James Hickey CEO,the Irish Film Board, interview with the Irish Times

James Hickey, CEO, Irish Film Board discusses his recent appointment to the Position of CEO of the Irish Film Board, reductions the capital budget and the future of Irish Film.

Laura Slattery of the Irish Times, Friday 10th February 2012

Growth in focus for film sector

THROUGH THE glass walls of the Irish Film Board’s Dublin offices, chief executive James Hickey is distracted by the images screening in another room. He shifts his seat to the top of the boardroom table, where Brendan Gleeson now looms above his head in a framed poster for 2011’s IFB-supported hit, The Guard.

It’s awards season. The Guard is, unsurprisingly, on track to dominate tomorrow night’s Iftas. Then there’s a screenplay nomination for its writer-director, John Michael McDonagh, in Sunday night’s Baftas.

Hickey, a media and entertainment lawyer before he joined the film board last year, is also off to Berlin, where, alongside the Berlin International Film Festival (featuring the premiere of Kirsten Sheridan’s Dollhouse ), Hickey will be busy at the European Film Market, where producers show off their wares to financiers, sales agents and distributors.

At the end of the month, there’s the ceremony to cap all ceremonies, the Academy Awards, where film board-funded short Pentecost is in the running.

But while the early months of the year are always busy in terms of promotion and finance-raising, in 2012 the lens caps are off too.

“What’s interesting this year is that we also have a lot of production going on in the country. The number of projects that are shooting at this time of year is higher than it normally is,” says Hickey.

The projects reflect something of a changed focus for the Irish audio-visual industry – and “audio-visual”, meaning television and animation as well as purely film, is the name of the game.

Ripper Street, an eight-part BBC-commissioned period drama produced in Ireland by Tiger Aspect, Lookout Point and Element Pictures over a 19-week period is, according to the film board, likely to invest €8 million in the economy and lead to local employment.

The second series of the detective farce Vexed, starring Toby Stephens, has also been drawn here by way of Irish Film Board funding, as well as Ireland’s competitive tax incentive for television production.

Indeed, the inclusion of small screen productions in Ireland’s Section 481 film tax credit is what elevates it above similar incentives in competing jurisdictions, making it the financial catalyst for the filming here of so many US and British series, from Showtime’s The Tudors to ITV’s Primeval, generating positive publicity for the industry each time.

Hickey is fresh from counting last month’s image bonanza of Bafta Rising Star nominee Chris O’Dowd riding a bike on location in Co Roscommon for Moone Boy, his six-part Sky TV series. “What it does is raise the consciousness of production activity in Ireland,” he says, happy.

The focus on television means the industry would like Section 481 extended beyond its current expiry date of end-2015 as soon as possible. Many of the biggest US productions plan for a seven-series life span. Even if, like Starz’ Camelot, they are axed well before that, producers want to have the security of knowing what the likely finance arrangements will be for a full run.

As for Irish Film Board funding, there’s less of it to go around this year. The capital budget for the board comes in at €13.15 million for 2012, down from €16 million in 2011 at a time when the administration budget for the agency was increased from €2.43 million to €2.54 million. Overall, that’s a near 15 per cent decline in its budget allocation.

“From our point of view, that represents a challenge but equally, I believe, it gives us an opportunity to work as hard as we can to make what we do receive go as far as we can,” says Hickey. “I think it’s really important in this current economic environment to make sure that the cost of production in Ireland is as competitive as possible.”

Accessing “all the other funding available to us” is also vital, adds Hickey, meaning the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s licence fee-derived Sound and Vision fund, which is now “committing significantly greater funding” to feature films. These include, in the most recent round, €500,000 each for animation feature Amhrán na Mara/Song of the Sea, made by Cartoon Saloon, and Parallel Films’ At Swim-Two-Birds , Gleeson’s directorial debut.

Both productions have the backing of TG4. Notably, it was a recommendation of last year’s Creative Capital report that it no longer be a requirement for producers to receive confirmation from a broadcaster that they will air the production before they can access funds. The steering group behind the report made a second, more ambitious recommendation in this area, suggesting that the Sound and Vision fund be transferred from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to the Irish Film Board, creating a single content funding agency.

With a merger between the regulatory functions of BAI and Comreg also on the cards, this could create a neat division between a convergence-age media and telecoms regulator on one side and a separate content funding body.

Talk of a merger between the film board and the Arts Council, however – a recommendation of the McCarthy report – has now quietened. “I haven’t heard that suggestion recently,” says Hickey. “That was a couple of years ago and I think we’re happily now very much further down the road.”

The “main thrust”, as he puts it, of the Creative Capital report, subtitled ‘Building Ireland’s Audiovisual Creative Economy’ and published last April, was to double the number of full-time jobs in the sector to 10,000 and, over a five-year period, double turnover to €1 billion, in part by encouraging “companies of scale”.

