Speculation runs from disagreement over coproductions to CEO's age

The Galway Film Fleadh is a perfect reflection of all things Irish: It’s an intimate fest that draws global clans to celebrate international and Irish pics under the umbrella of having a good ol’ craic (Irish for ‘party’). And while this year’s edition was anything but somber, the main topic on everyone’s lips was Simon Perry’s status atop the Irish Film Board.

The local biz didn’t have to wait long for an answer. The day after the fest (July 12), IFB chairman James Morris issued a statement confirming the organization would be looking for a new CEO, and that Perry would step down at the end of 2010, after five years at the IFB.

“Our job is to make sure affairs of the board are run, and while I regard (Perry) very highly indeed, we understand that change has to happen.”

Perry is lauded not only for his extensive industry contacts and longevity in the biz (he has worked in the industry since 1974 as an independent filmmaker, producer and CEO of British Screen Finance) but also for his method of fostering co-productions in “the right way.”

He serves as prexy of Ateliers du Cinema Europeen (ACE), a Paris-based training center for European producers, and has facilitated some 90 features, including 45 co-productions over his five years on the board. Among the titles the board has been a part of during that time are Paolo Sorrentino’s upcoming “This Must Be the Place” with Sean Penn; Colin Farrell starrer “Triage,” helmed by Danis Tanovic; and this year’s Galway’s Irish Feature winner “The Runway,” helmed by Ian Power.

Sources at the fest suggested Perry’s terms of employment were unclear, and even some IFB staff members said they were “confused” by the sudden decision.

“Simon’s departure is a great loss,” says producer Edwina Forkin of Zanzibar Films. “He did a great job and to his credit made Ireland the country to do business with. His actions totally helped support the wealth of new talent through short schemes and low budget feature initiatives as well as supporting co-productions.”

But Forkin also argues the matter is being blown out or proportion, and that the film board’s hand was forced. “Simon was in a civil servant job, and retirement age is 65. (Perry is 66.) So, (the IFB) simply weren’t in a position to extend his contract even if they wanted to.”

During Perry’s tenure, Zanzibar’s short “New Boy” was Oscar nommed in 2009. And 2010 saw three Irish pics nominated for Academy Awards: Tomm Moore’s “The Secret of Kells” for animated feature; Juanita Wilson’s “The Door” for live action short; and Nicky Phelan’s “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty” for short animated film.

“I think it’s a shame, because you can really consolidate on what he’s done,” says London-based producer Rebecca O’Brien, who has worked on a slew of Irish co-productions, including Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” “He gave Irish producers 50% of recoupment which is something Brit producers have been desperate to get.”

She added that if the IFB board was looking to hire someone who would steer away from Perry’s method of fostering co-productions, it would be “a grave mistake.”

“He brings a lot of useful contacts and a lot of authority, and Ireland is very dependent on that axis,” O’Brien says. “It needs to look to Europe and build co-production relationships. It can’t be as dependent on inward investment as the U.K. is.”

Tom Collins, who helmed 2007 award-winning pic “Kings,” feels the focus should now be on the direction in which Irish film is headed — “how to consolidate our success, deal with our failures, and stop the masochism that has us making films so cheaply in Ireland.”

Perry declined to comment on the matter, but his departure is a topic over which the Irish film biz is still buzzing.

“Simon has left the building,” says Collins. “He did a good job. He helped make Irish film less parochial. We should take an opportunity to think before we shout ‘Next!’?”

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