Culture Shock: The Irish film industry needs belief, strategy, and . . . action

Just as with the rest of the economy, there has never been a coherent long-term Government strategy for developing an indigenous industry

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 01:00

It’s not that big Hollywood blockbusters don’t suck in audiences in these countries. But local stories in local languages can compete head-on for those audiences and for their cash: the top five Danish films last year took €25 million at the box office.

Now compare Ireland. Actually, you can’t. Irish cinema box-office returns are aggregated in international databases into a bizarre entity called “United Kingdom and Ireland and Malta”. That says something in itself. But we do know from Carlton Screen Advertising, recently rebranded as Wide Eye Media, that none of the top 10 films at the box office in 2013 was Irish. A small number of Irish films – The Hardy Bucks Movie , Pilgrim Hill , Life’s a Breeze and Good Vibrations – made some impact. Others – Citadel , Grabbers , Byzantium – are, in commercial terms, practically invisible. This year may turn out better: The Stag was at number five last weekend, and Mrs Brown’s Boys: D’Movie and Calvary will probably do well, but the overall picture is bleak. Some Irish films are seen by fewer people than a play that has a decent run at the Abbey.

The expectation that took off in the 1980s, when Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan were making such a huge impact, was that a distinctive Irish cinema audience was sure to emerge. It hasn’t happened. The €100 million spent here on cinema tickets every year goes overwhelmingly to the big Hollywood studios. In this arena at least, Irish culture is like the Irish economy, an element of the global marketplace.

Why is this? It’s not for lack of talent. Look at the biggest blockbuster TV drama at the moment, Game of Thrones , and you see Irish talent everywhere, on and off screen. Irish actors know how to become box-office stars. And it’s not because of a lack of interest among potential audiences: the huge response to a programme such as Love/Hate shows the appetite for local variations on international genres.

The essential problem is, as it usually is in Ireland, institutional. Just as with the rest of the economy, there has never been a coherent long-term Government strategy for developing an indigenous industry. The main concern has always been with positioning Ireland as a location for foreign direct investment, in cinema as much as in medical devices or pharmaceuticals. It is not accidental that a country such as Denmark, which has both its own language and its own economy, has the confidence to also develop its own TV and cinema culture.

For all the pride we have in Irish culture, neither linguistic distinctiveness nor economic independence underpins it. When that’s the case, a culture will always struggle to exist for its own sake.


fotoole@irishtimes.com

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