Film and TV production in province is flourishing

Ten years after the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland, the film and TV industry in the province has never been more vibrant.

Last year, Belfast played host to its biggest-ever international movie, “City of Ember.” At the other end of the scale, video artist Steve McQueen came to shoot his acclaimed feature debut, “Hunger,” about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

In between, there has been a rising hum of production activity, spanning network TV and movies such as “Fifty Dead Men Walking” and “Peacefire.”

Most encouraging of all is the emergence of two ventures, the Real Holywood Production Co. and Generator Entertainment, which have raised slate funding to make international movies out of Northern Ireland, often with local talent.

Real Holywood is a partnership between local player Jo Gilbert, who produced Richard Attenborough’s “Closing the Ring” in the province, and London property mogul Robert Whitton.

Whitton put $40 million behind the slate, which kicks off with Gerry Lively’s U.S./Irish romance “Yankee King.” Other projects include “Hot Nights,” by Irish writer Pat McCabe, to be directed by Tom McGuire and starring Stephen Rea, and “Poles Apart,” an original script by award-winning Irish playwrights Alan McKee and Conor Grimes.

Generator co-founder Mark Huffam started out as a location manager on Irish projects in the early ’90s before becoming one of the U.K.’s most respected producers with films such as “Johnny English” and “Mamma Mia!”

He returned to Ulster to make the low-budget “Mickeybo and Me” for Working Title in 2003, but Generator marks a more ambitious homecoming.

Huffam and his English partner, Simon Bosanquet, have raised $15 million from Northern Ireland Screen, London-based f/x house Framestore and tax financier Limelight for an initial slate of five genre movies, anchored by an output deal with U.S. broadcaster Starz. L.A.-based Robbie Little is handling international sales.

The slate feels trans-Atlantic, but will mainly shoot in Northern Ireland with fresh local writers and directors. “The Generator slate is creating a talent ladder for the sector here,” Northern Ireland Screen’s CEO Richard Williams says.

First pic is “Freak Dog,” a supernatural thriller set in an American hospital, scripted by local boy Spencer Wright and directed by Dublin-born Paddy Breathnach.

Vibrant slate

Upcoming titles include “Video 8,” a horror mockumentary shot in Australia; “Chatakwa Falls,” a U.S.-set psycho thriller by local writer Richard Crawford; Chris Hartwill’s chiller “Ghost Machine”; and “Cherry Bomb,” the debut feature by co-directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn.

“Cherry Bomb” is a Belfast teen drama about two friends whose competition for a girl has tragic consequences. It was brought into Generator by producer Michael Casey of Green Park Films, who previously made Brian Kirk’s debut “Middletown” with the same writer, Daragh Carville.

He’s one of a handful of producers, along with Michael Kelly and Brendan Byrne, who are trying to resist the gravitational pull of London and carve out a career in Belfast, even if that means traveling to England for specific projects. Casey produced Kirk’s telepic “My Boy Jack” in England last year and will make crime miniseries “Ganglands” there this year.

“It’s an interesting reflection on developments here that Mark decided to come back and set up Generator,” Casey notes. “I’m impressed by the volume of production that’s coming here, and in the midst of that there has been some progress by indigenous filmmakers. That’s because good people at Northern Ireland Screen and BBC Northern Ireland have taken advantage of the peace dividend. But it’s still a struggle. It remains a conundrum how one remains here and builds a sustainable business.”

“Cherry Bomb” reps the kind of contemporary storytelling NIS topper Williams is keen to nurture.

“We need to see how we can encourage a growth in post-Troubles local projects, set here and with a voice of here but not directly about the past,” he says. “It’s not for us to airbrush 40 years of history, but if you talk to the film students at Queen’s U. or the media students at the U. of Ulster, that’s really not their experience or what they are interested in.

“We’re sitting on the edge of Europe in quite an isolated, small place, with just 1.7 million people, so you have to be grown up about the scale of opportunities that exist in Northern Ireland,” Williams says. “But in the last five years, if nothing else, we have created a sense that stuff happens here, and if you are 17 or 18, you might see the chance to do something interesting.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more