EDINBURGH — At north of $35 million, Walden Media and Playtone’s “City of Ember” is the biggest film ever to shoot in Northern Ireland.
A few years back, no one would have dreamed of bringing Bill Murray and Tim Robbins to make a children’s fantasy movie in strife-torn Belfast. But the arrival of “City of Ember,” shooting from July to October in the city’s derelict docklands, is a vivid testimony to the revival of the province after decades of sectarian violence.
The folks at Northern Ireland Screen, the agency responsible for fostering the local film and TV biz, can hardly contain their delight. For an investment of just $1.5 million in the project, they have not only secured $10 million of local expenditure, but also, and perhaps more important, delivered a huge propaganda coup for Northern Ireland’s new government.
For all the news coverage about the peace, there’s nothing quite like a Hollywood movie to carry the message around the world that normal life really has been restored, and that Northern Ireland is open for business again.
Northern Ireland is a special case among the four nations that make up the United Kingdom. But in Scotland and Wales, too, there’s a growing mood of self-confidence and independence. Elections earlier this year registered an historic surge in support for nationalist parties.
This offers both an opportunity and a challenge to the film and TV communities there, and to the public bodies responsible for nurturing them.
Local politicians are tuned into the potential for films and TV shows to assert national identity and to project an image of cultural and economic vitality, both to their own citizens and to the world. It’s no coincidence that the Scottish National Party invited Sean Connery as guest of honor when it celebrated the formation of its first government in Edinburgh in May.
Having a vibrant film and TV sector is a badge of national pride, a beacon for tourists and a magnet for inward investment from a much wider range of industries. Indeed, Hollywood money can inject much-needed glamour to a region — Paramount’s big-budget fantasy “Stardust” may do for the Isle of Skye what Peter Jackson did for New Zealand.
Yet in the global context, the showbiz communities in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast are tiny and barely self-sustaining, and the gravitational pull of London remains almost irresistible.
Scottish Screen, Northern Ireland Screen, the Film Agency for Wales and the Welsh Creative IP Fund are on the front line of the battle to give local talent a reason to stay, and international talent an incentive to come.
Of the three nations, Scotland has the largest pool of directors, producers and writers. But it has suffered historically from the most uncertain policy towards supporting the industry and exploiting its culture, history and landscape.
Now Scottish Screen is merging with the Arts Council of Scotland to form a new superbody, Creative Scotland. When and how that will happen is still a matter for political debate. But producers are alarmed that film will lose out without a dedicated agency in its corner to fight for it.
Scottish Screen topper Ken Hay counters that film has a chance to claim a larger role at the heart of Scotland’s creative industries and, with it, a greater slice of the financial pie.
“There’s an opportunity in having film sitting alongside other art forms, such as the Scottish literary tradition and the new National Theater of Scotland, and a clear understanding that film is the major glue in the system that pulls all the other arts together,” he says.
Hay claims that the uncertainty over its future isn’t stopping Scottish Screen from getting on with business. The org helped pull together the finance for “Stone of Destiny,” a movie now shooting about four students in the 1950s who stole the country’s ancient coronation throne back from the English.
Scottish Screen has put up sufficient coin to attract the Viking project “Valhalla Rising,” which is set in Scotland but whose Danish producers were originally planning to shoot in Mississippi. It also invested $600,000 to ensure that Focus Features’ sci-fi project “Doomsday” shot partially in Scotland, although locals gripe that the producers used Cape Town, South Africa, to double as Glasgow.
Yet Gillian Armstrong’s “Death Defying Acts,” set in early 20th-century Edinburgh, shot entirely in London last year because it wasn’t creatively Scottish enough to fit the org’s funding rules at the time.
The Welsh went through their own upheaval a year ago, getting rid of their old film and TV agency, Sgrin, and replacing it with the Film Agency for Wales — dedicated exclusively to movies, with $2.7 million a year to subsidize projects by Welsh-born or Welsh-based talent — and the Creative IP Fund, with $14 million over three years for industrial development across film, TV, new media and vidgames.
Both have hit their strides with notable speed. Under chief exec Pauline Burt, FAW is backing Justin Kerrigan’s comeback movie “I Know You Know”; a doc about elephants from a Welsh producer; another doc about Patagonian music by Welsh rock star Gruff Rhys; European road movie “Abraham’s Point” by first-timer Wyndham Price; and genre pic “Blonde” by Caradog James.
“We’re purely a talent fund where the films shoot, and what they are about is utterly irrelevant to us; it’s just about quality first and foremost,” Burt says.
The Creative IP Fund, on the other hand, makes purely commercial investments in return for films coming to shoot in Wales. Headed by Linda James, it has put coin into half a dozen movies including American comedy “The Big Nothing”; Peter Greenaway’s “Nightwatching”; and “The Edge of Love,” about Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, starring Keira Knightley.
“We struggle to have a British film industry, let alone a Welsh film industry,” James says. “The Welsh film activity is very much part of a larger British, European and global picture. We have to be outward-looking.”
For its size, Northern Ireland Screen has more money than any of them, thanks to a peace dividend — roughly $20 million a year across a whole patchwork of funds.
Recognizing that the local talent pool is tiny, the emphasis is on attracting outside production to the province, although the org has high hopes for a script by local writer Lisa McGhee called “Jump” that’s being put together by Belfast-based producer Brendan Byrne.
But it’s all very well getting lucky with “City of Ember.” The challenge for Northern Ireland, as for Wales and Scotland, is not merely to attract such windfalls in the first place, but to convert them into an enduring legacy, in the form of local industries robust enough to fly the flag for their respective — and increasingly self-assertive — nations.