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


While we’re celebrating Irish culture this weekend, it might be worth pondering the extent to which it actually exists. There are of course rich, vibrant and distinctive Irish artistic activities. But a culture, arguably, is less about the creation of art than it is about its reception. It’s about the existence of an audience. It’s a space in which the things that artists do are understood, reacted to, spoken about, criticised. Does Ireland have a cultural sphere, a public discourse, that operates on its own terms? As with everything Irish, the answer is yes and no.

It’s obvious enough in some areas that, alongside the highly globalised cultural market in which we consume the latest products of Hollywood and HBO, there is a local market. The books we buy, the TV we watch, the plays we attend, the music we listen to, the visual art we appreciate: all have a significant indigenous flavour.

But there are also areas in which an Irish culture in this sense barely exists. If, for example, you were to look at Ireland through the lens of the movies we actually attend you’d struggle to convince yourself that it is a separate place at all.

Take a look at box-office returns for cinemas in 2013. In Denmark the top-selling movie was The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug . But a close second was Kvinden i buret ( The Keeper of Lost Causes ), a thriller in Danish written, directed, shot and acted by Danes and financed by Danish money. Going through the cast and crew, I couldn’t find a single name that does not seem Danish until I came to the Hamburg Studio Strings, who played the (Danish-composed) score.

And this is no one-hit wonder. Next on the box-office list is Jagten ( The Hunt ), the Thomas Vinterberg drama that went on to get an Oscar nomination. Also in the top 10 are Alle f or En 2 , Min Søsters Børn i Afrika , and Spies & Glistrup . Half of the top 10 movies that Danes went to see in cinemas last year were made in Danish by Danish directors and technicians, starring Danish actors.

This is, admittedly, exceptional: the Danes have done a superb job of creating an indigenous TV and film industry. But in most of the smaller countries in Europe it is normal for at least some local films to trouble the box office. In 2013 in the Czech Republic, three of the top eight films were local; in Sweden two of the top five; in Croatia two of the top five; in Belgium three of the top seven; in Hungary one of the top three; in Norway two of the top seven; and in the Netherlands two of the top seven.

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.

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