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.

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  1. Really good piece Pat. Just found it online today. It was postcard radio. As for irish film I agree with so much above. I just never gets a voice. As a filmmaker I try, I apply, I win some, and loose many. Still we press on and try to tell stories.

    • Thanks for your comments Garret. Your film “A Nightingale Falling” looks really interesting. Will be looking to check it out on release. Best of luck with it. Pat.

  2. Good piece, Pat. And pretty much the same reaction I had to that radio programme.

    The only thing I’d add, or amplify, is the issue of rights ownership in Ireland. There are no figures available on inward flowing income (if any) from rights held in Ireland in any of the so-called ‘foreign direct investment’ productions. I’m thinking here of ‘Vikings’, ‘Game of Thrones’ and other film and TV projects which are greenlit in the US, Canada or elsewhere in Europe. If rights are not held in Ireland then the money we put in is a complete giveaway. And I mean rights with revenue flows back to Irish producers, rather than rights managed out of Ireland for (low) taxation benefits to foreign rights holders.
    It seems apparent now that that the service ‘industry’ is all that matters, if only because, in policy terms, it offers greater numbers of temporary jobs – not that we’re counting those jobs with more accuracy than a pre-school infant might count a flock of birds. Nor do we count the public cost (Film Board + tax break + BAI + RTE license fee) of each of those temporary/part-time jobs on an annualised basis.

    • Hi Ted,
      The share of rights by Irish producers of TV Drama series is certainly a question I wrongly presumed would be explored in George Lee’s program, however, in a vacuum of information, I can only imagine that it’s minimal if it exists at all. I think we should also know the share of rights an Irish producer receives of co-produced films which originate elsewhere, are mostly financed, cast and crewed elsewhere and come here to shoot, avail of 481 and film board funds. Of course that raises the question of how much comes back to the taxpayer when a co-produced, IFB funded and 481 assisted film is deemed a success. That kind of information should be regularly updated on their website.

      The service industry does appear to be of paramount importance and it’s certainly a very good thing that a number of people earn their living this way. But that model, in order to be sustainable, requires a constant flow of work. A case in point is what’s happened the VFX houses in the US and UK. Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy after Life of Pi won Oscars for their work, because to survive, they needed a constant flow of work that faltered, not because they weren’t good at what they did, but because the same work can be done elsewhere for significantly less. Check this out So is it clever to invest in a service industry that’s at the mercy of deeper pockets and rates that cannot be matched here.

      Outside of that though is my real concern that a system of funding production has emerged here that not only has spawned little in terms of successful Irish films, but actually inhibits that possibility. Until a producers bread and butter is made somewhat contingent on the performance of his films, then I believe little will change in that regard.

  3. Fiachra says:

    Irish cinema isn’t a poor performer with home audiences because they’re aimed at tourists. It’s because they’re mostly dire and get made by talentless people. These industry names who claim our movies entice tourists are just idiots! We do still have an industry – in television. This will be gone in a few years when the Tudors and Vikings move to other countries (just like the major film productions moved away from here a decade back). The future is with stuff like Stalker – cheap, loose script, small crew, unknown actors, self-distributed, and on release for one week. Films made by people who are not too pushed about tourists or making lots of money. The big productions that gave everyone jobs are gone now. No-one wants to make films in the Republic anymore. Foreign productions now prefer to film in Northern Ireland as there’s less crap involved from unions and they have better studios.

    • Hi Fiachra,
      I think you’re right about the threat to our TV Drama production services here. You probably saw the announcement from NI just 2 days ago. Here’s a snippet:

      “Northern Ireland Screen, the region’s funding body, has launched Opening Doors, a scheme running through to 2018 that will see it attempt to develop Northern Ireland into the strongest screen industry outside of London. The new fund will dramatically increase from the £27.3m ($45.5m) invested between 2010 and 2014 to £42.8m ($71.5m) over the next four years.”

      Check it out here:

      This is the kind of development which could bring a lot of work going on here to a grinding halt. As I said in the post, that business plan is at the mercy of developments like this.

      In terms of film, I do agree. I think our best hope lies with creator driven, low budget, self distributed and marketed films. What that requires is more effort and initiative from the filmmaker to take responsibility for finding the audience for a film and connecting with them.

      If it’s going to happen and I really hope it does, it won’t be led by application culture driven producers who seek to be paid from production budgets, but by passionate and committed filmmakers. The world has already moved this way, we are lagging behind on this.


