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Ardmore changes hands yet again

Main gate at Ardmore Studios, Bray, Co. Wicklow (source: rte.ie)

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, who developed Troy at Limerick’s former Dell factory in 2017 and acquired Ardmore the following year, have made a substantial return on their 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.

Louis Elliman (source: louiselliman.com)

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. 

Mahmud Sipra (source: dawn.com)

In yet another odd development, the studios were eventually sold by the receiver in 1984 to a London-based shipping tycoon, Mahmud Sipra, who wanted to get into the film business. It was a short-lived arrangement, ending after a year when Sipra fell foul of the London Stock Exchange, plunging Ardmore 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.

MTM Enterprises Logo (source: deviantart.com)

But at Ardmore, the promised levels of US television production failed to materialise, as MTM went into decline. MTM was bought by the UK company Television South, who promptly sold off their Ardmore shareholding to Dublin’s Windmill Lane Pictures, who had been awarded the license to operate Ireland’s first wholly-commercial television channel, TV3. 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 presided over Ardmore’s most stable ownership to date, remaining in possession of the studios for almost three decades, during which time Ardmore at last appeared to become financially viable. Again, luck invariably played a part during this period. 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.

Paul McGuinness (source: irishtimes.com)

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 at the studios. 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 areas. 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.

Ardmore Studios Logo (source: ardmore.ie)

Featured

Screening Dublin Port

Source: dublinport.ie

When we think of public funding and the Irish film, television and related cultural industries, we tend to focus on the major sources: the Section 481 tax credit; Screen Ireland production loans; and Arts Council funding. To a lesser extent, perhaps, we’re aware of regional supports like the WRAP fund. Smaller initiatives, like the various short film schemes operated by local authorities in Offaly, Donegal and elsewhere, attract even less attention. And perhaps least visible of all are arts and cultural support initiatives originated, often for community outreach purposes, by public companies. One such body is the Dublin Port Company (DPC), the state-owned commercial organisation whose remit is the development and operation of cargo and passenger facilities at Dublin Port, the site of half of all trade between Ireland and the rest of the world.

A full page ad on the back page of the current edition of The Phoenix serves as a reminder of DPC’s considerable array of arts initiatives, loosely grouped under its headline Port Perspectives programme, which acts as a sort of cultural brand for the Port operator. Through Port Perspectives and related programmes like Starboard Home, Port Shorts, and the Pumphouse Bursary, DPC offers development and production funding to creative artists operating across the cultural industries, including film, audiovisual, theatre, music, dance, and the fine arts. They thus provide an alternative, if limited, source of funding that complements the more expansive schemes operated by the major state cultural bodies.

Perhaps an obvious question to ask is: What’s in it for Dublin Port? 

Speaking to a group of invited artists at the launch of Port Perspectives in 2017, DPC’s chief executive Eamonn O’Reilly explained the company’s ambitions:

Our call to artists to work with us is not patronage as such. We are actually looking to the arts to deliver a message that we’re not able to deliver ourselves, given what we are – we are engineers, we’re accountants. I’d be very hopeful and optimistic that you will find things today, facets of the port, and that you will feel open to respond to those in whatever way you think is going to get the message across.

