Last week it was announced that Ardmore Studios, along with its Limerick sibling, Troy Studios, had been acquired for “close to $100 million” by a consortium led by Hackman Capital Partners, a major owner and operator of studio facilities in the US and UK. The announcement has been generally welcomed as a sign of growing international confidence in Ireland as a production location. This would certainly seem to be the case, with Screen Ireland recently announcing “potentially record levels” of production activity all around the country for 2021.
The purchase price, thought to be in the region of €80 million, suggests that Olcott Entertainment, the company that developed Troy at Limerick’s former Dell factory in 2017 and acquired Ardmore the following year, has made a substantial return on its investment. Olcott’s involvement in the studio business has coincided with a major development in screen industry distribution practices – the rise of the major US ‘over the top’ streaming services (Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus), all of which have been active in producing or acquiring Irish-made content in recent years. As such, Olcott’s timing has been fortuitous, as few would have predicted the speed at which the streaming sector has developed, or its acceleration over the past 18 months as Covid-19 lockdowns increased demand for home entertainment.
Not all of Ardmore’s previous owners, of course, have been so fortunate. The studios have changed hands at least ten times since Ardmore was established in 1958 by Louis Elliman and Emmet Dalton, financed mostly through an IDA grant and a loan from the Industrial Development Authority. As I recently documented in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, the studios struggled with industrial relations issues in the early years. These difficulties triggered a chain of events that eventually saw the state call in its loans and place Ardmore in receivership, a strategic move that effectively released the studio from labour agreements it had made with Irish film workers and their trade unions.
This ended the involvement of Elliman and Dalton, who had hoped to benefit from increased levels of UK film production triggered by policy incentives like the so-called Eady levy, imposed on UK cinema admissions to create a fund from which to subsidise UK film production. Ardmore’s ambitions were thus tempered by British and Irish film workers alike, through trade union disagreements that impacted greatly on the studios’ attractiveness to overseas producers.
Ardmore continued to operate in receivership for several years, until it was purchased in 1967 by its first overseas owner, a Merseyside casino operator called New Brighton Tower Company. After some financial irregularities, however, New Brighton lost the confidence of its bankers, National Westminster. The studios went into receivership for a second time in 1971, this time the victim of boardroom activities that had little to do with film production per se.
The following year, Ardmore returned to Irish hands, acquired by a consortium of local business interests headed by music industry figure George O’Reilly. Like the original owners, they hoped to attract domestic and international productions, this time with the promise of major policy interventions on the horizon. O’Reilly was optimistic that the Film Industry Bill, whose introduction had been interrupted a couple of years previously by the Arms Crisis, would be revived and enacted during the final years of Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fail government. In addition, a lobby was afoot to exempt films from export taxes and provide a further boost to the fledgling industry. With financial backing from Scottish motor industry entrepreneur Thomas Farmer, O’Reilly lined up an impressive slate of US television films and several features. But when Farmer got cold feet about the co-funding caveats attached to these projects, he withdrew his support and called in the receivers yet again. The move was prescient, as the proposed Film Act and the hoped-for tax incentives would not arrive for another decade at least.
With no viable buyers on the horizon, the state took over the studio operation in 1973, turning it over to RTE as the nominal owner. The broadcaster had little interest in or need for the studios, and two years later in 1975, Ardmore was passed on to a new state company, National Film Studios of Ireland. For the rest of the 1970s, while the state pondered its options for supporting an Irish film industry, the studio struggled to stay afloat. Despite hosting a few high profile productions like The Last Remake of Beau Geste (USA 1977) and Purple Taxi (France/Ireland/Italy 1977), losses continued to mount, with still no tax measures in place to incentivise production. Ardmore entered receivership yet again in 1982, despite the establishment of the Irish Film Board the previous year.
In yet another odd development, the studios were eventually sold by the receiver in 1984 to Mahmud Sipra, a London-based shipping tycoon who wanted to get into the film business. It was a short-lived arrangement. When Sipra fell foul of the London Stock Exchange, Ardmore was plunged once again into the hands of the accountants, this time in liquidation.
Ardmore’s fortunes seemed to take an upward swing in 1986 when it was bought by Mary Tyler Moore’s MTM Enterprises, producers of high-profile television dramas like Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, and Lou Grant. Irish producer Morgan O’Sullivan, who would run the studios, had a small stake, while the state retained one third of the ownership (presumably with the hope of recouping some of its investments). Ardmore thus became increasingly aligned with television production, perhaps to its advantage, as levels of feature film production had proved unreliable over the studios’ first thirty years of existence. Indeed, as the 1980s recession dug deeper, the Film Board found itself a victim, its activities suspended in 1987.
But at Ardmore, as MTM went into decline, the promised levels of US television production failed to materialise. MTM was bought by the UK company Television South, who promptly sold off the Ardmore shareholding to Dublin’s Windmill Lane Pictures, which had been awarded the license to operate TV3, Ireland’s first wholly-commercial television service. However TV3 was plagued by years of delay, and in 1990 Ardmore was passed on to U2 manager Paul McGuinness (a member of the TV3 consortium) and noted showbiz accountant Ossie Kilkenny. Trading as Ardmore International, the partners sold off some of the studio backlot for housing and subsequently presided over Ardmore’s most stable ownership to date, remaining in possession of the studios for almost three decades, during which Ardmore at last appeared to become financially viable. Again, luck invariably played a part. The policy environment changed yet again, with the Irish Film Board reconstituted virtually overnight in 1993, followed by modifications to the tax incentive, Section 35 (now Section 481), making Ireland more competitive with other jurisdictions. On top of all this, favourable currency exchange rates with the dollar, not to mention a shortage of studio space in the UK, made Ireland increasingly attractive to subsidy-seeking US producers. Even when some of these advantages began to evaporate in the 2000s, the studio continued to thrive with increased levels of international television production for the US market, something of a specialty of its former MD Morgan O’Sullivan (The Tudors, Vikings) who had retained offices at the studio complex.
McGuinness and Kilkenny placed the studios on the market at the height of this TV production boom, with the Showtime series Penny Dreadful in situ on the soundstages. Eventually, Olcott Entertainment, led by financier Joe Devine, made their circa-€6 million acquisition in 2018, before bringing us full circle with the recent sale to Hackman.
What is clear from this lengthy series of ownership changes, receiverships, liquidations and reacquisitions is the cyclical nature of film, television, and screen production in Ireland, in response to constant change in domestic and international media policy, technology, labour relations, regulation, economic conditions, market preferences and other factors. It remains to be seen how Ardmore’s latest owners will respond to current and future developments, and the resultant opportunity created. For it is clear that the fortunes of Ardmore and its Troy sibling (and by extension its rival studios at Ashford and elsewhere) are hugely dependent on developments in the international screen industries and the markets they service.
Ardmore’s new owners have already called for modifications to Section 481, suggesting that investment in Irish screen facilities is more dependent on the financial incentives available than on the quality of the screen facilities themselves, not to mention the availability and skills of Irish film crews.
And of course, the scenery.