At the same time, the film board is charged with the promotion of Irish culture on screen. “What we want to do is make sure our funding enables and facilitates Irish talent – Irish directors, Irish writers, other Irish creative personnel – whether these are films generated in Ireland itself or whether they are incoming productions,” says Hickey.

He doesn’t see any tensions between the two roles. “Very often people see a dichotomy between the cultural remit and the economic remit, but I see the two of them coming together, and I see the two of them as being something that you have to look at holistically. A film is made up of the talent that people put into it. It’s both creative and industrial at the same time, and to try to divorce one from the other doesn’t really make sense.”

So what of David Cameron’s much-lampooned recent intervention that the British film industry should concentrate on making “commercially successful” films? Was he just clumsily expressing a preference for the mainstream, or was he misguided, full stop? Hickey’s answer suggests he veers towards the latter position.

“The answer to David Cameron is that we would all love to produce more hits. But I don’t think anyone has worked out exactly how you do that. And if somebody has worked out how you do that, he or she would be the person most in demand in Los Angeles, rather than in London or in Dublin,” he says.

“You can’t predict how it’s going to work. Some films that might be described as unlikely hits when you explain them to people initially turn out to be some of the greatest film hits of them all.”

Arguably, The Guard fits into this category, given it is McDonagh’s directorial debut. But as “heartening” as it is for projects such as his, that “start from the ground up”, Hickey is also “obviously pleased” about the Oscar nominations for Albert Nobbs, an example of an international production that “came here because the story was here” and secured a local co-producer in the form of the prolific Parallel.

Buoyed by the strong start to the year courtesy of the two BBC television productions, Hickey seems confident about 2012 as a whole. “I would be optimistic that this year would be better than last year. What we want to see is a continuing growth pattern through until 2016.”

A few more awards in the meantime would, naturally, be a nice addition to the Irish industry’s mantelpiece.

ON THE RECORD

Before his appointment to a five-year term as chief executive of the Irish Film Board, James Hickey (58) was head of media and entertainment law at Matheson Ormsby Prentice. He joined MOP in 1992 after his legal work on feature films such as My Left Foot and The Field drew the firm’s attention to an opportunity to expand in this area of law.

Working as a media and entertainment lawyer largely involves helping producers work their way through what is often a complex maze of financing arrangements – this means being familiar with state funding mechanisms, co-production treaties, the tax credits of various jurisdictions and how distributors and sales agents work: Hickey describes taking a midnight phone call from the producers of the film Once when it became subject to a bidding war at Sundance.

Hickey was a law student in Trinity in the 1970s “but I was not as good a law student at the time as I was a student of the dramatic society in Trinity, Players”.

As a result of his involvement with Players, he developed contacts and kept in touch with people who now work in film, television and theatre in Ireland. One of his first jobs was as an administrator of Dublin’s Project Arts Centre and he later became its chairman.

During the 1980s, his work as a solicitor involved representing music recording artists as well as film producers. From 1992 to 2001, he was also chairman of the Abbey Theatre: “That would have kept my nose to the creative grindstone,” he says.

As well as heading up the Irish Film Board, he now sits on an inter-department committee, headed by the Department of Arts, which is charged with implementing the recommendations of the 2011 Creative Capital report.

Originally from Donnybrook in Dublin, Hickey now lives in Ranelagh with his wife, Fiona Mac Anna, an actor and daughter of the late playwright, actor and director Tomás Mac Anna. Hickey and Mac Anna have two children; Lara (26), who works in theatre, and Jack (22), an actor. The father’s side of Hickey’s family were “very much lawyers”, while through his mother – whose surname was Binchy – he is related to the actor Kate Binchy, novelist Maeve Binchy and also the Trinity law professor William Binchy.

In his spare time, when he’s not indulging in a busman’s holiday of films and theatre, he jogs and swims – “so that at least I don’t spend all my time sitting down”.

On film festivals

“My only regret is that when I go to these festivals, I see relatively few films, because I am mostly seeing people about projects”

On the end of ‘The Tudors’

“Purely from an industrial basis, it is a pity that Henry VIII only had that number of wives”

On taking the job

“I think it’s safe to say that in the past, before I took the job, I had many views about what the film board should or shouldn’t be doing. I now have to step up to the plate and make the things I might have said in the past actually happen”

On the audio-visual industry

“We are punching above our weight but like everything in life we shouldn’t, and I believe we won’t, rest on our laurels”

On keeping up with culture

“It is a constant frustration in terms of all the films I want to see. I miss more than I see”

Laura Slattery, Irish Times, Friday 10th February 2012

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