      • Fiachra says:

        I’ve said this before here: Irish filmmakers now have the technology to make a feature every MONTH if they so wish. Of course the film schools, middle-class upbringing, usual disinterest, and the system/setup here won’t allow this. It amuses when I read about older directors making their 16mm features without any government help. They eventually found an audience by making film after film. But this being Ireland no-one wants to do this because they just can’t. Movies in this country seem to be something a stage/TV director does once or twice a decade to take a break from the respectable day job. Cinema’s future in this country will be with two kinds of people: those who make technically average but interesting stuff like Stalker with their mates; and the Northerners with a good Protestant work ethic whom the foreign productions like working with . The rest are dabblers who are better off in TV, shorts, education, or sitting in the audience at the IFTA awards!

        • Well that last comment was timely, what with the IFTA’s on tonight. As usual I find little to contradict in your in what you say. Just getting out and doing it is something Shane Meadows for instance championed. “While others were making there funding applications, I was grabbing a camera and some mates and shooting stuff”. Eventually, he had funders approaching him to finance low budget features. He claimed he knew nothing about script writing, I guess he figured it out.

          That’s another of my pet peeves, the huge industry that has grown up around wannabe script writers peddling one system or other that is sure to get your script sold to a producer. People should save themselves time and money, just go watch good movies and apply a little reverse engineering to it. But that’s for another post.

          There is ample opportunity, technically to make a film and the rest people can figure out as they go. What is essential though, is to find and connect with an audience, before and during production and that requires a set of skills not traditionally associated with film making. The days of a film just getting found by an audience are behind us. There’s too much noise out there.

          • Fiachra says:

            When Meadows started out his local garage rented him a video camera and some blank tapes! He made lots of films that no-one saw. There’s no way a filmmaker like him would get anywhere in Ireland. He’d be told to make an expensive short film or do a useless film degree! His first feature (Small time) was technical awful. Far worse than most Film Board titles. Yet that guy went on to create his own cinema where most films he made you know he was the director. How many Irish filmmakers could you say that about? Very few. There is too much noise out there but the best way to stand out is to well stand out! That means creating your own cinema like Meadows did. Seriously, if an Irish filmmaker did something personal or unique with a few movies they will stand out from this noise. The rest can’t stand out due to lack of talent or originality. They’re the ones who need these new distribution channels because their stuff is so similar to what’s out there it’s the only way they can get people to notice their film. This is Ireland: do anything different and people won’t care or support you. Or, make derivative Hollywood rubbish and it will receive IFTA nominations like The stag did.

            • That backs up one of the conclusions of this post and I said the same thing to Ted above. We now seem to have a system in place which doesn’t just engender mediocrity in short and feature length film, it positively stands in the way of originality and talent rising to the surface.

              Now that the tools and the means of financing original low budget films are at everyone’s disposal, it is now time for original filmmakers to steer clear of the establishment and let their imaginations sparkle and create works that would not be possible in the old way. No applications, no gatekeepers and definitely no producers looking to make their 10% from your production budget. However, I disagree about the new distribution channels. These are part of the new landscape for low budget filmmakers and can offer significant distribution opportunities.

              I did a lot to publicise this post, yet so little has come back by way of comment. There are 2 ways to muzzle the artist, one is to lock him up and the other is to offer him state finance. They both achieve the same thing.

              • Well few care do they? Most filmmakers in this country are not interested in Irish cinema. In fact, they’re not even interested in cinema! Check out their filmographies on IMDB: short, short, TV, TV, feature, TV, documentary, TV, short, short etc. That’s the way it works here for most directors. They don’t want to make feature films or can’t. They don’t want to do anything different. Why struggle for years making a low-budget features when they can get well-paid work AND an IFTA nomination for directing ‘Vikings love Tudors but hate Amber’? We have little talent in Irish cinema and it usually needs to get recognised abroad first. As you said on other posts talent can be developed by making stuff over and over. This backs up my point on using this new technology to make lots of features on the cheap without state interference. Even though it was below average I would love to see a new Stalker every month in Irish cinemas!

  4. Kevin Hughes says:

    Nice piece Pat, but some hard questions still need solid exploration, Did you consider asking IFB or Georg Lee or contributors about any of the issues you raised?

    • Hi Kevin,
      How’s London town?
      I think it goes beyond the people you suggest. Yes we need answers, but we need a debate by all stake holders even more. “The Business” interview was a lost opportunity that begged more questions than it answered and as I point out in the post, the justifications put forward for the tax payer spend are simply not credible. If Irish people are not watching Irish films, then why are they supported by the state. That’s not an argument against state support, but rather a call to drastically reassess the kind of films we’re making, why and how.

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