What can be done to change peoples preception of Irish film?

An interesting article appeared in the Sunday Times last Sunday 12th of August written by Eithne Shortalll. The focus of the article surrounded how:  not since the mid 1990’s Irish films have not been performing well in the British box office. Four main point in Eithne Shortall article that stood out.

  • That box office figures for Ireland area actually included in the UK box office figures.
  • If an Irish made film has already had an Irish release it makes it more difficult to find a UK distributor, as it will not gain from its Irish release.
  • Focus has switched to television and our contribution to film is offering locations for overseas producers
  • Ireland no longer makes multiplex films.

Let take the box office figures, it’s hard to blame the producers of films such as The Guard and Intermission for talking up the success of their films in the UK. However, as stated in the article below success at the Irish box office gives it a spike in the overall UK figures. Constantly the same 4 or 5 voices representing Irish film pop up in the media, to say that Irish film has yet another successful year which is far from the reality. In fact what were are producing is primarily TV drama with some low budget indigenous film which miss a small target audiences and so are doomed to win over its audience. In recent years if an Irish film does receive success it’s probably more down to luck.

The issues of distributing films is a little more complicated, with the films such as The Guard it would be plausible to believe that a UK distributor would like to take it on the basis that they would also Irish releases also. Many of the low budget films that we are producing have very little of appeal even to an Irish audience and would be impossible to convince a UK distributor take them on. Some of the production companies in Ireland have diversified and have their own distribution companies and naturally want to cash in on any Irish box office success at the expense of greater exposure abroad, and recently we have seen the arrival of an Irish download operator.

Bringing in overseas productions such as “Haywire”, “This Must be the Place” provides limited opportunities for any Irish crews to gain employment or experience given their time here is short. Much has been written about the success of first Bollywood movie this week, part of which was shot here last year called Ek the Tiger. Yet during the production the cast and crew were intimated by a tiny minority of film craft workers seeking to force their way into employment on the production. This could have threatened not only more Bollywood films but other international productions. What is difficult to understand is why Irish Producers continues to employ these same protestors?

Some years back Screen Producer Ireland successfully pitched to shift  the focus of government policy away from supporting larger commercial productions to producing more indigenous film. As a result for the past 6 years what were are producing is primarily TV drama with some low budget indigenous film that has little or no appeal outside of Ireland. This has not been good for the industry at large. Ireland has gone off the international radar with the exceptional blips such as the deserved success of Once. Crews who had gained so much experience on the larger budget movies in the 90’s have either left Ireland to continue to learn their craft or have left the industry altogether because they were unable to make a living. Going back to the 1990’s one of the biggest selling points for Ireland after the tax breaks was the quality of our crews. In 2012 at least 50% of all Irish crews working have no experience of working on a major movie.

Spokespersons for Irish film in the media tend to rate our success on how we have increased production levels in Ireland on the previous year, that is not how you benchmark any success. We need to have a long term strategy for the development of the industry in the next 5 and 10 years and how we intend to get there. Churning out undercooked scripts will not bring success; it must be quality over quantity. We cannot have a successful indigenous industry unless  we produce multiplex films alongside.

In recent years we Ireland has attracted UK TV companies into Ireland with tax breaks available for TV however with changes in UK tax laws coming into effect in April 2013 the likelihood is that next year we will see all that work dry up, leaving a big void in the shooting calendar in Ireland.

I may be in the minority but I did not enjoy The Guard  it was unimaginative and the humour was just not funny, and with so many expletive in every sentence it was never going to do well in either an American or Australian market. Brendan Gleeson performance in the leading role was its only redeeming quality. It success in Ireland has done nothing to change even the perception of the majority of film audience in Ireland.

If we look at the lower budget success in the UK over the past number of years: Billy Elliot, cost £5 million to make and it took £14million The Kings Speech cost £15million to make earned £86million worldwide The Inbetweeners cost €2.5million and earned £42 million St. Trinian’s production cost £8.5m and it made £24.5m. None of these were extraordinary stories but were well crafted and in doing so had a broader market appeal; there is no reason why Irish production cannot emanate that.

With section 481 up for review by the Department of Finance there are many questions that need to be asked surrounding the current structures in Irish film. The one area which has never been clear is who is actually responsible for the overall development of the industry? In recent year the feeling is  so much has fallen between the cracks. Fifteen months down the road the government sponsored Creative Capital report sits gathering dust on a shelf. To quote from the introduction:

The purpose of this report is to identify the strengths and weakness of the Irish Industry and to recommend to government specific policies that will equip the industry to successfully enter the next phase of its growth from a predominantly domestic platform into international markets”.

Without been too despondent there is evidence of  some shift in direction, or producers have learned from their mistakes of recent years. I have seen a number of new Irish releases most yet to hit the cinemas that have high production values and could potential gain success with a wider audience, if they get the right distribution and have the a budget to market them correctly.