Link to source

O’Reilly’s statement is notable for its implicit understanding of the value of art and culture as communicative media, harnessed in service of the Port’s determination to reintegrate the port with the city. This is a major goal of the Dublin Port Masterplan, a strategy launched in 2012 to map the Port’s development through the year 2040. The plan is of course primarily dedicated to DPC’s (sometimes controversial) ambitions to expand the port physically, and the recent scramble to build additional customs facilities in the wake of Brexit is a reminder of how the DPC needs to be constantly flexible in providing the infrastructure necessary for the port’s vital role in Irish trade. In light of O’Reilly’s statement above, it is interesting to note the Masterplan’s inclusion of a number of intriguing civic and cultural initiatives, not limited to the individual funding schemes mentioned above. Aware of the Port’s status as ‘a central part of the structure, culture and heritage of Dublin and its people’, DPC hopes to repurpose the disused Odlum’s Flour Mill, whose landmark silos tower over the Alexandra Road basin close to the East Link Bridge. The Flour Mill is envisioned as a civic and cultural centre, to ‘help tell the story of Dublin’s river and port’. Proposals describe a museum and archive, a visitors centre, and cultural facilities to include performance spaces and artist studios. Crucially, the plan aims to physically link the Port more directly to the city through a series of cycle routes and greenways in the North Docklands and East Wall areas, including the Port Highline, an elevated walk/cycleway linking the Flour Mill with nearby roads, an ambitious engineering feat seemingly inspired by New York’s similarly named High Line park.

Odlum’s Flour Mills, Dublin Port. Source: buildingsofireland.ie

While these proposals are exciting, there are of course many hurdles to cross, not least those posed by the planning process. The Odlum’s Flour Mill does not appear to be a protected structure, although it is undoubtedly an important part of the port’s – and the city’s – architectural heritage. To date, DPC has completed a number of successful cultural transformations of its infrastructural elements, including the unique Diving Bell museum and the resurrection of Crane 292, beside their head offices close to the Point Depot music and performance venue in the North Wall area. Besides these physical interventions, the output from Port Perspectives, Port Shorts and DPC’s various other funding schemes is coalescing into a distinctive body of work that links thematically to the rich history of the port and docklands. In parallel to all these activities, the Dublin Port YouTube channel showcases an eclectic mix of screen output, including documentaries about port operations; explorations of the rich archival and heritage materials in the company’s care; and a series of short films celebrating the people who work in and around the port. Collectively, the items in this audiovisual collection represent an appreciation of heritage and history – and especially labour history – that is all too rare in contemporary corporate culture.

There is, of course, a public relations element to DPC’s cultural ambitions, as well as its plans for the physical space occupied by Dublin Port. Some critics have called for the relocation of the port away from the city entirely, and these calls have no doubt energised some of DPC’s policies. To this observer, however, there is an air of authenticity to the cultural and civic ambition emanating from the Dublin Port Company. It matches the authenticity of the port itself, a noisy and vibrant element of the Dublin city fabric. If Dublin is to continue to inspire filmmakers, artists, musicians and cultural producers of all types, the port’s atmosphere, history and sense of place is something the city cannot afford to lose.

‘New Hollywood’ in Dublin: Notes on the Production of Quackser Fortune

Margot Kidder and Gene Wilder on location at Island Villas, Dublin (source: IMDB.com)

Recently, I was forwarded a YouTube link to a 1970 comedy that is something of an oddity among Hollywood depictions of Ireland and the Irish. Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in The Bronx stars Gene Wilder in the title role, as an oddball Dubliner whose unusual occupation – the collection of horse manure for sale as fertiliser – triggers an unlikely romance with a glamorous American student, played by a 20-year-old Margot Kidder in her first leading role.

The central love story is, of course, as doomed as Quackser’s anachronistic career. The city’s horse-drawn milk carts are about to be replaced by a fleet of electric vehicles, rendering Quackser’s dung cart obsolete. Determined to follow his own path, Quackser refuses to work at the local foundry, the only alternative employment available. The spectre of emigration is raised, until a final-act deus ex machina wraps up the story a little too neatly. Quackser’s ending inverts a standard trope of early American Irish films, like Sidney Olcott’s The Lad from Old Ireland (1910), whose plot was resolved by the emigrant’s triumphant return. Quackser’s unseen emigrant character delivers resolution more pragmatically, reaching out with a fortuitously timed intervention that nevertheless acknowledges the crucial importance of emigration to the Irish experience.

