The story of getting a film made ........again!

Show me the Money

Clock WorkI wouldn’t say teaching myself to make a film was a walk in the park, but it was a whole lot less challenging than attempting to come to grips with the business of film, particularly when state funders are involved. Coming away from my first attendance at the Galway Film Fleadh left me with a sense that this aspect was not just crucial to get a handle on, but it would be far less easier to grasp than film-making itself.

So recently one bright Saturday morning I made sure to have my coffee to hand as I awaited to listen to the incisive investigative skills of George Lee. The program was “The Business” and the subject at hand was the Irish film industry. At last all would be revealed and I would be “in the know”. You can listen to the interview below or on RTE’s website here.

We often hear the term “Irish Film Industry” bandied about without really trying to figure out if “Industry” should be associated with “Irish Film”. Ireland has a vibrant beef and food industry and many other, what I would call, authentic industries. But is film/TV production one of them. If you take a look at Economy Watch, you’ll find most of Ireland’s industries listed (even glass and crystal), but you won’t find Film/TV production among them. Now bear in mind that I’m no economist, but my understanding of a national industry is that a product or service is created which is then sold either at home or abroad or both which brings back to the owners/investors more than the cost of creating that product or service, otherwise known as profit. And now we have a cyclical operation that is self perpetuating and continues under its own steam as long as the market demands that product or service and costs can be contained. Not a very academic definition I grant you, but it’s something I can get my head around.

Now lets get back to George Lee and “The Business” and the piece on the Irish film business. James Hickey of the Irish Film Board states from the off that the Film/TV industry contributed €168m to the Irish economy in 2013, up 18% on the previous year. Most of this spend came from foreign productions coming here with TV drama. On the face of it, it would appear very impressive that a state investment via the IFB of €11m can generate €168m of a spend in the economy, but surely foreign producers are first and foremost attracted to the tax breaks and other such incentives and it’s on this level that most European and other countries fiercely compete. Following that, facilities and experienced crew (although many of these productions bring their own) is also a strong consideration. This is transitory business at the mercy of the next big tax incentive from God knows where.

George finally cut to the chase when he asked Domhnall Slattery of Newgrange Pictures “Do you make money?” In other words, do your films get an audience? Domhnall started by telling us that no one should go into film producing with the core objective of making money. That was quickly followed by fluffy statements about Ireland’s role in the world, our story telling and culture. That smoothly segued into the benefits for tourism, the ball was then deftly picked up by Barbara Galavan of Screen Producers Ireland when she gave George some stats. Apparently an exit poll was taken by Tourism Ireland in 2010 which found that 20% of visitors stated that they had come to Ireland because they had seen Ireland on screen. It would be hugely informative to know if they asked which films? My guess is that “The Quiet Man”, “Ryan’s Daughter” and “Far and Away” would have formed the bulk of the responses followed by “Leap Year”, “PS I love You” and “Waking Ned” (filmed in the Isle of Man). All foreign produced films, but apparently the kind of films we should be emulating to support Irish tourism. The producers of big TV drama like “The Vikings” and “Ripper Street” make no big play about their filming locations and for sure the vast majority of their international audiences are equally oblivious. If Irish films command 1.5% of box office in Ireland, what penetration have they got internationally? Yet we are asked to believe that today’s Irish films are accounting for a significant proportion of the 20% of visitors who credit these films as a reason for their visit, otherwise why mention it. So films which find a meager audience at home, suddenly take on a life of their own internationally. Now that’s nothing short of a mathematical miracle aka blarney. I’ve known that to happen once, with John Carney’s “Once”, but that was down to very smart marketing by international distributors.

That was followed by, “So the intangible benefit in terms of tourism and the ancillary spend that brings is key”. So at this point I’m asking a couple of questions that interestingly the intrepid George is not. The first one is, are we making films to pull in tourists, if so then let’s finance Irish film from the tourism marketing budget and pack in lots of scenery and “top o’ the mornings” and “begorrahs” and number two, what pays the grocery bill when an Irish producer gets to the checkout in Lidl on a Friday evening if Irish films don’t make money? It was also mentioned that the Irish Government is aware of this benefit, i.e. tourism, which explains their commitment to the tax incentives for Irish film. Is it just me or is this beginning to explain why our films are such poor performers when it comes to audience. James Hickey reinforced this tourism benefit when he spoke of the visual beauty of the locations of recent films like “Calvary”, “Frank” and “The Stag”.

George moved the discussion on to marketing and the internet and Netflix, while I’m saying, hold on guys, let’s go back a bit. I’m sure Irish producers are mortal beings with lives, children, homes and living expenses. If Irish films don’t make money and they clearly don’t, what pays the bills? What puts shoes on their children’s feet, pays for doctors when they’re sick, pays the rent or mortgage. Show me the money. In the absence of any explanation from any of the contributors, here’s what I think happens. This of course leaves me open to correction and please do if you know better.

If Irish producers don’t get paid from the sale of their product and they are flesh and blood mortal beings, then they must get paid as part of the expenditure of the production. It’s probably also safe to assume that their piece of the pie is going to be a percentage rather than a fixed fee because they’re hardly going to do all the work that’s required for a €500K budget film for the same fee as a film costing €5M. If this is the system, then it predetermines a number of things as a consequence. Producers are incentivised now to enlarge budgets, pay inflated rates, push films into production before proper development and pay little regard to marketing, distribution or the quality of output. After all why should they, it has no effect on their bottom line? Any system that rewords a producer of any product or service from the process of production, rather than the result is predestined to produce expensive mediocrity at best, that’s just common sense.  Just as unhelpful though is the soft peddling, dewy eyed, “ah sure aren’t you great to be going up against those big Hollywood lads” approach that consistently marks radio and news print coverage of Irish film making thus allowing the ducking of hard questions. Riddle me this, what have the following films got in common except that they all fit under the loose umbrella “Irish Film”. My Left Foot, The Field, The Commitments, December Bride, Into The West, In the Name of the Father , The Snapper and The Crying Game. They were all made between the years 1987 and 1993, the years when no Irish Film Board existed.

So do we have an industry? Activity yes, people employed in film production definitely, but an industry? Most activity is in the form of foreign direct investment, which means that we service the global industry and compete for that business. But the IP and profits go elsewhere. And the other stalwart of Irish film activity is the co-production. This usually takes the form of a European production company initiating a production, gathering the finance and talent, approaching an Irish producer who then steers the film through IFB funding and section 481. In these scenarios, the Irish producer is little more than a form filling facilitator who knows the system and have little or no contribution to make on a creative level.

As a kid I was very fond of dismantling discarded radios, watches and clocks because I just needed to know how things worked. That Saturday morning I sat down in my kitchen with something approaching the same expectation. Needless to say, George Lee and “The Business” left me and everybody else I suspect, firmly in the dark, except of course, those in the know.

So next time out George, follow the money, ask some hard questions and forget about the glitz and glamour and resist invitations to take a walk through beautiful scenery. You do no one any favours with this approach, least of all Irish film making.