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

Malcolm Gladwell and Irish Film

Social Media IconsStudies suggest (according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”) that the key to success in any field has nothing to do with talent. It’s simply practice, 10,000 hours of it — 20 hours a week for 10 years and he cites many instances where his thesis has proven to be the case. If, (as I do) you accept Gladwell’s idea, then the flip side of the coin says: Do something sporadically, intermittently and on the whole not very often, then you won’t ever be very good at it and possibly even worse than that.

Let’s now look at filmmaking and Gladwell’s idea. Whichever way you raise the funds to make your film, it’s going to take time and effort. You then shoot your low budget opus (with actors no one’s ever heard of, nothing wrong with that, but it hinders distribution possibilities) and spend months, if not years putting the edit together. Now you turn your attention to festivals and attempt to navigate that murky world in search of distribution. After spending a not inconsiderable sum on applications you perhaps attend a handful of festivals where you feel there is maybe a remote chance that a sales agent or distributor will pick up your film. Once you have finished celebrating and read the fine print of the contract you just signed, you’ll begin to realise there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of seeing much money – ever. (Not even enough to pay for your night’s celebration)

Most people who make a first film, never make a second. Reason: Too much effort, too little return, in every sense. And those who do will find gaps between projects of 4, 5 or 6 years or more. Sooner or later you come face to face with this question. “Why do I want to make films”. And the answer should tell whether you’re on a fools errand or not. If you make films because you love this particular process of creation, then you can ignore everything else that came before. But if you make films to a. break into the industry or b. sell your film to finance the making of your next film, then you have chosen a rocky path for yourself and heart ache will follow in it’s wake. That is unless you’re smart.

So is there another way. What is becoming clear now is that indie filmmakers are waking up to the concept of selling their own films themselves to the consumer over the internet. Industry traditionalists have largely scoffed at this idea saying, (not too loudly) what do filmmakers know about selling films. And they’re right, most filmmakers don’t know a lot about selling and in a lot of cases, don’t want to know. It somehow doesn’t sit well with creatives to roll up their sleeves and learn how to hawk their wares.

But it goes back to what you want to get out of filmmaking. I think the numbers from Sundance are something like this. About 3,600 films applied last year, 12 were picked up and I’m pretty sure that some of those deals wouldn’t have had significant money up front and will most likely result in paltry sums at the backend once the distributor adds up all expenses.

Significant names like Ed Burns and Kevin Smith have successfully shunned traditional distribution in favour of  self distribution on the web. While we can learn from these guys, they’re not really a good template because they already had a name in indie film.

Whether there are films out there (and I’m sure there are) from unknown filmmakers returning revenue to the creatives and who knows, perhaps even returning a profit, I have no doubt that this trend will grow and become more and more significant.

But here’s the thing, it’s not going to happen unless indie filmmakers accept that they need to learn a whole new bunch of skills loosely termed as digital marketing. That’s everything from email, social media, seo, Google Adwords and Facebook Ads and so much more. And here’s the upside if you commit to this. One day you could have a business as a filmmaker where all the films you make return their costs with profit and enter the long tail scenario. And if this happens, you are now making one film after the other and quite likely will get very good at it. Now you are truly independent, speaking directly to your audience with no one in between. Sound like a plan? I think so. Let me know what you think.

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.

Bill Cullen and Irish Film

Come January, the Irish Film Board will be without a CEO, so here’s a thought – put Bill Cullen in charge. Better still, why not make a reality TV show out of it, a cross between “The Apprentice” and “Project Greenlight” with a dash of “Ireland’s got Talent” (I know the latter doesn’t exist, let’s not dwell on that too long). For every month of one year, 12 filmmaking teams all come before Bill and present their film project. Every team is set the same task every episode and the first task would be “Make your Pitch” and that pitch has to be to people like Morgan O’Sullivan for instance or someone similar, who knows what it is to sell concepts to studios and TV networks in order to stay in business. At the end of each episode, a score is awarded each team and they carry that forward to the next task. Other tasks would be to have your script independently rated by a panel of 3 professional script analysts, have an independent audience rate your marketing campaign, poster, logline and two sentence synopsis, next you’ve got to shoot a 5 minute segment in a day and again the result scored. Each episode would see a team eliminated until the winning team are awarded a budget of €500k to make their film. Over the span of a year we have twelve competitions also generating a wealth a TV content and advertising revenue and ultimately 12 films that are guaranteed to attract a whole lot more audience than the current spend of €17 million is achieving right now.