Quackser commenced its eight-week shoot on August 25th, 1969, filming mainly in the south inner city, Trinity College, and Ardmore Studios. While the $1.2 million budget was modest by contemporary Hollywood standards, what is perhaps most remarkable about the film is that it was made at all. Quackser’s whimsical storyline is indeed the stuff of Hollywood, but its gritty urban visuals are at odds with the ‘touristic’ image of Ireland more commonly associated with earlier works like The Quiet Man (d. John Ford, 1952) or Darby O’Gill and the Little People (d. Robert Stevenson, 1959). Changes in the political economy of US cinema in the 1960s, however, were having a discernible effect on screen content. With the major Hollywood studios in severe decline due to suburbanisation, the forced divesture of studio-owned cinema chains, a losing battle against television, and many other factors, ‘runaway’ overseas production increased as producers chased savings through reduced labour costs and favourable exchange rates. At the same time, an up-and-coming cadre of young directors inspired by European art cinema were spawning a ‘New Hollywood’ renaissance. Quackser Fortune, written by Gabriel Walsh, a young Dubliner who had himself taken the emigrant boat, was not untypical of the new stories emerging from this creative foment. Desperate to reverse their decline, the studios invested in new voices, unearthing a wave of talent in filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, Warren Beatty, Martin Scorsese and many more.

Gabriel Walsh, screenwriter (source: Poolbeg Press)

Against this background, a number of US studio films arrived in Ireland in the late 1960s. Not all of them, however, were of the New Hollywood sensibility. Even while Wilder and Kidder conducted their unlikely cinematic romance on the grimy but sun-dappled Dublin streets, David Lean was wrestling with the elements 300 kilometres to the southwest in Dingle, as MGM’s troubled Ryan’s Daughter, moved its $13 million production into full gear. A year earlier, the same company had spent a reported $6 million filming Alfred the Great in Galway. 

All of these productions, regardless of budget or creative ambition, drew production expertise and crews from Britain, as Ireland had yet to develop any meaningful native capacity for feature film production. Quackser Fortune was no exception. According to Gene Wilder’s 2005 memoir, ‘Kiss Me Like a Stranger, the project was initiated when he received a copy of Walsh’s quirky script. Fresh off an Oscar win for his breakthrough role in The Producers (d. Mel Brooks, 1967), Wilder had enough clout to get the film off the ground, bringing it to Sidney Glazier, a producer on the Brooks film. Glazier shared Wilder’s enthusiasm, as well as the actor’s alleged desire to find an Irish director and make the film in Dublin. No doubt aware that suitably experienced Irish directors would be thin on the ground, the pair travelled to London to perform the search. They checked in to Mayfair’s Connaught Hotel, where Wilder claims they interviewed “many directors, especially Irish ones”, none of whom turned out to have the “vision” they required. Intriguingly, a side trip to Paris to try to recruit Jean Renoir allegedly resulted in a conditional ‘yes’ from the celebrated French director. Renoir saw echoes of Charlie Chaplin in the Quackser character, according to Wilder. A commitment to another project meant Renoir was not immediately available, however, and the offer was reluctantly withdrawn. Eventually Waris Hussein, an up-and-coming young Indian who had made his name at the BBC directing, among other things, the first two series of Doctor Who, was signed up. Hussein’s limited feature experience would be counter-balanced by the vastly experienced British cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, whose previous credits included Doctor Strangelove (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1964) and A Hard Day’s Night (d. Richard Lester, 1964).

Wilder on location at Kavanagh’s pub aka The Gravediggers, Dublin 9 (source: Pinterest.com)

Glazier financed the picture in a deal with UMC Pictures, an ‘indie’ subsidiary of a Florida-based conglomerate with stakes in shipbuilding, chemicals, and moneylending as well as its newspaper and media interests. Again, this was not an unusual arrangement during a decade that saw the declining US studios taken over by corporations with diversified interests. Warner Brothers, for instance, was owned by a company that counted car parks and funeral homes among its myriad historic activities. Glazier’s relationship with UMC had completed the financing of The Producers, and the same studio’s involvement strengthened Quackser’s growing connection to the flourishing wave of energetic New Hollywood pictures of the late 1960s and 1970s described in Peter Biskind’s impeccably researched account of the period, ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls‘ (1998).

