The recent release of the trailer for Wild Mountain Thyme, a US-originated romantic drama set in the west of Ireland, has prompted much merriment in social media circles over its ‘Oirish’ sensibilities and dodgy accents. Directed by John Patrick Shanley, the yet-to-be-released Hollywood yarn looks set to join a long line of stereotypical US films set in Ireland. This dubious tradition dates back more than 100 years to Sidney Olcott’s The Lad from Old Ireland, as Sean Crosson explained in a recent Journal piece. Over the intervening century, a succession of off-centre US representations of Ireland and the Irish has followed, including The Quiet Man (1952); Far and Away (1992); and more recently PS I Love You (2007) and Leap Year (2010).
While we sometimes complain about the mythical version of Ireland portrayed, from an economic point of view these films are generally welcomed with open arms. Since the mid 1980s, productions of any scale taking place in Ireland have been incentivised via substantial tax breaks. Today, the Section 481 tax credit system refunds 32 percent of eligible Irish spending to the production company. Films shooting in the ‘regions’ (i.e. outside of Dublin, Wicklow and Cork) qualify for an additional 5 percent credit.
Wild Mountain Thyme is no exception: the film received a tax credit of between €500,000 and €1 million (exact figures are no longer provided by the Revenue Commissioners) as well as production funding of €280,000 from Screen Ireland. In addition, the film is notable as the first US studio picture to benefit from the Western Region Audiovisual Producers (WRAP) fund, which provides a further incentive to films shot in the West and Northwest of Ireland, specifically Clare, Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo and Donegal. WRAP draws on a €2 million rolling fund established in 2017 by the Western Development Commission, in conjunction with Udaras na Gaeltachta, Galway Film Centre and local authorities throughout the West and Northwest region.
Productions approved for WRAP can avail of up to €200,000 in funding, depending on their proposed local spend within the region. According to the scheme’s website, the contribution ‘typically’ takes the form of a recoupable loan. The fund may also seek ‘enhanced recoupment’, i.e. a profit share, in order to replenish its coffers. WRAP thus aims to be a self-sustainable scheme. Unlike other forms of publicly funded film finance in Ireland, such as production loans from Screen Ireland or Section 481 tax credits sanctioned by the Revenue Commissioners, WRAP funding specifically aligns itself with the Market Economy Investor Principle (MEIP) — an EU test designed to distinguish commercial investment from State aid, which is highly regulated under EU competition directives.
According to the European Commission, State aid regulations do not apply “when a public authority invests in an enterprise on terms and in conditions which would be acceptable to a private investor operating under normal market economy conditions”. Through its invocation of the MEIP, the WRAP fund sets itself apart from the cultural remit (and cultural cost) that underpins the logic of funding via Screen Ireland and Section 481. Its investments – or more specifically, its recoupment of those investments – depend for their continued existence on the earning potential of the projects it chooses to support. From that perspective, the commercial viability of its investments are crucial. Through its development and production loans, so far the fund has supported over 20 film, TV drama or game projects. It claims its recent investments will generate over €16 million in spending in the Western region, representing a 12:1 multiplier effect on every euro invested.
Such figures, of course, must be taken with a grain of salt. Even if the spending figures hold up, it is doubtful that the multiplier can be attributed to the WRAP fund alone, which is just one small element in the public funding ecology for film and television production. On the other hand, all funding sources contribute to the decision to locate production in a particular region. Section 481 and Screen Ireland subsidy attracts production to Ireland, the regional uplift distributes some of it outside of the Dublin environs, and schemes like WRAP can draw those productions to particular places, especially for films like Wild Mountain Thyme, whose location within Ireland was probably extremely flexible, as long as it was rural. Indeed, the mutable nature of the film’s location is evident from the title of the Broadway play — also written by Shanley — on which the film is based: Outside Mullingar.
Worryingly for those to whom the recent trailer proved offensive, although not necessarily for film investors, that play was described by Irish Times theatre critic Fintan O’Toole, during its tellingly short Broadway run, as “mystifyingly awful“. The Western Development Commission, along with WRAP’s other underwriters, are obviously confident that film is a more successful medium for Shanley’s shenanigans, now located to Mayo’s rural idyll.
A respectable Wild Mountain Thyme box office would cancel out the relative commercial disappointment of another prominent WRAP investment, the UK-Ireland coproduction Calm With Horses, enhancing the viability of both the fund itself and the West / Northwest as a Hollywood production location. But for how long? If economic multipliers continue to underpin the justification of public film investment, and if the Regional Uplift is successful in attracting substantial productions beyond the traditional Dublin/Wicklow axis, expect WRAP to see competition emerge from other regions of Ireland.