Some of the above is, I will admit tongue in cheek, but the point I’m trying to make is not and that is – nothing was ever improved without competition and a clear focus on the consumer. Or put another way – meritocracy over patronage. I’ve said this in a previous post and I’ll say it again. You can’t keep doing the same thing and hope for a different outcome.

Here’s another thought. What about a reconstituted IFB. Now more than ever, the spend of tax payers money is under close scrutiny and every euro must and should be justified. Right now a budget of €17m is handed over once a year to be dispensed, as is seen fit with no obligation to make money back for the state. I know a lot of that money is given out as loans and as such is required to return. Very often it doesn’t because the obligation only stands if the film makes money. No, what I’m suggesting is a new IFB set up as a state body with a commercial remit. So over a period of 10 years, the body is required to achieve 100% cost recovery, building 10% per year. This would focus minds in the direction of the consumer and that’s no bad thing. Many high minded artistic types I know would scoff at such a suggestion and complain that their artistic integrity would be compromised. If so then go make your films with your own money.

A while back, I spent a couple of days on the set of “The Tudors” in Ardmore Studios. During a chat with Morgan O’Sullivan, he related to me how in his early days as an Irish based producer, he perceived a lack of craft and experience in Irish film practitioners. So before he took on anything else, he took a bunch of people to LA and immersed them in filmmaking in the worlds capital of film. On his return, I think his next project was “The Mannions of America” and he’s never looked back. That’s simply identifying the problem and taking action to remedy it. The opposite of hoping for a different outcome whilst…..well you know the rest.

So, why are Irish films only commanding 0.3% of domestic box office share and virtually nothing of International, with a spend of €17m per annum. Could it have something to do with the quality of scripts or lack thereof. Let me make this point and I say it in IFB’S defense, maybe the scripts that are getting funding are the best of what’s coming in the door, because being a State agency, they have to spend their budget. A particularly depressing thought for those of us who could wallpaper walls with rejection letters, but the jury is still out on that one. Eight years ago or so, the legendary Ed Pressman along with some Irish partners and John Schmidt of Miramax and October Films, announced with some fan fair in Galway the launch of “Content Film” in Ireland. On offer was a pot of money to make low budget films at, I think €1m a pop and all they were waiting for was the scripts. A few years later in conversation with one of the Irish producers I asked where’s the first Irish “Content” film. I was told none was ever going to materialise. It turns out they were inundated with scripts, not one of which was worth developing, never mind shooting. Today, Content Film International is a dynamic film sales and finance company, specialising in high quality, commercial feature films. They just quietly slipped away from our shores. Sad but true.

So what’s the answer. How about shutting down all production for a year or even two and putting Irish screenwriters through an intensive training program. Well it worked for Mr. O’Sullivan and I suspect the good Dr. Bill wouldn’t  argue with that either (once he’d fired half of them in the first place). I could just hear him now, “Yiz are all a shower of namby pambies, get off yer arse and sell your film….before you make it, den you’ll know if you should make the bloody thing at all”.

Is Irish Film relevant and to who?

Among the many aspects of Irish film, surely one of the more pertinent is relevance – does it have any and to who? Irish audiences have shown their willingness to see Irish films if they can see something of themselves and their unique experience of the world in those films. Take for instance “The Commitments”, domestic audiences loved this film and why – because it reflected our view of ourselves that we are immensely talented, very witty in a self deprecating way and prone to demolish our own aspirations before anyone else gets a chance. In fact it is these very qualities that have been done to death by much lesser films since then, in the belief that a script like Roddy Doyle’s story is easy to write – not the case.

Another Irish film that demonstrated relevance of a different kind was Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”. Our history has always proven to be a draw at the home box office, however in addition to this, Loach also cited his desire to comment on America’s tendency to cast itself as the world’s police force, in particular their invasion of Iraq. In making his film, he wished to demonstrate the folly of the imperialistic view of the world saying look, this has happened before and it always ends in a civil war bloodbath. More recent examples of relevance are “Hunger” and “Fifty Dead Men Walking”, both admittedly dealing with the troubles – nothing wrong with that.

