Isle of Man invests in prod’n infrastructure

LONDON — A sleepy, rural island of 83,000 inhabitants, halfway between Northern Ireland and the north-west coast of England, is gearing up to become one of the most important players in the British film industry.

With $60 million now committed to attract filmmakers over the next five years, the Isle of Man is virtually transforming itself into a movie studio.

Last week it unveiled a $36 million media development fund, on top of the $24 million in production coin previously guaranteed through 2005. The Isle of Man Film Commission has long offered equity to tempt producers away from the mainland — it has backed 39 films since 1995, covering up to 25% of budgets — but now it has ambitious plans to invest in script development and distribution rights as well.

The new coin will also be used to attract bigger-budget movies, to expand into TV drama, and to build infrastructure. The Manx Treasury has already invested $1 million in a private project to construct the island’s first soundstage.

All this is possible because the Isle of Man not part of the United Kingdom. It’s a Crown Dependency with a 1000-year-old parliament, which makes it own laws. Its favorable tax regime attracts wealthy residents, and has spawned a booming offshore finance industry.

Its social climate is a throwback to the 1950s, although things have loosened up somewhat since the not-too-distant days when homosexuality was still illegal and the police were empowered to flog young miscreants. Its staid mores may be out of sync with the fast-and-loose ways of the movie biz, but its uncluttered landscape is a gift to filmmakers, particularly for period pics.

The island recently played host to Christina Ricci in Brian Gilbert’s “The Gathering,” Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Bettany in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s “The Heart of Me,” and Tim Fywell’s “I Capture The Castle.” Previous pics include “Thomas and the Magic Railroad,” “Me Without You” and “Waking Ned,” where the island’s landscape doubled for the west coast of Ireland.

According the Steve Christian, the commission’s finance expert, the recoupment rate on its equity investments is running at well over 50%. That compares favorably with any public fund worldwide, and doesn’t include the wider economic benefit of bringing film crews to the island.

This benefit became clearer than ever last year, when the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease across the British Isles caused the cancellation of the Isle of Man’s single biggest tourist event — the notoriously lethal TT motorcycle rally. With the hotel trade in crisis, the film commission rode to the rescue by bending its own rules to bring in five movies during the autumn.

That prompted the government’s decision to redouble its bet on the film business. “The government here operates more like a publicly-quoted company, and we’ve got a big chunk of space we need to do something with,” says Christian.

Not only will the commission be able to reinvest any coin it recoups from the new fund, but the Treasury will also rebate the commission up to 60% of the money it spends, as its share of the wider income generated for the local economy. And the commission is allowed to keep the investment income it earns from the $60 million lump sum sitting in its bank account.

All in all, it’s an extraordinarily favorable deal that will enable the commission to multiply the effect of its coin several times over. Christian estimates that the fund should generate over $700 million worth of production activity over its lifetime.

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