Ireland: Spot of green on horizon

Co-productions, new talent make film sector a great bright hope

With a healthy presence at Cannes to follow strong showings at Tribeca and Sundance, Irish cinema is still punching above its weight despite the country’s deep economic woes.

Bolstered by solid political support, the Irish film industry has sustained its growth by leveraging its subsidies with co-production coin, in order to project its own talent onto the global stage and attract foreign filmmakers to Ireland.

These twin strengths are reflected in the selection of Rebecca Daly’s debut “The Other Side of Sleep” in Directors’ Fortnight and Paolo Sorrentino’s co-production “This Must Be The Place” in the Cannes competition.

Daly is among a new wave of first-time directors, including an unprecedented number of women such as Juanita Wilson (“As if I Am Not There”), Carmel Winters (“Snap”) and Alexandra McGuinness (“Lotus Eaters”), who are coming through to join those Irish names that have won international recognition in recent times, such as Lance Daly, John Carney and Lenny Abrahamson.

Sorrentino is one of several foreign helmers to benefit from Ireland’s hospitality to co-production in the past year, along with Agnes Merlet (“The Hideaways”), Mary Harron (“The Moth Diaries”), Rodrigo Garcia (“Alfred Nobbs”) and Steven Soderburgh (“Haywire”).

Fidelite, the French co-producer of “Hideaways” and Merlet’s previous Irish project “Dorothy Mills,” is now bringing the next installment of its hugely profitable Asterix franchise, “God Save Britannia,” to shoot in Ireland.

“It’s a very exciting time in film, art and culture, even with the fact the country is recovering from a recession,” says Morgan Bushe, producer of “The Other Side of Sleep” and “Lotus Eaters,” which premiered at Tribeca. “Cinema is a great way of showing the rest of the world that we’re still a proud artistic nation.”

“There’s a huge amount of activity,” echoes writer-director Kirsten Sheridan, who has teamed with Carney and Daly to launch a low-budget studio in Dublin, called the Factory. “There’s a younger generation of filmmakers who don’t have any fear, they are honing their skills by grabbing a camera and grabbing their actor friends. We’re trying to tap into that energy and bring it into our generation.”

Irish politicians see film and TV production as a rare national success story that can project a positive image abroad, attract inward investment and help to lead the recovery.

Despite slashing public spending to reduce Ireland’s crippling debts, the government has strengthened the Section 481 tax break, which covers 28% of Irish production costs, and extended it until the end of 2015. It has also insulated the Irish Film Board from the worst of the cuts, with just a 4% trim in this year’s budget to €16 million ($23 million).

“Given the general squeeze in funding, we still have a very good financial base to support film,” says IFB chairman James Morris. “A large part of the support we’ve had from government, in the past and the present, is because they see an economic return, as well as the cultural and social benefit.”

“The scope, scale and number of films made by Irish producers, creatively driven from Ireland, has increased in a very big way,” Morris says. “But if we are to continue to get the levels of government support we’ve had, the industry must continue to develop.”

The IFB and the government are mapping out policies to drive further economic growth in the audiovisual sector over the next five years. After the creative expansion of recent years, the IFB is seeking ways to build a more sustainable production sector, which is less dependent on subsidy and more able to attract private finance.

This coincides with a change in leadership at the IFB. Chief exec Simon Perry ankled in December at the end of his five-year term, and will be succeeded this June by entertainment lawyer James Hickey. Perry is widely credited with having boosted the volume, quality and international impact of Irish cinema; now Hickey will be tasked with strengthening its industrial base.

“The Film Board has a dual mandate: to develop Irish filmmaking, and to develop an industry in Ireland for making films,” Morris says. “Simon was very effective at developing Irish filmmaking, but there’s also an enterprise agenda of industry development, and that’s going to be an increasing focus of the board’s activities.”

“We would like to see policies that help Irish businesses become involved in other aspects of the production business, such as sales and distribution,” he says. “Clearly the only growth is by expanding the international markets for Irish content developers, and bringing more international production to Ireland.”

The IFB has set aside its $2.9 million reserve of recouped revenues to launch an industry development fund, but it has not yet defined how this money will be spent.

“This will be in addition to and not instead of the creative side,” Morris says. “The quality and creativity of Irish filmmaking is still going to be at the heart of any set of policies to help the Irish film industry move forward.”

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