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Northern Ireland makes leap into int’l co-prod’n business

Country boats a number of advantages over Isle neighbor

Location finding is a bit like matchmaking: The parents want to know what dowry comes with the bride and every suitor strives to offer something their rivals don’t possess.

Morocco says it can deliver a desert and several thousand soldiers for the battle scenes; Malta counters that it has one of the world’s largest water tanks. As for Northern Ireland, well, among other things, it has an oil rig. And if the script calls for scenes shot on an oil rig, as was the case with Isabel Coixet’s “The Secret Life of Words,” well then that just about clinches it.

The Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission chipped in with £600,000 ($1.12 million) for the Tim Robbins and Sarah Polley starrer, but when you are just a short hop away from the Isle of Man, with its deep, deep pockets, you need something extra. Luckily, as in love, money isn’t everything.

As commission CEO Richard Williams explains, Northern Ireland has a number of advantages over its ambitious neighbor: a large force of well-trained crew members; a mixture of urban and rural settings just a half-hour’s drive from each other; and a wide variety of picturesque natural settings such as rugged shorelines, placid lakes, vast forests and pastoral idylls.

It also has a keen and natural co-production partner in the republic of Ireland, with tax breaks of its own to bring to the wedding party. This all helped woo the producers of Neil Jordan’s “Breakfast on Pluto.” The U.K.-Ireland co-production dipped into sale-and-lease-back schemes in the north and Section 481 in the south, plus the Irish Film Board’s and the NIFTC’s production funds.

Williams says it is a deliberate policy to collaborate with the Irish Film Board on projects. The two film orgs share a pavilion at Cannes, for example.

Although a little known outpost in the international film biz, Northern Ireland has succeeded in transforming its film industry since the NIFTC was set up eight years ago.

“The evolution has been unrecognizable,” says Williams. “Five years ago, a single film shooting here was a big deal. Last year, four feature films shot here and the same this year. A sustainable film industry is beginning to appear. The same people making short films five years ago are now making feature films.”

Such is the case with local helmer Terry Loane, who makes his feature debut with Working Title’s “MickyBo and Me,” released in Ireland on March 25. “MickyBo” looks at the violence of the 1970s in Northern Ireland through the eyes of two kids, and has some similarities in tone with the U.K. hit “Billy Elliot.” That pic’s helmer, Stephen Daldry, acted as an exec producer on “MickyBo”; both pics co-star Julie Walters.

Films about “the Troubles,” as the conflict is called, have been a staple of Northern Ireland drama for many years, but Williams says the latest pics are different because “the productions nowadays are being made by people who actually grew up in the area.”

Among the films set to shoot in the province in the next year are Richard Attenborough’s $18.7 million “Closing the Ring”; “The Ninth Passenger,” which is set off the coast of Florida; and horror pic “Wilderness.”

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