LONDON — As director John Carney and producer Martina Niland settled into their trans-Atlantic flight toward the Sundance Film Festival last month, they wondered if they were making a terrible mistake.
So many people had warned them that their tiny Dublin musical “Once” would get lost in the snows of Park City.
They needn’t have worried. Amid the usual glut of dark and tortured indie dramas, their tuneful love story about a Dublin busker and a Czech girl shone out like a beacon.
It packed half a dozen screenings, got picked up by sales powerhouse Summit Entertainment and walked off with the World Cinema audience award.
The success of this $200,000 movie with a plot, in the words of Carney, “that you could write on the back of a postage stamp,” epitomizes the cautious optimism that’s spreading through Irish cinema.
Filmmaking in such a small country is never easy, and there are always reasons to gripe. Yet in the year since Simon Perry took over as chief exec of the Irish Film Board, there has been as much good news as anyone could reasonably hope for, from “The Wind That Shakes the Barley’s” Palme d’Or victory at Cannes last May to the triumph of “Once” at Sundance.
Those two movies were in the works before Perry came aboard, but his inclusive, encouraging style, with its emphasis on dialogue rather than prescription, has done much to foster a feeling of renewed possibility among Ireland’s community of writers, directors and producers.
Perry himself is diffident about claiming too much credit for his first year in charge at the IFB, which is the cornerstone of Irish film production. But he has brought a fresh attitude to the job and started to put in place new structures for development that should pay off in the years to come.
“One thing I set out to do was to revive a feeling of confidence among the filmmakers here,” Perry explains. “The board had become remote, too formal. Rather than telling producers it was unlikely they would comply with the rather high hurdles to get money, it’s more useful to say we’re basically behind what you want to do; let’s talk about how it could be done better.”
Perry has awarded long-term development funding to 10 production companies — a mix of the most experienced players, such as Element Films and Treasure Entertainment, along with relative newcomers and left-field choices, such as the experimental digital collective Still Films.
And he has shifted the emphasis away from demanding that producers raise “marketplace” coin from distribs or sales agents before the IFB will commit its own funding; instead, he has put in place a policy of identifying and supporting writers, directors and producers at a much earlier stage and working with them to hone their projects.
“When I arrived, the community was somewhat demoralized,” Perry comments. “They had been attempting to make genre films, aspiring to the mainstream audience, but these basically hadn’t worked. If the films did well locally, like ‘Man About Dog,’ they didn’t travel anywhere. There was a feeling it had become a producer-led industry in a way that wasn’t delivering.
“I found that directors had been somewhat downgraded here by an attempt to introduce an industrial process to making films on the Hollywood model that rarely works in a small European country. What was needed was for the writers and directors to come up with projects they believed in.”
“Once,” of course, is a perfect example of that philosophy. “Simon wants to put a lot of trust in young and first-time directors, even where people may not have a fully formed script,” Niland says. “It’s a very hopeful, and very risky, way of doing things. In my case, what I do is about nurturing, staying with people and helping them make shorts and hoping they come up with something that interests you. In the end, you just never know what audiences will respond to.”
Talent is starting to flow out of the increased commitment by pubcaster RTE to making local TV drama in the past eight years or so. Carney, for example, made his name by making the hit TV series “Bachelor’s Walk.”
The Dun Laoghaire film school is also becoming a conveyor belt of fresh talent.
“That’s the source of the greatest promise and potential here,” says Perry, who sits on the school’s board. “Ireland is behind the rest of Europe in its cinema history. There’s no hinterland, practically no cinema until the 1970s, which puts us 40 or 50 years behind everyone else.”
Perry also is casting his net more widely to seek Irish filmmakers based outside Ireland, and to draw foreign filmmakers to the country.
He is backing Brendan Grant, a Dublin-born, London-based grad of the U.K.’s National Film & TV School, to make his debut movie “Tonight Is Canceled,” about an Irish film director in Kosovo.
Perry encouraged French outfit Fidelite to rewrite Scottish-set “Dorothy Mills,” by Gallic writer-director Agnes Merlet, as an Irish story. He persuaded Slovak director Mira Fornayova to relocate her London-set “Foxes” to Dublin. He has also supported Irish producer Alan Moloney to co-produce the British prison drama “The Escapist,” directed by Rupert Wyatt, bringing the shoot to Ireland.
The IFB’s existing budget is earmarked for movies with Irish cultural content. The Irish government has also provided extra coin, roughly $2 million a year, to attract foreign filmmakers who just want to use Ireland as a shooting location.
Those producers can also access the Section 481 tax break, worth 18% of their Irish expenditure on day one of shooting. Pics that have benefited include Anne Hathaway starrer “Becoming Jane” and Nic Roeg’s “Puffball.”
It’s tough for Ireland to compete for international movie productions against the U.K.’s new tax credit, which is worth up to 25% of British spend. The change in the British system also means Irish producers can no longer tap U.K. sale and leaseback deals, which used to co-finance every Irish movie.
“Everyone had their fingers in the sweetie jar. But this is simply putting us back in the real world,” Perry comments.
He is convinced Irish cinema can stand on its own two feet, and judging by the positive testimony of Irish producers, his confidence, backed by his vast experience across the European cinema biz, is infectious.
Breaking out of Ireland into the wider world of distribution remains a huge challenge, but pics like “Once” show that even the smallest and most unlikely of projects can strike a chord.