Plenty o’pix filling Eire

As British producer Stephen Woolley sits in a Dublin production office preparing Neil Jordan’s “Michael Collins,” he ponders what he calls the two great myths about Ireland. One is that it’s cheap to shoot in the Emerald Isle; the other myth, he says, is that Guinness beer makes you younger.

But the hangover may soon be felt by the Irish cinema industry, which is currently on a production binge that some say it is unable to handle.

“Michael Collins” is just one of a clutch of film projects feeding the boom. Spurred by an innovative tax-break scheme to encourage investment in production – and helped by the hype surrounding Mel Gibson’s decision to shoot much of his Scottish swashbuckler “Braveheart” in Ireland – the country has moved from a picturesque cinema backwater to a place where crews are bumping into one another from Galway Bay to Grafton Street.

The surge in production has brought plenty of green stuff to the Emerald Isle – “Braveheart” alone spent around $25 million in Ireland – and Irish crews are working as never before. But the explosion of filmmaking over the past two years has strained resources, particularly human resources.

Dublin pub gossip talks of meetings down dark alleyways where crew-hungry producers poach from rival productions. According to one confirmed story, a director of photography on a feature now lensing was offered a considerable salary hike if he switched films to become assistant cameraman.

Meanwhile, other producers are warning that locally generated projects may find it hard to get made as out of town productions gobble up the few crews. Add to that, the relatively high cost of living on the island and there is a growing feeling that foreign producers would do well to think whether they have enough Irish content in their scripts to justify lensing in Ireland.

“The tax write-offs just about balance out the extra cost of filming here,” says one producer who preferred not to be named. Such suggestions do not go down well with the indigenous film population. Everybody from studio execs to entertainment lawyers is hoping that the boom lasts.

Sure, everyone has heard stories of crews jumping ship, of union members demanding high wages and of the difficulty of working the Section 35 tax write-off system – but it’s never happened to them.

Some are worried

But privately, even some local producers are worried. “The speed of the expansion in production over the last 24 months was always going to put a strain on the system. There is some over-heating and it is difficult to crew during the summer months,” confesses one Irish producer who requested anonymity.

The tax write-off system was actually set up in 1987, but significantly modified in 1993 to encourage corporate finance into the Irish film industry. The plan also allows private individuals to invest limited sums.

Basically the system allows private companies or groups to invest either $560,000 per year over three years in qualifying film projects or $1.68 million in one year and in one project. The investments are 100% tax deductible, but Section 35 coin cannot account for more than 60% of a budget.

Some producers have begun to use Section 35 to establish sizeable production funds rather than approaching the system on a film by film basis. Over the past 10 months, Kieran Corrigan at John Boorman’s Merlin Films has raised around $50 million via Section 35. Some of the coin went to Don Bluth’s toon feature “The Pebble and the Penguin,” some will go to projects from Roger Corman – who is setting up a production shop in Galway – and some will go to Merlin’s own pics.

Merlin will be channelling Section 35 cash into its upcoming $11 million “Ivanhoe,” directed by Brian Grant and due to start lensing in August. Corrigan also is prepping the $4 million “Hay Fever,” set to shoot in October and expected to star Joana Lumley, and has a project titled “Angela Mooney Dies Again” up his sleeve.

“There’s plenty of money out there for Section 35,” says James Hickey, entertainment law partner at Dublin-based law firm Matheson, Ormsby and Prentice. “In fact there’s probably more money than projects. It would be naive to think we could increase production so fast without some difficulty, but in general Section 35 has been very beneficial for the Irish film industry.”

No kidding. Although figures are vague, depending on whether they include low budget pics, estimates are that from a norm of one or two shoots per year, Ireland hosted 18 productions in 1994 and will be around that level in 1995.

Major investment

Figures from the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht show that in the 20 months after Section 35 was revamped in 1993, $144 million of Section 35 coin was invested in the Irish industry, compared with a mere $18.4 million in the previous six years.

With the industry running on overdrive, the biggest headache facing producers has been finding and keeping crews. At least one project, Richard Loncraine’s “Richard III,” changed its location from Ireland to London’s Shepperton Studios, claiming it couldn’t get the techies it required.

“We’ve had to fight tooth and nail to keep the crew,” sighs Woolley about “Michael Collins.” “We’ve been in pre-production for a long time building O’Connell Street and the post office so we can blow it up. Naturally people are getting approached for other projects and we are having to reassure them that we will be going ahead.”

“Collins” is set to start lensing by the start of July and will shoot for 12 weeks. The film stars Liam Neeson as the Irish patriot who fought for independence from the British, and Julia Roberts as his fiancee Kitty Kiernan.

“This is a beautiful country where the people are incredibly friendly, but it’s very difficult to crew. You have to import far more people than you might first imagine,” adds Woolley.

“You used to be able to walk into Dublin on a Thursday and ask for the best crew and you had them by Friday morning. Now you have to approach people a couple of months in advance and have a firm start date,” notes producer Morgan O’Sullivan.

Start-up delays will soon be a producer’s nightmare. Linda Myles, who is putting together “The Van,” has had to shuffle dates to allow director Stephen Frears to complete editing on “Mary Reilly.” Myles has been lucky that most of the crew who worked on Frears’ “The Snapper” were keen to hook up to the third part of the Roddy Doyle trilogy and have stayed loyal. Even so, the “Snapper” sound crew is attached to “Michael Collins,” and one or two “Snapper” veterans are reportedly on the set of Trish McAdam’s $4 million debut pic “Snakes and Ladders,” which started lensing earlier this month.

There also have been mutterings about some old fashioned attitudes among union members. Crews are drawn from the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union’s Film, Entertainment and Leisure branch. The union is being accused of trying to cash in on the boom while it lasts.

“That’s rubbish,” says branch secretary Pat Keenan. “Overtime payments are less than they were three years ago. We have an established film agreement, but when producers say they have a problem we have said we would see how we can help.” He says that when “Moll Flanders” ran into cash difficulties while already in production, the crew agreed to bring down their salaries “rather than see the project go down the tube.”

“It’s a question of supply and demand,” observes an Irish producer. “If a costume designer is being offered three jobs at the same time, then the highest payer is likely to win.”

Keenan insists his members aren’t out for a fast buck and a good many producers, some obviously anxious to avoid union trouble, say the union has been flexible. “I remember the famine years when men were getting two weeks work every two or three years,” says Keenan. “We’re not going to kill the fatted cow to go back to that.”

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