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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.

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  1. Having participated in the 2008 Price Waterhouse Cooper survey into the Irish Film Industry which was commissioned by the IFB I was disappointed, though not surprised, to find how the subsequent response by the IFB amounted to ……nothing. Over the years there have been several announcements from Irish film institutions, all without foundation, that there would be some initiatives to reach our to film-makers and scriptwriters out in the regions. All these claims were spurious. Nothing materialised. Nothing was established. The real story is now being written about on the Irish Film Portal – namely the 3 million invested in the liquidated Magma Films – this site has started to reveal something of the reality behind the standard spin from the IFB. Meanwhile film-makers in the regions were left in the wilderness. No infrastructure developed. No societies or groups founded. Proposals and suggestions ignored. Film-makers black-listed. No national plan. It was a kind of inverted and unsophisticated (city) parochialism which looked down on any initiatives suggested outside of their clique. The IFB is redundant in terms of creating a cinematic culture in Ireland. It is a bureaucratic philistine organisation that lacks the vision or imagintion to create a truly innovative, pro-active, imaginative, exciting cinematic culture where writers and film-makers can thrive and flourish. All too often also, Irish film makers fail to challenge the status quo – and if you consider the cinematic greats – from Orson Welles, Lindsay Anderson, etc – these film-makers were not afraid to challenge the status quo. We need a new generation of film-makers to shake things up a bit.

    • In fairness neither Welles nor Anderson were part of their film systems. They were mostly outsiders looking in and that’s not a bad thing! Which Irish filmmakers are ‘blacklisted’, the Five Day Shelter guy? If Irish filmmakers expect public servants to help them make films then they deserve to fail. Also, most Irish directors are too middle-class and conservative to ‘challenge the status quo’.

      • Once again Fiachra, you say little I can argue with. Your comment about Irish filmmakers and civil servants is interesting. I am convinced, unless a filmmaker can build a self sustaining model for what he or she does, then they stand little chance of having a career as a filmmaker. The old model has all but disintegrated where the end of your journey was the festival circuit. From that it was hoped that a film would be “picked up” for distribution. Of the handful that were, few if any saw any money from the deal and on that I speak from experience. So now filmmakers have no choice but to find their audience and deliver their film to them, thus completing the filmmaker’s journey. But that requires learning a whole new set of skills, loosely labeled “digital marketing” and that’s on top of knowing how to write, cast, produce, direct and edit. Not easy, but there it is.

        • Well, if Irish filmmakers kept their budgets low they wouldn’t require a ‘self-sustaining model’. If they’re a director-for-hire then commerical success is important. But most of these people are not good filmmakers. You said elsewhere to repeat making films until talent arrives. That also applies to ‘success’. There’s too much emphasis on doing well with the first film in Ireland. A few years later this director has ‘progressed’ into television. These people ape what others do without having their own ‘voice’. Technically impressive but empty filmmaking. Irish horror directors are the worst at this! The way forward is to make lots of cheap films without worrying about awards, technical quality, or box-office success. That can all happen later. Orson Welles (mentioned above) was not a ‘success’. He got blacklisted and spent his last years struggling to make films. Yet he’s respected more than many award-winning Hollywood directors of his era. Good Irish filmmakers should work outside of the system on their own terms. In this age they should not need a lot of money to make feature films. The idea that civil servants are needed to help and guide filmmakers to get their feature produced is laughable!

  2. With the Film Board it seems that they follow rather than lead. They have yet to fund a feature about our recession? There’s no reason why they can’t fund a contemporary film about unemployment instead of stuff like Zonad? Maybe the reason is that Irish filmmakers are too trained or middle-class to make challenging cinema? The stuff the IFB funds seems to be forgettable tripe, audience-pleasing stuff like The Runway? Where’s the new type of filmmaking? Why is there so much emphasis on scripts? Every time a film here fails it’s the script’s fault. No mention of the exact same (and miscast) actors, lame direction, TV-style filmmaking, clichéd scenes, and general lameness. Where are the intellectuals in Irish cinema? Are these people considered ‘outsiders’ by the Film Board. Too risky for funding? A country’s cinema should tackle its own society and issues. It shouldn’t be about making ‘Irish versions’ of British/American movies. Where are the directors here who truly understand the difference between cinema and television? Let’s be honest: most irish titles will be forgotten a decade from now. It’s easy to see why too.