If Gabriel Walsh’s kitchen-sink verité was supposed to resonate with US audiences, however, it was not successful. The film failed to capitalise on Wilder’s rising star, flopping at the US box office after unenthusiastic reviews. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby was especially unkind in his assessment of the film’s inner city Dublin charms:

I kept thinking that people like Joyce, O’Casey, Wilde, Shaw, and a local bartender I know named Eddie had done well to get out of this self-perpetuating Irish mileu (sic), whose reputed charm always eluded me.[1]

Wilder’s career was stalled by Quackser’s failure to find an immediate audience at the box office. A similar fate awaited two other films made either side of his Dublin sojourn, Start the Revolution Without Me (d. Bud Yorkin, 1970) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (d. Mel Stuart, 1970). Like Quackser itself, however, both of those films eventually found a cult audience, largely through television, following Wilder’s return to commercial and critical success in later films – especially his subsequent work with Brooks in Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles (both 1974).

Quackser’s disappointing US box office did not help its international distribution prospects, and it did not appear on Irish screens until June 1972. Irish critics were kinder than their American counterparts. Fergus Linehan of the Irish Times described the film as “a gentle, sunny and thoroughly enjoyable picture… which does Dublin and Dubliners proud”.[2]  The picture appeared to do good business on the limited release strategy that was typical of the era, and indeed was still occasionally playing two years later at Dublin cinemas.

Gene Wilder as Quackser (source: http://jason-hedrick.blogspot.com)

Whatever their budgets, international ‘runaway’ productions like Quackser FortuneRyan’s Daughter, and Alfred the Great represented valuable windfall economic benefits for the Irish economy. One week after Quackser’s New York premiere, the Fianna Fail government’s Film Industry Bill (1970) had a first reading in Dail Eireann. Unfortunately by the time the film reached Ireland, the Bill (and the Irish Film Board it envisaged) had been scrapped, a victim of a cabinet reshuffle after the 1970 Arms Crisis – an unfortunate series of events that has been well documented by Irish film scholars like Kevin Rockett and Roddy Flynn.   

Viewed today, Quackser Fortune is a Dublin time capsule, preserving on screen the city’s mid-20th century decay as much as the witticisms of its inhabitants. A number of stereotypes invariably appear: Quackser enjoys his pint of plain, although the use of Glasnevin’s beloved Gravediggers as the local pub is an egregious deviation from the film’s otherwise impeccable city centre geography. Location manager Jim Brennan found in the environs of Pearse Street and Westland Row a remarkable range of adjacent locations. Although much of the depicted neighbourhoods have since been redeveloped, many locations, including the Island Villas streetscape that Quackser called home, have survived. It’s hard to imagine, however, that a Quackser Fortune tour would find many takers despite the growing interest in film tourism in Ireland and further afield.

Despite Wilder’s hiccup, Quackser Fortune’s commercial failure did little to interrupt the careers of its makers. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor went on to shoot Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (d. George Lucas, 1977). Given Taylor’s skilful cinematographic depiction of a disappearing Dublin, his connection to the sci-fi fantasy franchise is thus tinged with irony. Many industry observers consider Star Wars – a merchandise-friendly box-office behemoth – to have accelerated Hollywood’s eventual realignment around blockbuster ‘event’ films (like the Superman series, which propelled Margot Kidder to fame a decade after her Dublin experience). Regrettably, this more recent industry disruption eventually sidelined the mid-budget studio picture, sounding the death knell for quirky character dramas like Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in The Bronx.