The only unique selling point that Irish films can offer a home audience is relevance. While some very good foreign and hollywood films come our way, they can only achieve relevance in a universal fashion. Nothing wrong with that either, but as filmmakers we need to be saying something that is rooted in our Irishness and in that sense, yes we should not simply imitate , but rather fashion our films in whatever genre fits the telling of our stories to comment on and reflect ourselves. Not in a long time has our country been so convulsed by a crisis afflicting tens of thousands of families. Do we not as filmmakers have some comment to make on that?

Irish audiences have told us, albeit in a silent, empty cinema seat kind of way that we are saying nothing they want to hear. Whenever criticism is raised of the tax euros spent to support our domestic industry, our attention is redirected to Europe where we are told that pretty much all EU states support their domestic industry as it would not survive the hollywood juggernaut without it. That is most likely very true, but let’s get back to the question of relevance.

The latest figures I can find for cinema market share of national or domestic films is for 2006 and here are a few examples.

France  – 45%.    Lithuania – 4.1%.     Czech Republic – 29.5%.    Germany – 25.8%.    Spain – 15.4%.    UK – 19%.    Italy – 26.2%    Sweden – 20%.    Ireland 2006 – 1.5%     Ireland 2009 – .3%

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Irish filmmakers are fast becoming irrelevant to the home audience. When not stated it is always a given that the most essential ingredient in any film, domestic, hollywood or foreign language is story, story and story.

State agency or film studio?

In this post I ponder the question is the Irish Film Board a state agency whose task it is to “enable Irish filmmakers to express their vision” or is it more like a film studio where a very legitimate dialogue can take place and you might hear something like “we don’t make those kind of films here”. It’s not so long ago when the outgoing CEO was quoted as saying “We occasionally try to ape genre film-making, I often say: You have to face up to the fact that we are making art films.'” I ask a simple question, who is “we”. If it refers to IFB, then does it not conflict with the following from IFB’s customer charter which can be found here, IFB Strategic Goals no.3 “To enable Irish filmmakers to express their vision in film and television productions. A laudable aspiration and when you think about it how could it be otherwise.

When German or French or Norwegian filmmakers make a thriller or crime drama or romantic comedy, are they aping genre film-making or respecting what has gone before yet attempting to serve up new offerings in a proven genre. Art film is a worthy and legitimate film genre which essentially throws out all the rules, thereby actually adhering to the central rule of anything but everything else. So the idea that there are no rules in art film is a fallacy. But as a film genre, it represents a very small sliver of the entire spectrum. Telling stories in the visual medium is indeed a new venture for Irish creatives and if we appear to “ape”, let’s not forget a child learns it’s life skill by this very process. To throw it out now, rather than inspiring new directions of creativity, will only serve to stunt our story telling development.

The problem can be that in order to chase funding, writers can find themselves attempting to please someone else’s requirements and when has that ever led to a good place for the creative or the work. This is not an arguement to fund everything that comes in the door, but rather to listen to the filmmaker and what he wants to say and then provide guidance, mentoring and funding to those who are obviously passionate, committed and talented, to ensure that the best film possible is made. Just a thought, what are yours?

Readers reports

If you’ve been involved in screen writing in Ireland, then no doubt you will have interacted with the film board and if that’s true then you may well have found yourself at the sharp end of a reader’s report. I came across this little piece of wisdom and, it speaks for itself.


“Before attempting to evaluate a work of drama, before even starting to read it, the reader must bear in mind three basic points.

1. Firstly a screenplay is not an administrative document but a venerable artifact that needs to be handled sensitively. It is the fruit of an artist’s labour, one in which he has invested a part of his soul. This is true even in cases where the resulting work appears terrible. A text and its writer should be approached with the greatest respect.

2. Secondly, a text should be regarded as a work in progress whose potential needs only to be unlocked for it to flourish. A work of drama is too often read as if it were the finished product, incapable of improvement before going into production. This is indeed the case with the classical theatre, but it is not so with a newly written drama. The reader must look for the possibility of  hidden treasures in the text. Remember that to write is to to rewrite and that a writer can often hone his skills on his own handiwork. Let’s not forget the first draft of “Some Like it Hot” was a mess.

3. Thirdly, and this is an extremely important point, we cannot compare a script (and even less so a pitch or a synopsis) with a finished work. At one of my workshops one day a participant pitched an idea, an outline that came to a few lines. Another participant, a producer-director said the idea reminded him of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and added that he preferred the latter! This is hardly surprising – the movie came with added sound, images and actors playing out the roles, not to mention the fact that in all likelihood the screenplay was worked and reworked before finally going into production, with further final touches being made during the shooting and the editing or mixing process.