    • In your comment Fiachra, you have touched on an issue that that I feel strongly about if we have any chance of making films worth the effort and that is relevance. The IFB exists and that is a fact and while they exist, they have the same effect as a black hole at the centre of a galaxy. They form the centre of funding and everything is drawn to them. But it’s a state body and the question is, could they or would they fund projects which are diametrically opposed to the status quo in terms of the broken society left behind in the wake of the Celtic Tiger. Of course the other question is, are they getting projects of this nature submitted for funding.

      You say many elements contribute to a bad film, not just the script and that is true, However, if you have a good script, you at least have a shot at making a good film, starting out with a bad script and you are toast on the starting block.

      Right now I am developing a script with IFB support called Miles to Go, which I believe has great relevance to our present situation. I’ve delivered a 1st draft and am about to begin work with an editor. All going well, it should see production next in 2012. Once things begin to roll (pre-production), I intend to make regular updates on this blog.

      • I reckon it’s more the fault of the filmmakers than the actual Board? If you go to film school or make a prize-winning short the last thing you want to do is direct a feature film concerning the unemployed arguing in a greasy café using little-known actors? Instead, you want to make stuff like The runway: beautiful cinematography, cute kids, locals as extras, audience-pleasing but soulless stuff. Of course the idea that Irish Govenrment funds people to make films which criticises them probably doesn’t make much sense either? A nation’s cinema should document its society: if filmmakers need to write contrived scripts based on books or have to search for stories to tell then they’ve nothing to say in the first place. They are just hack directors and only another member of the film crew. Since 2008 we have had lots of real-life stories in this country that can be made into interesting feature films. It’s a real shame that not even one Irish director has the talent or interest to tackle these subjects?

        • You know, I think you might have put your finger on it. Let’s think about this for a minute. As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog site, I think we can all agree on the simple principle that nobody sets out to do less than their best. So it follows that IFB must be supporting the best projects submitted to it. It has a rather unusual job and that is to fund projects on a monthly basis. No studio or production company would or could adopt that business plan and it must follow that if funding has to be provided, no matter what, then some projects getting funding are possibly not up to scratch – but hey, we got to write cheques.

          I know I’ve said elsewhere that IFB being a state agency, probably lapse into safe choices. But if some films are failing and yet others not finding distribution, then it must follow that some brave choices are being made.

          I think it is a little unfair to blame IFB for the films it supports. Filmmakers, screenwriters and producers must accept a large portion of this. I do believe that our films should be invested in ourselves and our unique experience in the world. So the challenge lies with us to create great films. It would be hard to imagine a unique voice telling a compelling story being ignored for very long.

          • The problem with ‘doing their best’ is that it ruins Irish films! Let’s think about this: ‘Best’ in Irish cinema usually means using top notch cinematography, hiring big name actors, employing as many people as possible, aiming for a wide audience, using music in most scenes. What I’m hoping to explain here is that this is OVERKILL! That approach only suits certain subjects e.g. The runway. Applying this ‘best’ approach to every Film Board title is doing more harm than good. Where are the Irish films where the director doesn’t give a hoot about ‘the look’ of his film, ignores soundtrack music, or that stupid post-production blue tinting process because IT’S NOT SUITED TO THE FILM? The Film Board would run a mile from someone doing this stuff as they are not ‘technical’ or ‘professional’ enough. Yet many world class directors make these kind of films. They know that its what you say and how this is done and not about ‘doing your best’ for the sake of it because we’ve had enough of these polished but empty films made here? Hope this makes sense? We need ‘raw filmmaking talent’, not people making high-quality television stuff and passing this off as Irish cinema?

  3. Jimmy Gillen says:

    Hi Patrick,
    Your article is very well informed and shows the need for great change with the Irish Film Board. James Hickey is a partner in a legal firm which services the film industry so he should not be in a position to hand out tax payers money to people who will in turn employ him. I know SIPTU have asked to meet the Film Board for the last 6 years but havnt received a reply yet so they are going to ask ministers to step in. I believe there is so much talent in this country and every year there are more coming out of film college but they dont stand a chance of getting help because its who you know that counts when it comes to receiving Film Board money.

    • Hi Jimmy,
      Thanks for your comments.
      I always start out with the premise that most people set out to do the best job they can and in the above blog post I attempted to point to change for the benefit of all, without lapsing into negativity and conspiracy theories.
      I don’t think that’s your intent, but I will say this. There can be a tendency in any such state agency to make safe decisions, but I believe it’s up to the filmmakers to rattle that complacency with great projects. If anyone can demonstrate dedication to the craft, resilience and the ability to bring a project home, then the most important boxes have been ticked and funding should sooner or later find it’s way to you.

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