[1] Screen: ‘Quackser Fortune’ Arrives. Vincent Canby, New York Times, 14 Jul 1970

[2] Fergus Linehan, ‘In Dublin’s Fair City’, Irish Times, 12 June 1972, p10

The 2020 ‘Shooting Crew’ Agreement: 10 Years in the Making

After a lengthy negotiation process, the trade union SIPTU and the producers lobby group Screen Producers Ireland announced this week that a new ‘Shooting Crew’ agreement has been accepted by producers and film workers. The new pact, covering pay rates and work practices in film and TV drama production, follows three years of on-off talks to update the previous document from 2010.

The new agreement crystallises minimum pay rates for SIPTU members in some 93 grades, doubling the scope of the 2010 version and reflecting the influence of the numerous newly established Guilds who contributed to its evolution (more on this below). Rates have understandably been increased since the 2010 documents. At first glance, the difference appears to exceed the rate of increase in the Consumer Price Index since 2010, which is good news for film workers. Those working primarily on very low-budget productions, however, may not enjoy the same boost, as the agreement introduces a new micro budget category (under €750k for films, €250k per hour for TV series). Minimum rates in this category will be negotiable, above a specified minimum of €615 for the standard 50-hour industry working week. Presumably, these figures are based on standard practices emerging over the past decade.

At the other end of the scale, a new ‘Super’ category will cover films spending €20m+ or €8m per TV hour. Workers on these productions will enjoy at least a 3 percent premium on the rates applicable to ‘Large’ productions (€4m-€20m/€1.5m per TV hour). Although such ‘super’ sized productions are extremely rare, Ireland’s Section 481 tax credit scheme continues to evolve in order to target activity of this nature, and the ‘super’ rates reflect this ambition.

It is unlikely that even Foundation, reported to be the most expensive production ever undertaken in Ireland, would fall into this category. The 10-part series, filming at Limerick’s Troy Studios this year, attracted a tax credit of somewhere between €10 million and €30 million according to figures recently published by the Revenue Commissioners, indicating an Irish spend of somewhere between €3m – €9m per episode (precise tax credit figures are not published, supposedly for competitive reasons). Unless its Irish spend is at the extreme end of this scale, Foundation is most likely in the ‘Large’ category. Other TV drama productions of similar scale (in terms of their published tax credits) in recent years include Nightflyers (Syfy/Netflix, 2018), Into The Badlands (AMC, 2017-2020), Vikings (History, 2013-2020), Penny Dreadful (Showtime/Sky 2014-2016), and Fate: The Winx Saga (Netflix, 2021).

Foundation (2021) Source: Apple.com

Further analysis of pay rates, changes to the standard working week, and other aspects of the new agreement will follow in due course, pending official distribution of the finalised Agreement. 

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the 2020 agreement is the long-overdue creation of an industry pension scheme, modelled on arrangements in the construction industry (which has a similar employment structure heavily dependent on ‘freelance’ workers). While full details have yet to be announced, it appears that the scheme will in fact be administered by CPAS, the Construction Industry Federation’s pension subsidiary (some film construction workers, of course, are already members of that scheme). The proposed arrangement demonstrates the validity of SIPTU’s longstanding insistence that such a system was both necessary and possible. SIPTU’s press release, however, omits any mention of pension arrangements – indicating, perhaps, that there are still some important details to be ironed out.

As reported here recently, progress towards the new agreement has been greatly boosted by a renewed interest in labour organisation throughout the industry, where trade union membership had declined precipitously since the 1990s. SIPTU’s authority was bolstered by a boost in membership following the establishment of a number of industry Guilds under the umbrella organisation Screen Guilds of Ireland, and a subsequent arrangement with SIPTU. The union’s renewed strength, aligned with the vibrancy of the Guilds, appears to be producing a notable improvement in industrial relations in the industry, reversing a situation that some considered detrimental to its long term viability.

The new labour agreement, which comes into effect on January 1st 2021, is testament to that improvement.

That’s a WRAP!

Source: hanwayfilms.com

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.