The reader’s report must think seriously about the things in the text that make it work and are likely to please. As in business and marketing, it is best to start with the benefits before going onto the concerns.As I have noted earlier, it is too easy to criticise others. Writers urgently need to know what people like about their work. This has less to do with sensitive egos than with motivation. Where critical comment can point out ways a text can be improved by rewriting, positive comment can provide the drive to rewrite.If a reader really cannot find something positive to say, it may be that he needs to try a little harder. It is sometimes the case that the reader is a writer manque and that he is unconciously prone to twinges of frustration, jealousy and even bitterness. When he was a producer, Frantisek Daniel had an unusual way of reducing the chances that personal motivation might affect his reader’s judgement of other people’s work: he paid more for reader’s reports that were positive.

There is another tendency that reader’s must resist at all costs, and that is the assumption that, if they like a text, it must be “good”, whereas if they do not like it, it is necessarily “bad”. Pascal famously wrote that “egoism is hateful” – a warning against narcissism and self regard. He did not say that “speaking of oneself is hateful“. On the contrary, to speak of oneself and not to take one’s personal view for universal truths is to display humility. Who are we as readers, to decree that such and such a project is worthless and that the writer should look for other ways of earning a living? Hailing someone immoderately as a genius is not terribly helpful to a writer either, though it does at least send out a positive signal (while raising standards to intimidatory levels). By contrast, demolishing a writer’s work can be extremely damaging to the writer”.

Excerpts from Yves Lavandier’s WRITING DRAMA

Is brand “Irish Film” damaged and why? Part 2.

This post continues the discussion begun in the previous post and again draws on the same article by Ted Sheehy.

“The IFB’s other scheme is focused on films getting a much smaller release. Just finished in its pilot phase, this scheme involves the IFB and the Irish Film Institute combining resources to release a film in the marketplace. It allows for a film to be screened in a context that includes a Q&A with the director and screenings of their earlier work.”

“The first film through this scheme – which has the title ‘direct distribution’ – was Eamon , and it is envisaged for smaller art-house titles that struggle to find a traditional distributor but have proven themselves as either festival or critical successes,” says the IFB spokesman. “We will be publishing details of this scheme on our website shortly.”

“The producer of Eamon , Seamus Byrne, says the scheme and the IFB’s support was invaluable for the release of the film. This support is ongoing as the film makes its way around the country, with occasional screenings at conventional cinemas and through the Access Cinema film club network.”

Distribution support at this level is a very good idea. Eamon is one of the films that came from the Catalyst initiative a few years ago. What a pity this scheme has not grown and multiplied as it leveraged funding not just from IFB, but also RTE (and one other I think) and financed films at a level of €250K. And it makes sense to support these films in distribution in the art house specialist circuit.

“Paul Ward, of the IMC cinema chain, makes a similar point, saying that while there are always potential audiences for Irish films, they generally fall into the niche end of the market, which is undergoing a particularly difficult time at present. “It’s always tough. There are five or six pictures going out every week, so the competition is fierce and there are economies of scale with the size of the release.”

The cinema has evolved over the past two decades or more into something more akin to a seaside funhouse, that’s not a complaint it’s just stating fact. Today the vast majority of cinema releases are big budget, special effects driven spectacles and the target market for both Hollywood producers and the cinema chains alike is 12yrs to 25yrs. That being the case, the question has to be asked is the cinema the natural home for Irish films. Even award winning films like Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage and John Carney’s Once would find it difficult to draw an Irish audience of any significance, given the demographic of cinema goers.

“It might be argued that commercial distributors are the gatekeepers, ensuring that only those Irish films with a market, however small, will get a release. But, given that the IFB is subsidising the release of films the agency has funded, it might be argued that films may be released that distributors would not otherwise take on.”

“THERE IS ANOTHER DEBATE OVER the IFB’s policy of supporting only the films it has funded itself. If the logic behind it is the cultural necessity of assisting Irish films to reach their home audience, then should that apply to all Irish films, not just those which received production finance from the agency?”

A very good point and would I believe be hard to justify.

