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

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.

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Comments

  1. There’s something wrong with the Film Board not only having to fund rubbish like Zonad/Perrier’s Bounty/Ondine but also having to fund their distribution? Let’s make Irish films that have no audience because they’re too similar to Hollywood productions and then waste funds on getting this rubbish into our cinemas. Of course making COMPLETELY DIFFERENT films here that stand out from the usual multiplex fare is beyond the IFB. Irish flim will never find an audience when there are always better versions produced by Hollywood. Shame we can’t come up with our own style of filmmaking that will find an audience without the IFB having to waste money on distribution?

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