Source: wrapfund.ie

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.

Source: vulture.com

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.

IFWA, the WRC, and the rise of the film guilds

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) recently completed its audit of Ireland’s independent film and TV production sector, quietly releasing its report on the last day of August. The audit follows a period of considerable unease in the industry dating back to 2011, when a group called the Irish Film Workers Association (IFWA) commenced a sporadic but sustained campaign of agitation on film and TV drama sets around the Dublin region, including a number of lightning strikes, unofficial pickets and demonstrations.

These activities partly motivated a 2018 investigation into industry working conditions by the Dáil Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. IFWA’s appearance before the committee, and their allegations of worker mistreatment, unsafe practices and other grievances, received considerable coverage in the mainstream media. The Committee subsequently invited and received a large number of submissions, many of them hostile to IFWA and its members, from industry stakeholders and other interested parties. A notable feature of these submissions was that several had come from newly created industry guilds representing set decorators, production accountants, location managers, and art directors, in a campaign coordinated by Screen Guilds of Ireland, (SGI), itself newly created by a group of film workers headed by set decorator and art department coordinator Elizabeth Brennan.

In summer 2018 the Committee’s report, Development and Working Conditions in the Irish Film Industry, called on the Film Board (now Screen Ireland), film unions, and other representative organisations “to work towards a mutually beneficial and respectful understanding”, in a clear plea to the industry to sort out the issues that had prompted the hearings in the first place. Progress was slow, with trade union officials reluctant to engage with IFWA and its leadership. Meanwhile, IFWA continued its campaign of unofficial protests, and the organisation eventually became the subject of an RTE Prime Time segment, about which I have previously written. The high-profile nature of this RTE report afforded a rare behind-the-scenes look at the film and TV sector, whose political machinations – apart from the odd article in The Phoenix – are generally ignored by the main media in favour of a more celebrity/entertainment-focused approach.

Such attention, and the potentially negative consequences for Ireland’s reputation as a friendly filmmaking location for overseas producers, made the WRC’s intervention all the more urgent. Many in the industry will have been relieved that the Commission’s 16-page report received generally positive reception the major stakeholders, including the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Screen Ireland, Screen Producers Ireland, and even IFWA itself.

Setting the terms of reference for its audit, the WRC had aimed to:

  • examine industrial relations generally, employment practices and procedure;
  • assess issues arising (if any), and
  • make recommendations for their improvement where appropriate.

The main conclusions were:

  1. The industry’s international reputation depends on good industrial relations, necessitating new employer-worker agreements on pay, working hours, conditions and practices, as well as formal dispute resolution procedures;
  2. Industry skills and training, as recommended in a recent Crowe Horwath report, must continue to be improved, with Screen Skills Ireland (SSI) playing a major role;
  3. The guilds structure, which has been positive for industry relations, should be supported and expanded; and
  4. Better HR management and hiring practices are needed, in the interests of hiring ‘the most suitable person for the job taking into account skills and experience.’

Variations of most of these recommendations have been seen in previous reports commissioned from various quarters of the Irish screen industries over the years. Arguably, therefore, the most striking feature of the WRC audit is the degree to which it legitimises the recent trend in the industry towards film worker organisation, not through the traditional medium of trade unions, but through the ‘guilds structure’ that continues to evolve, with 24 new guilds currently listed under the SGI umbrella. Indeed SGI received a €40,000 grant from Screen Ireland in 2018, the first ‘below-the-line’ organisation to achieve this kind of support, which has become the norm for ‘above-the-line’ organisations like the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland, the Writers Guild of Ireland, Screen Producers Ireland, and Animation Ireland.

That support, along with the embrace of the traditional trade union movement, represents a considerable achievement for guild members. It also represents a remarkable return to formal film worker organisation in the Irish screen industries, as guild members have been encouraged to join the trade unions representing their craft or profession, reversing a decades-long decline in union membership and invigorating efforts to negotiate new union-employer agreements on pay and conditions. 