“Irish film-makers and producers will often successfully push to get their films into cinemas when distributors have turned them down. The box office results of this activity are hard to track, because the amounts involved are very small. There is a view in the business that likens this practice to vanity publishing, saying that it damages the market for Irish films. Others applaud the drive of the film-makers, usually people who have made their films without any official funding and whose energy and conviction get their films on to a few cinema screens without any subsidy. There is a view in the business that likens this practice to vanity publishing, saying that it damages the market for Irish films.”

If the film industry has any chance of becoming a force to be reckoned with in world cinema then it lies with people such as these. Proven beyond doubt, they possess the drive and commitment to their craft to struggle for years to see their creations on the screen. Sure, the quality of these films in terms of script and execution lack experience and knowledge of the craft, but then so do state subvented films. If “the business” wish to find reasons as to why the market for Irish films is damaged, in many cases they need look no further than their own tax payer funded productions. To lay the blame exclusively at the door of the driven and committed – now that’s glib.

I attended the “Give Me Direction” seminar last year at which the most insightful contribution was the “Don’t get Weird on Me” section in terms of what the IFB are looking for. Plainly “mainstream or commercial” is shunned in favour of “arthouse” or at minimum genre stories which seek to subvert or surprise. Subversion for the sake of subversion is no different than slavishly following commercial or mainstream imperatives. Subverting audience expectations does not equate to originality. And the only surprise an Irish audience is looking for is a good story well told, no tricks just solid craft, it really isn’t any more complex than that.

Whatever the plan is, (and that’s not easy to discern) it’s plainly not working and needs to be taken back to the drawing board, this time with the audience clearly in focus.

Is brand “Irish Film” damaged and why? Part 1.

A good jumping off point for this post is an article which appeared in the Irish Times by Ted Sheehy on Thursday 3rd June 2010 and can be viewed here. Ted followed up with more facts and figures on his blog. However, I found myself a little frustrated by the article because it seems to allude to and hint at conclusions with pretty much no one in the industry going on the record. So I thought it might be a worthwhile exercise to parse and tease out exactly what is being said and what is left to be found between the lines. As I go I will quote from the article and comment.

“THE PERFORMANCE of Irish films in their home market is a sensitive area for Irish producers and distributors. Against the backdrop of falling returns, the Irish Film Board, the co-financier of most films released in Ireland, has been discussing the issue with representatives from the distribution trade and others last month.”

Why is this a sensitive area? The fact that Irish people are fast losing interest in Irish films should be of huge concern to Irish producers. This needs to be addressed in a robust fashion for many reasons, not least of which is, it makes the case for state subvention to support the activity harder to justify and rightly so. As I write, our government are planning cuts of 3 billion for the December 2010 budget. With such things as pensions, dole and and hospital beds in the firing line, very few would shed a tear at the demise of the film board.

But are they to blame, perhaps, perhaps not. But that will make little difference if the axe needs to fall and the imminent demise of the UK Film Council is not an encouraging sign. Irish producers are not incentivized to fight for quality in their films and this is down to how they make their living. Irish films rarely make money for their producer at the cinema.  A producer is paid approx 10% of the production budget and that’s most likely the last money he sees from the film. Time to move onto the next project. So it’s not about quality but rather quantity. The more films you make, no matter what their box office performance, the more money you make.

“There are many ways to run a slide rule over the box office results of Irish films, and interpretations will differ greatly depending on the analyst’s perspective. There is also the valid argument that the box office is not the only measure of a film’s success.”

This is all true, but there’s no running away from box office numbers, no one in the business has the luxury of ignoring them. Box office is not a measure of filthy lucre, it simply tells you how many people went to see your film. Art films and “films not good enough” have one thing in common, they both draw small audiences. The term “art film” is not a protective mantle to be drawn over a mediocre film seeking to hide from the harsh realities of the box office. To do so is disingenuous and contaminates true art films.

“The criticism that many of the films aren’t good enough to perform in the marketplace is the elephant in the auditorium which many people in the trade will not address on the record. “It’s too glib to say the films aren’t good enough; it’s a lot more complex than that,” is how one experienced producer puts it.”

What is that about, people in the trade not willing to go on record to comment on the assertion that Irish films are simply not good. What kind of business is that? Ah but that’s it of course, it’s not a business, but a state subvented activity.

