need of development and that costs time and money. The process in place right now lacks engagement and a process of advancement and development, you either gain support from an application, or you don’t. It should also be possible to pitch projects to both a development and production panel (particularly for those projects which are significantly advanced).

Which brings me to the second point. The decisions on applications lack transparency, in fact those decisions when they arrive are not even accompanied by readers reports, they have to be subsequently requested. To counter these problems, I suggest as a model the competency based assessment system. It’s a selection process used by many organisations to select new employees as well as candidates for internal promotion and it works like this. A set of competencies are set down as the baseline for candidates. All applicants must put forward in writing where and how they believe they have demonstrated each competency. An interview follows whereby these examples are explored and a clear and open scoring system is employed from which the strongest candidates emerge. The interview panel is also comprised of internal and external personnel. Naturally this process begins with short listing adhering to clear criteria. Those who have been unsuccessful in gaining support will at least begin to see their own shortcomings and can choose to address them.

And finally on the point of accountability, it’s not acceptable that box office and ancillary distribution results are not made public. Any film project which receives tax payer’s money should be open to interrogation in terms of its finances and return on investment.

2. Drop Budgets – Make more Films

I have a theory and it is this. The more films you make the more likely it is that talent will emerge. For that to happen, budgets have to drop. There’s no reason why 12 films at a budget of €100K and 12 films at €250K could not be made in a year. That’s 24 films at a cost of €4.2M. Don’t get hung up on the numbers, the essential point is this. There has been an abundance of examples, both here and abroad and indeed some initiated by IFB, that have been very successful micro budget films. From Ken Wardrope’s “His & Hers” and JohnCarney’s “Once” to Gareth Edwards “Monsters” ($15,000) and many more.

3. Subsidise Cinema Tickets

In virtually every other market, products are priced according to their perceived value to the consumer. For some reason that commercial imperative does not apply to film and more specifically the cineplex. No matter what film you choose to see, the cost of your ticket is exactly the same. IFB do have a scheme whereby a film can apply to have it’s distribution costs diminished by way of a grant, in some cases I believe up to €70K. The flaw in this plan is that if an audience fails to show up, the money is gone, never to return. So here’s an idea, use that money to sub vent the cost of every ticket sold so that now the punter has the option of a low cost ticket to see a low budget film. If the audience don’t show up, the cinema will pull the film and no one’s worse off. Perhaps these films run only during the day and God knows unfortunately we have many thousands of people with no paid activity in that time. The French do this by way of a tax on foreign (Hollywood) films and it works.

4. RTE – IFB Alliance

Although Mike Leigh is now recognised as an internationally successful filmmaker, the fact is that after his first feature film Bleak Moments, he didn’t make another film for the cinema for another 17 years. In common with contemporaries like Stephen Frears and Alan Parker , he was able to polish his craft in television with a multitude of standout dramas. In Ireland we have two state bodies, RTE and IFB, yet there seems to be little if any cross pollination and that is perplexing and frustrating. Conor McPherson’s most recent film Eclipse got its first outing, even prior to a cinema screening, on RTE (a condition I believe of their financial participation). Whatever the fortunes of this film at the international box office (understandably there was no Irish cinema release), in terms of getting an audience, I guess this film may have achieved anything between two and three hundred thousand of an audience, far in excess of what could be dreamt of at the home box office. An audience is an audience.

5. Funding for Board Members

Perception is the driving force for a lot of change today. Last weekend we had the future Taoiseach Enda Kenny renouncing his teacher’s pension for exactly this reason. What was acceptable 5 years ago, no longer can be. If industry practitioners who are not in a position to forgo IFB funding for the duration of their tenure cannot be found (i.e. taking a sabbatical, or returning to study etc), then it may be time to find individuals from outside the industry to sit on the board. This is no revolutionary idea, many boards, state and otherwise are occupied by people who have no participation in the sector of the organisation they serve. On the other hand, perhaps the remedy is to significantly shorten the term of service. There is a system in Belgium I think where film makers are taken on a rolling basis to advise the fund. The term is quite short (6 to 12 months) and with a small stipend has the benefit of a constant stream of fresh thinking and gives the film making community a sense of being part of the system rather than being on the outside looking in. This is perhaps a preferable solution to the question.

6. IFB Open Days

This point ties into two things, communication and accountability. Filmmakers and screenwriters need to be very clear as to the kind of projects IFB will and will not support and why. At the same time, filmmakers should have regular opportunity to inform IFB about the kind of films they want to make. This should be a continually evolving position and therefore a website policy statement is insufficient. If, once every two or three months, an open day was held when filmmakers, screenwriters and IFB personnel could interact informally together with policy announcements, Q&A session etc. I believe this could be very beneficial for all.

7. Online Interactivity

This is an idea which was suggested at an IFB gig in Galway well over 5 years ago. Since then we’ve had Web 2.0 where web interaction is the name of the game. I know IFB have a Facebook page and Twitter account, but these are only used as announcement platforms, rather than what they were designed for, i.e. building and interacting with a community. The web technologies now exist to enable regular and vibrant interaction between IFB and Irish filmmakers on the IFB website. Yes we can all go to Filmmakers Network and that is very welcome, but from what I can see, there is no IFB participation on this forum, so the conversation is taking place on one side of the street.

8. Reduce Admin Costs

No doubt, this will be a demand of whichever Government minister takes control of the parent department and rightly so. I think the running costs of IFB is something in the region of €2.4M. I feel sure there are numerous ways of significantly reducing this and I wonder in a small country, if there is a justification for two offices which have now drawn a lot closer due to a state of the art motor-way.

9. Statement of Vision and Intent from new CEO

The new CEO James Hickey will take up his full time position on 1st June. From the perspective of a filmmaker who will be seeking support for various projects, I need to know in very clear terms what is the vision and intent of IFB for the next five years which will to a large extent be determined by the CEO in conjunction with the board. The sooner this happens the better and I’m not sure it can wait until the summer. Whether you agree or not with the vision expressed, at the very least you will have a clear idea – is my project meeting with or counter to it.

10. Cut off point for Filmmakers

In a time of limited resources, it is essential that as many aspirants as possible get support to make their mark. It therefore follows that there must be a cut off point where a conclusion is reached, that despite several funding initiatives, a filmmaker has failed to connect with an audience. In this set of circumstances, a decision will have to made in terms of no further funding in favour of supporting someone new. Of course it’s not possible to be black and white on this issue, nonetheless it would also serve to engender a culture of “upping your game”.

And finally I would like to wish James Hickey the best of luck in his new post. The Irish film industry has enormous potential to benefit the Irish economy both directly and indirectly. This I believe can be best achieved by doing things better, more cost effectively and with greater participation of the principle stakeholders – the filmmakers.