One obvious conclusion from these developments is that the Irish Film Workers Association, despite its general pariah status within Ireland’s screen industries, has catalysed a number of positive changes for people working in the sector. Hopefully this will be borne out in the new trade union agreements, when and if they ever emerge. 

The South Westerlies (RTE)

Main cast of The South Westerlies (RTE, 2020): Eileen Walsh, Orla Brady, Ger Ryan, Patrick Bergin (Photo: RTE)

RTE’s latest drama series, The South Westerlies, premiered on 6 September in the flagship Sunday 9:30pm slot after the main evening news. According to a 2019 Variety report, the series, produced by Dublin-based Deadpan Pictures for RTE and the US streaming channel Acorn TV, has further co-production and distribution involvement from ZDF Enterprises (Germany) and TV2 (Norway). This impressive line-up of international players suggests the project, initially conceived by writer Catherine Maher, will justify the early investment from Screen Ireland and RTE, who co-funded its development under a joint scheme announced in 2017 to support ‘scripted comedy projects with export potential’.

The new series boasts an excellent cast, including Orla Brady, Eileen Walsh and Patrick Bergin – all proven actors with considerable international profiles. Its roots in the TV comedy genre, however, sit awkwardly with its ‘six-part drama’ marketing by RTE. So does its scheduling in the Sunday time slot in which viewers have become accustomed over the years to seeing considerably edgier fare like Love/Hate (2010-14), The Fall (2013-16), Taken Down (2018), and many more.

This blurring of boundaries between comedy and drama contributes to a number of problems evident in The South Westerlies initial episode. The story centres on local West Cork opposition to an offshore wind farm being developed by a shadowy Norwegian energy company, and some press releases for The South Westerlies have played up this plot element to position the series as an ecologically aware drama in tune with serious contemporary issues like global warming and renewable energy concerns. That would seem at odds with a storyline positioning the energy company as a manipulative behemoth, a stance that might make more sense played for laughs in any number of comedy formats. The same can be said for related elements like the impromptu barroom brawling; Bergin’s larger-than-life publican/politician persona; and the sheer implausibility of the central ruse, placing Orla Brady’s ‘blow in’ holidaying Dubliner as an undercover agent of Big Wind. These shenanigans jar with the serious Sunday Night Drama ‘brand’ that RTE has worked hard to create over the past decade and more.

While it is perhaps a little early to pass judgement on the series, it must be noted that initial public reaction has not been great. One tweet-based headline, suggesting that the show ‘makes Fair City look like The Godfather, seems unaware of several connections to RTE’s long-running soap. Two of The South Westerlies‘ writing team – Michelle Duffy and Hilary Reynolds – have been members of the Fair City writers room, and Simon Gibney, who directed three of the six episodes, also lists the show on his CV. It is hardly an accident that the fictional West Cork village where much of the action takes place is called Carrigeen, surely a knowing nod to Carrigstown, Fair City’s fictional northside Dublin setting.

None of which is to suggest that a connection to RTE’s soap serial is necessarily a negative one. On the air since 1989, it is the most-watched drama in Ireland. A show like Fair City hoovers up a lot of talent, and arguably one of its prime industrial functions is to nurture and develop future drama makers, in front of and behind the camera. This function applies not just to Fair City, but its genre competitors as well. TV3/Virgin Media’s now-defunct Red Rock, for example, was important in the career of Hugh Travers, one of The South Westerlies‘ four contributing screenwriters. So despite the tone of the headline referenced above, shows like Fair City are important launchpads for successful screen careers. As clearly emerged in the recent Ecologies of Cultural Production survey, important too are the networks developed during the course of a creative career, especially early on. To that end, it’s interesting to note that many of the cast and crew of The South Westerlies share connections with previous Deadpan film and television projects such as Hardy Bucks (2010-), Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope (2016-2018), Halal Daddy (2017), and Women on the Verge (2018).