“The complexity he is referring to includes the muscle of multinational distributors, the heavy throughput of “product” in Irish cinemas and, as he terms it, the “stranglehold” that the UK distribution trade maintains over box office earnings from Ireland.”

What is the point of making a product for market and then complain about market forces. A truism about kitchens and heat comes to mind. Distributors and exhibitors are a business, they’ll book a film if they feel there’s an audience for that film, otherwise they won’t. And if it’s not bringing in the punters, it’ll be given the boot and something else shown in it’s place. Nothing complex about that.

“That said, one of the major multinational distributors, Disney, has distributed 25 Irish titles over the last 15 years, and had considerable success with some of them. But Disney’s general manager in Ireland, Trish Long, suggests that the thinking behind the release of many Irish films does need to be examined. Whether the number of films and the kind of films that are getting a release are the right number and the right kind is something I believe should be interrogated,” she says.”

That still sounds like diplomatic speak for “films not good enough”. Here’s the thing, 42in flat screen LCD TV’s with surround sound are now very common possessions. When people go to the cinema, they are looking for something more than what they can get for free (well kinda) at home. Worthiness and laurel leaves are not going to do it. Solid good stories with engaging characters has a shot.

“Each year a total of about 300 individual film titles from around the world are released in Ireland, earning box office income that has grown from €140 million in 2007 to nearly €150m in 2009. However, an annual box office review of Irish cinema returns shows a clear decline in the fortunes of Irish-made films over that three-year period.”

“Ten Irish films were released in 2007, earning a total of €1,967,506. Twelve Irish films were released in 2008, earning a total of €1,362,397. And 10 Irish films were released in 2009, earning a total of €588,661. If you get into the tricky area of defining the “Irishness” of these films, the picture is complicated further.”

There’s no arguing with numbers.

“So far this year, while the number of films has increased (by the end of June, 13 new titles will have been launched), box office returns have been mixed, and undoubtedly disappointing for those films which were given a substantial push by their distributors and backed with marketing funds from the Irish Film Board (IFB).”

“The IFB now offers two types of distribution support for Irish releases, but only for those films it has backed with production finance. The main mechanism is its marketing support scheme, designed, according to an IFB spokesman, “in response to current market conditions and to incentivise distributors to release films in a much more targeted way”. This scheme, adopted as of March 1st, has been utilised by the distributors of Perrier’s Bounty, Ondine and Zonad , who received funding, respectively, of €75,000, €50,000 and €75,000, which in this, the first year of the scheme’s operation, came in the form of non-repayable grants.”

It’s important to understand how distribution works in the real world. When a distributor decides to push a film into the cinema chain, he takes on the expense of marketing and prints. When that film takes money at the box office, the funds are split between the cinema and distributor. It is then the responsibility of the distributor to pay the producer the portion agreed. But the first money out from the distributors share from the exhibitor is the money he spent on marketing and prints. So this new initiative from the film board means that the distributor has no faith that he will recoup his marketing and print spend. It’s a little depressing to realise that left to their own devices, many home grown films would never see the light of day (so to speak) in Irish cinemas. And worse still, this new funding initiative is a tacit acceptance of this. How is it possible that a film starring Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson and a Neill Jordan film would need this support?

This discussion is continued in the following post.

Hello world!

Although it may appear this blog will be exclusively about film, that’s not the case. It is true that film would be my primary interest, both viewing and the making of,  however I will take the opportunity to muse on many things that impact on all of us right now.

One essential question which I intend to explore is “What’s wrong with Irish film”? There is one fundemental measure of the demise of Irish film in the eyes of the Irish audience and that’s bums on seats. A collapse of 70%+ in home box office for home product since 2007 demands to be explored at a time when overall cinema attendance is on the rise. I can find very little of where that is happening online at any rate.

In many fields of the arts and creativity, Irish practitioners stand shoulder to shoulder with their peers across the globe, and although there have been random breakout success’ in recent years in Irish cinema, they unfortunately prove to be the exception to the rule.

The other purpose of this blog is to track the journey of a feature project “In God’s Garden” (aka “Faithless”) to the screen. Getting this film made is a very serious intention, but it will also serve as a prism through which to scatter the light and uncover the pitfalls and tribulations as well as the unexpected delights to be found on that path. Either way, if nothing else it will serve as a map to those setting out, hopefully with not too many areas displaying the warning “Here be Monsters”.

I look forward to your comments and participation.