Separated by sea and history from the rest of the U.K., Northern Ireland feels far removed from the hustle and bustle of media-savvy London.
Yet its film and TV production sector is thriving, thanks largely to its success in attracting big American projects to shoot at Belfast’s Paint Hall Studio and on location around the province’s dramatic countryside.
HBO’s $60 million fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” Universal’s $50 million medieval comedy “Your Highness” and Walden’s $35 million sci-fi film “City of Ember” have brought a massive injection of cash and confidence to the region, which has rippled into all corners of the film and TV industry.
Indigenous filmmaking is bubbling up, and indie TV producers are enjoying strong results from selling their shows and formats to the U.K. networks and across the Atlantic to U.S. buyers.
“These are recessionary times, but we’re in good shape. The only reason for that is the big projects, whose economic impact justifies our investment in the smaller projects,” says Richard Williams, chief exec of Northern Ireland Screen, the public body responsible for attracting inward investment and fostering the local film and TV sector.
NIS has reaped a rich dividend from its decision to promote and develop the disused Paint Hall Belfast’s old shipyards as a production space.
With a 90-foot-high roof, and four cells measuring 16,000 square feet each, it’s the only U.K. studio of its scale outside southeast England. Combined with the financial incentives offered by NIS for shooting in Northern Ireland, it has transformed Belfast into a viable destination for international producers looking for a cheap and practical place to construct vast and complex sets.
“The connection between the three projects is that they all had very ambitious, budget-busting builds, and the Paint Hall is an extremely attractive proposition in that context,” Williams says.
But the Paint Hall isn’t all Belfast has to offer. The city doubled for 1930s Berlin in the BBC telepic “Christopher and His Kind” about the author Christopher Isherwood and which shot there last summer. This proved so effective that the BBC returned to shoot docudrama “Hitler on Trial” in Belfast as well.
“Because a lot of big American shows had shot there, we never doubted we could crew up in an impressive way, and indeed the crews there were fantastic, tight and very organized,” says “Christopher” producer Michele Buck.
With HBO now gearing up for a second season of “Game of Thrones,” the Paint Hall looks set to be fully occupied for the foreseeable future. NIS is pushing ahead with plans to build two new soundstages alongside this summer, so there will be a suitable space to attract smaller-scale productions as well.
“The Paint Hall is not perfect — there’s no central heating, and it’s not properly sound-proofed. But if you’re building mammoth sets, it works really well, and it’s very convenient for the city center and the airport, which are five minutes away,” says Mark Huffam, the Belfast-based producer of both “Your Highness” and “Game of Thrones.”
It also takes just half an hour to get from Belfast into the kind of deep, unspoiled countryside that both productions needed for their medieval locations — ancient woodlands, rolling fields, the Mourne Mountains, the volanic Antrim coastline and the sandy beaches of County Down.
Such rapid transit between studio and location is one of many factors contributing toward keeping production costs low. Huffam estimates that Northern Ireland works out 30%-50% cheaper, factoring in the NIS incentive, than shooting in and around London.
NIS has a production fund of around $6 million a year to sweeten the deal for producers, whether incoming or local, shooting films or TV shows in Northern Ireland. That’s on top of the U.K. tax credit, typically worth 16%-20% of budgets for feature films (but not TV shows).
The official maximum NIS gives to any individual project is $1.3 million, up to 25% of the budget. But that rule is made to be broken when it comes to huge productions promising to inject many millions of dollars into the local economy.
in “City of Ember” received $1.3 million, “Your Highness” was awarded $1.6 million and “Game of Thrones” got $2.6 million.
The first series of “Game of Thrones” ended up spending more than $30 million in Northern Ireland. More than 80% of the 550 crew was hired locally, including a couple of department heads and one director, Brian Kirk.
“Some of the crew have come on leaps and bounds,” Huffam says. “They will move up in the departments if the second season happens, and they are already getting offers from outside Northern Ireland.”
Williams explains the positive impact on the indigenous film and TV sector. “You can’t have local filmmaking if you don’t have local crew and infrastructure, and you can’t deliver local crew and infrastructure if you don’t have continuity of work. So the big contribution of inward productions is that they ensure there is an industry here to facilitate the local voice.”
NIS marketing head Moyra Lock says the benefit is even felt by local TV producers such as Wild Rover and Waddell Media, which are shopping reality formats and documentary ideas to U.S. cable networks. “The big features and ‘Game of Thrones’ make people realize Northern Ireland can do stuff, so everybody is elevated up a few levels, not just on the feature film side.”
More from Scout & About: Northern Ireland:
• Expats return to ramped up film biz