Career development, of course, is always enhanced by connections to successful projects, as evident from the buzz around Paul Mescal, Daisy Edgar Jones, and almost everyone else involved with Normal People, the indisputable Irish TV drama hit of 2020. Ironically, in light of the current discussion, that show was produced in the half-hour format more typical of TV comedy.

Hopefully The South Westerlies will evolve and transcend the problems of its pilot episode, some of which may be rooted in a developmental transition from comedy to more conventional drama. For the moment, however, RTE’s latest flagship drama appears to have an identity crisis.


Steve Wall as Baz in The South Westerlies (RTE 2020) Photo: RTE

Reflections on Ryan’s Daughter

Ryan's Daughter cinema poster
UK quad poster. Source: whytes.ie

I’ve been reading Paul Benedict Rowan’s Making Ryan’s Daughter: The Myths, Madness and Mastery. It’s a meticulously researched account of the epic 1969 MGM shoot in Dingle and environs, where director David Lean wrestled for a year with cast, crew and local weather conditions before eventually departing to South Africa to finish shooting the beach scenes. 

The film was of course a famous dud, damaging several prominent careers. Lean himself  struggled to rehabilitate his reputation afterwards, and was never again afforded the kind of budget that washed around the Dingle peninsula during the shoot. His romantic lead, the up-and-coming James Dean wannabe Christopher Jones, vanished afterwards, not taking another role for some 26 years. Few emerged with credit from the expensive flop. The real winner was the Dingle economy, which hoovered up much of the enormous $13 million budget.

Seen from the viewpoint of today’s film industry in Ireland, where international productions such as Ryan’s Daughter are heavily subsidised by the Section 481 tax credit, it is striking that MGM set up shop here without any clear financial incentives at all. As one of the last big films of the Hollywood Studio era, locations were chosen purely for the cinematic possibilities on offer. Indeed, the book makes clear that Lean was deliberately following in the footsteps of Robert Flaherty, who had filmed Man of Aran (1934) in similarly harsh conditions off the Galway coast. So can Ryan’s Daughter be thought of as a ‘creative runaway’, an international production located in Ireland for purely aesthetic rather than financial reasons?

The answer would appear to be no. Lean’s extended sojourn in Ireland, like previous lengthy projects in Jordan (Lawrence of Arabia) and Spain (Doctor Zhivago) were considerably influenced by personal tax matters. Lean, his screenwriter Robert Bolt, and several of his inner circle of collaborators were keen to avoid the clutches of the UK taxman. They were effectively globe-trotting tax exiles, moving from one international project to the next, thwarting the Inland Revenue’s efforts to apply the considerable marginal tax rates (up to 80 per cent, according to Rowan) to their vast incomes. The tax saving was considerable: Lean was paid $1 million to direct Ryan’s Daughter, along with a huge living allowance of $1,000 a week. 

It is not clear from Rowan’s book whether Lean, Bolt, et al were liable for Irish tax on these earnings. The tone of the book certainly suggests otherwise: despite the on-set difficulties, Lean put aside his frustrations and returned to Kerry from Africa to edit the film in Killarney’s Great Southern Hotel. While this decision further added to the fortunes of the Kerry tourist infrastructure, it surely benefitted Lean’s personal finances as well.

There is little doubt that the prospect of windfall economic benefits from big productions like Ryan’s Daughter contributed to the eventual introduction of tax incentives for filmmaking in Ireland, announced by Taoiseach Jack Lynch during a visit to the Dingle set in 1969. These measures eventually evolved into Section 481, one of the world’s most generous tax credits. Half a century later, the scheme would influence the partial filming of Disney’s Star Wars franchise near Dingle.

In summary, Ryan’s Daughter demonstrates that, for international filmmakers, Ireland’s appeal is often based more on financial expediency than creative opportunity.