The would include the £3.5 million Grabbers, Shadow Dancer, Jump, Citadel and Good Vibrations and I have yet to see Neil Jordan’s Byzantium

One area that does not get enough focus is the success of Irish animation which is primarily focused on the global market. Take Brown Bags Film it is going from strength currently employing 150 people in state of the art studios in the city center. Their books are fully for the next 2-3 year, success that has not come out of the blue with a good business model behind them. The possibility of a big budget live animation productions could be a reality in Ireland with proper planning.

To quote media guru Tom Peters perception is all there is, there is no reality” and the perception is Irish film right now is  a very poor. Even if you we do produce a good Irish movie convincing theatre goers that it will be as entertaining as the Hollywood blockbuster in the next screen is a gigantic challenge that has got be corrected.

Listening to the writer of Grabbers Kevin Lehane speaking about the movie on The John Murray Show on RTE  he highlighted the negative opinion surrounding Irish film. While he was queuing  to see Grabbers at a multiplex on Saturday night he overheard a group of teenagers discussing what film they might attend: when one suggested Grabbers another one in the group said no that’s an Irish film it’s going to be shite”

A references by an Irish producer in a recent New York Time article about Ireland’s dismal  performance in both the property and banking may have been relevant. But to follow that up in the next sentence by praising Ireland’s superior aptitude in film making was a just silly.

Do we invest in film for a small niche audience with no return, or do we want a more vibrant industry that can generate jobs and produce films of Irish content that have a broader appeal.

© Tom Dowling 2012 images by Tom Dowling

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“Irish films don’t perform well in the UK. Contrary to what we like to tell ourselves, an Irish movie hasn’t made a dent in the British box office since the mid-1990’s”

This article appeared in The Sunday Time, Culture magazine on Sunday 12th of August 2012  Written by Eithne Shortall

Article in the New York Times began: “Sometimes it’s difficult getting the Irish to watch Irish cinema” If the Americans think we have a problem here, they should see how the Industry fares in Britain. Three native films open in Irish cinemas this month. None of them have yet secured a UK release. With a slightly bigger budget and multiplex appeal, Grabbers, a monster-comedy has the best chance. A limited American release is scheduled but it may well go straight to DVD and download in Britain

Irish films don’t perform well in the UK. Contrary to what we like to tell ourselves, an Irish movie hasn’t made a dent in the British box office since the mid-1990’s

The last hits were Neil Jordan’s, Michael Collins and Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father. There were reports of films doing well in the interim- particularly The Guard starring Brendan Gleeson, and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley- but the figures are misleading.

It’s a little-known fact that the Island of Ireland is included in British box office figures. The Wind That Shakes The Barley isn’t only the only misrepresentation film that might have an ideological to that. Given our relatively small size, this inclusion has little impact on the final figures. However, some home-grown movies – and oddly Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line – can skew the results. While it was reported The Wind That Shakes The Barley took £390,000 (€494,000) on its opening weekend, almost three quarters of that made in Ireland. The Guard entered the UK charts at No.5 more than a month before it opened there. This was due to a hugely successful performance in Ireland, where it had been on release for more than a month and would make €4m. The actual box office take, however, was less than £1m.

Similar strong performances in Ireland have propped up movies such as Jim Sheridan’s In America, Joel Schumacher’s Veronica Guerin and John Crowley’s Intermission. As such UK distributors are more likely to take an Irish movie if they have the rights to release it in Ireland as well. If it has already opened here it can be difficult to persuade distributors across the water to take a chance. About Adam, starring Stuart Townsend took seven times more at the Irish box office than British Box office, while Roddy Doyle’s When Brendan Met Trudy was 20 times more successful in Ireland. Irish films tend to do better in America, however, Once John Carey’s Oscar-winning musical, barely made £100,000 in Brittan but was a relative triumph in the US.

The country of origin can also have be misleading. Martin McDonagh’s In Burgess was a hit but it was a UK-US-Belgian co-production. When Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot a revenue and Oscar success, had to be given a British certificate of origin for financial reasons, he insisted that his next film the Field be considered Irish. Unfortunately, The field didn’t have the same pulling power.

A number of promising Irish Films such as Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did and Kirsten Sheridan’s Dollhouse are expected to go on release in the coming months. The directors have strong reputations and the movies offer a novel look at youth, but past experience may still dishearten British distributors. Part of the problem is that we are not making multiplex films anymore. Ireland had a stake in Michael Collins, In The Name of The Father and even My Left Foot. Now our focus has switched to television and our contribution is offering locations for overseas manufacturing.

This article appeared in The Sunday Time, Culture magazine on Sunday 12th of August 2012 Written by Eithne Shortall

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Categories: Film and TV

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2 replies

  1. The growth of the animation sector is most definitely a positive step, creating much needed employment and revenue, but since the majority of projects are commissioned from abroad, can we really refer to it ‘Irish Film’?

  2. Hmm…I have this thought…that I do not think films or anything does well on their ‘home base.’ For example, at least for myself and a lot of other people I know we much prefer like the British Top Gear to the American Top Gear. The Americans to us since we live in the states just come across as dry and boring and I think ‘same old, same old.’ If there was a way of making more Hollywood type films/tv shows there-then I think there might be an increase and a change in film audiences there. Hmm…again, just my opinion!

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