Could Irish-language films and songs compete on global market?

How about establishing a €2 million competition to produce Irish-language films that the world wants to see?

Riverdance (in which Michael Flatley danced) and its spin-offs are the ultimate examples of Irish-influenced entertainment produced in a universal and engaging format

Riverdance (in which Michael Flatley danced) and its spin-offs are the ultimate examples of Irish-influenced entertainment produced in a universal and engaging format

Mon, Mar 17, 2014, 01:00

Could Irish language movies and songs ever compete in the global entertainment market? Some 70 per cent of Hollywood’s box office revenue now comes from dubbed and subtitled versions of its movies sold in international markets, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. In pop music, Psy’s Gangnam Style represents the first wave of non-English international mega-hits that will sweep in as the commercial pop culture of countries such as Korea, India, China, Russia and Brazil continues to develop.

Currently, most Irish language films and pop songs are not making a major domestic, let alone international impact So how about establishing a €2 million annual competition to select and film the best Irish language movie script, and to record the best Irish language pop song?

Imagine the film got €1.8 million, with the remaining €200,000 spent on recording and making a video for the song, and on the administration of the competition. The competition could be open to international screenwriters and song-writers, with the proviso that all production money be spent in Ireland – meaning an annual investment of at least €1.8 million into the Irish media industry.

The US and the Bric countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have shown a desire for Irish-influenced entertainment when produced and packaged in a universal and engaging format. Riverdance and its spin-offs are the ultimate example. In terms of pop music, only Enya has really tapped this market, selling 75 million copies of her bilingual albums and earning a reputed $100 million (€72 million). In literature, the success of Colm Tóibín, Maeve Binchy, Joseph O’Connor, Patrick McCabe, Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle reveal that Irish stories are captivating international audiences.

The Irish Film Board (IFB) used to maintain that it was unrealistic to try competing in Irish against major Hollywood films, but in an increasingly globalised world, things are changing. Ned Dowd, a Hollywood producer responsible for films such as The Wonder Boys and Last of the Mohicans , points to the success of his film Apocalypto , directed by Mel Gibson, which despite being in Mayan earned $121 million dollars (admittedly on a budget of $40 million). Gibson’s earlier film The Passion of the Christ was in Aramaic and earned $611 million. “It’s all about story, universal themes,” Dowd has said. “The language is secondary.”

Working in a minority language can be an advantage, says Gerry Stembridge, director and writer of About Adam and Guiltrip . “It means that such a film could be considered in the Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film category.

“On the art-movie circuit and at film festivals all over the world, subtitling is taken for granted. In fact, the idea of the film being in a minority indigenous language would be an added attraction.”

Nothing can happen until talented songwriters and screenwriters emerge who can write in Irish, or at least are willing to collaborate closely with an Irish language writer: a competition is the cheapest and easiest way to attract them.

Keeping the language vibrant
This whole notion is speculative and aspirational, but if it were to succeed even partially it could prove a key element in keeping the language vibrant for the next generation. Young people are now accustomed to cartoons and soap operas in Irish, but films and pop music are almost exclusively in English. Demand for Irish songs exists, witnessed by the viral success of the Coláiste Lurgan cover versions that emerge each summer. These hits are transitory by their nature; what is needed is the equivalent of Cerys Matthews or Super Furry Animals, who have successful careers singing both in Welsh and English. Non-English, international pop hits are rare, but they exist: Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime , Richie Valens’s La Bamba , The Beatles’ Michelle .

It seems there’s also an appetite from abroad to help the language. Seven years after broadcasting the No Béarla TV programme, in which I travelled around the country speaking only Irish, I am still regularly approached by Irish-American cultural groups and impassioned individuals, keen to know how they can help the language.

Another funding alternative would be to take it from Foras na Gaeilge’s €15.3 million annual budget. It could provide, in time, a clear example of a tangible benefit for the health of the language, something TG4 can now claim. Currently, Foras na Gaeilge funds 19 groups that have similar functions. It spends 60 per cent of its funding on salaries. In July, 13 of the 19 groups will lose their core funding, after which Foras might be the ideal group to administer such a competition and establish an important legacy.

Probably the biggest hurdle will be finding and developing quality scripts, and perhaps a significant chunk of the competition fund should be spent on developing these skills rather than on film production.

James Hickey, chief executive of the Irish Film Board, says: “The idea is very realistic – if you can get the funding to do it. It’s surprising to us that there haven’t been more applications for Irish language feature film projects to BAI’s [Broadcasting Association of Ireland] Sound and Vision Fund. BAI have a minimum commitment to give 25 per cent of all their funding to Irish language projects.”

Hickey argues that such a project could be supported by a combination of the IFB, the BAI and RTÉ or TG4, with a few projects being funded each year. Ed Guiney, producer of What Richard Did and The Guard , agrees. “It sounds like a great idea if they [Foras na Gaeilge] can be persuaded, but for that money, maybe they should get more than one film.”

What Denmark does
Hickey says the benefits of

targeted funding can be seen in the Danish media market. “In Denmark the public service broadcaster puts €1 million a year into feature-film production on top of the Danish Film Institute’s €60 million – and that’s a country the size of Ireland.”

Admittedly, the idea needs further development, but Minister of State for the Gaeltacht Dinny McGinley supports the notion, saying he would “strongly endorse your remarks about the far-reaching linguistic and economic potential attaching to innovative arts proposals for the promotion of the Irish language”.

And while Foras na Gaeilge says it does not currently have adequate funds to get into film production, it says “the idea has potential and we would be keen to discuss it further”.

At a time when Commdr Chris Hadfield tweeted as Gaeilge from the International Space Station, and the Rosetta spaceship tweeted “Dia dhaoibh uilig ar domhan!” from 500 million miles away, it’s time to think big. There is nothing stopping us putting a system in place that could lead to an Irish language film being added to the likes of La Dolc e Vita and Raise the Red Lantern , or that an Irish song could be on a par with non-English contemporary classics, such as Sigur Ros’s Svefn- g- englar .

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