Element Pictures: ‘We’re very ambitious and glass half empty people’
Interview: Element Pictures founders are back from the Oscars ‘fishbowl’ with plans for expansion
Andrew Lowe and Ed Guiney of Element Pictures. Photograph: Tom Honan
Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe are back in Dublin after the long Hollywood awards season, or time in the “fishbowl” as Lowe puts it. “When you’re in it, it’s all-consuming,” he says. Once it’s done, “you can just get on with your life, really”.
The pressure starts to lift on the “ultimately fun”, “very sociable” Oscars night itself, when “you have either won or you haven’t”. There are bars outside each door and seat fillers waiting to take your place.
This was not the first such adventure for Guiney and Lowe, co-founders of Element Pictures, but it was their biggest. The Favourite, their hilarious horse in the race, was a multiple nominee across a host of industry shindigs, culminating in a rare 10 Academy Award nominations and an even rarer shock Best Actress win. “Literally, that was never going to happen,” says Guiney of Olivia Colman’s victory.
Up until it did, it had seemed the dreary phrase “went home empty-handed” was heading The Favourite’s way, though Guiney stresses that it is being nominated that counts.
“Before the nominations, we were on 530 screens. The week after, we were on 1,500. It has a massive commercial impact. Although on the night it’s often about the dresses and the stars and that stuff, the beating heart of a business is what’s underneath it all.”
The Favourite has now taken $85 million (€75 million) at the box office on a $15 million budget. It is “sometimes weird” to be thrown back to talking about a film shot two years ago, says Guiney, who had a cameo role at February’s Baftas, bounding on stage after winning Outstanding British Film.
The Ireland-UK-US co-production had a long history. An early draft of the script, written in 1998, struggled to find finance, then Guiney got hold of it a decade ago and matched it to the rather distinctive Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, with whom Element went on to make other films.
Element is now talking to Lanthimos about new projects – Guiney says they discussed one on Oscar night – and alongside long-term friend Lenny Abrahamson he has become a key talent partnership in a business that lives and dies by them.
“Certainly in LA, we would be seen as a company that has strong filmmaker relationships,” says Guiney. “We develop for them, we buy books for them, we introduce them to writers, we try to figure out what the next thing would be. Those relationships are very deep... You kind of grow up together.”
The Abrahamson-directed film Room also had a Best Picture nomination and Best Actress win in 2016, elevating Element’s power to attract name actors who can in turn help get projects financed. “Just to have the shorthand of saying ‘Oh, they’re the people who produced Room’ was a very big thing for us.”
Today, the profitable Element has a group turnover of about €5 million to €6 million, a production turnover of about €30 million to €40 million and an employee base of 30 across three offices.
Guiney (mainly development and production) and Lowe (the finance end) set it up in 2001, the two Dubliners first meeting as teenagers when a cousin of Lowe’s was at school with Guiney.
“Our paths didn’t really cross again until I started working in the industry and Ed was already an established producer at that point,” says Lowe. He was a chartered accountant working for Coopers & Lybrand (now part of PwC) when he sounded out Guiney’s thoughts on becoming a production accountant. “Then I just jumped in.”
In 1998, Lowe worked on Sweety Barrett, produced by Guiney, and they “started a conversation” about setting up what became Element, the logic being that by uniting they could achieve more. “Early on, we recognised that we had to diversify from the whole thing where you spend 12 to 18 months producing a film, come back, start again, produce another film – that stop-start approach,” Lowe says. “You couldn’t build a business on the basis of that.”
Instead, Element courted international companies they could work with both on projects they could “genuinely co-produce” and be creatively involved in and those where they supplied only production services. In 2007, it got into film distribution, then in 2012 – unusually for a production company – it turned to exhibition, making a success of Dublin’s Light House Cinema, to which it has more recently added Galway’s Pálás. The two venues employ about 60 people between them.
Could two cinemas become three? “We’re in a particular segment of the market so it’s not like we can just throw up a 10-screen in a shopping centre out of town,” Lowe says. But the answer is a qualified yes.
By wearing so many hats, Element is at the intersection of a battle between Hollywood and Netflix, with some believing the platform’s limited and tactical theatrical release strategy for Roma cost it the Best Picture Oscar. The claim is that Netflix is undermining cinema. What do they think?
“Though we were competing with Netflix in the awards campaign, we were very happy to play Roma in the Light House and Pálás when we were offered that opportunity,” Lowe says.
“We didn’t do it because we sit on one side or the other of the Netflix question. It was more because we had both seen Roma and appreciated what a beautiful cinema experience it was and we wanted our audience to have the chance to see it that way. We got a bit of heat on that from other cinema owners, but I think we recognise there is a need to be...” he trails off.
“Flexible,” Guiney finishes.
Lowe points to Element’s own digital platform Volta, on which some titles are available to watch on the same day as their cinema release, and echoes something Netflix has itself said. “Some people can’t get to the cinema and want to be able to see the film at home.”
Television has become a bigger play for Element, though it has always had a hand in it, “so it’s not like some big kind of Damascene conversion for us”, says Guiney. Competition in the peak-TV business is fierce. “It’s not easy. Over the last 18 months, we’ve invested heavily in building a team in London because we need every possible advantage.”
Upcoming productions include an Abrahamson-directed BBC Three adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People and the eight-part Dublin Murders series, adapted from the Tana French thrillers, for BBC/Starz/RTÉ.
And, of course, you did Red Rock... “Yeah,” they say wistfully in unison. “Yeah,” says Guiney again. “Very sad about Red Rock. We loved it.”
Production on the TV3/Virgin Media Television soap stopped in August 2017, though with almost two dozen episodes banked, it has had a long, slow death. It is dead though, isn’t it?
“My understanding of it is that there is still a conversation there,” says Guiney. “There may be a conversation there. We’ve loved working with them. We’re very proud of the show and we would love to do more.”
On the film side, Element is in post-production on The Nest, written and directed by the Canadian Sean Durkin. Another Irish book option, Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling, is in development and should “make a great Irish Bridget Jones”, while Rooney’s Conversations with Friends is also being developed as a film.
“We develop many more things than we actually make,” Guiney says. “Things fall off, they’re too much like something else that’s out there, or they’re too expensive for the potential market. It’s a bit like traditional R&D. You invest and sometimes the conclusion is that it’s not the right project at the right time.”
Is this widely understood outside the industry? It’s not even well-understood within the industry, Guiney believes. “Going after rights for books is a big part of what we do and that’s super-competitive. You need to be able to move very fast. If you’re reliant on Screen Ireland, it’s very hard to do that, because by the time they read a book and tell you they’re interested, it’s long gone.”
Element was only able to back The Favourite early thanks to funding from Screen Ireland (then the Irish Film Board). “We could decide how we were going to spend it without having to make an application. If we had had to wait, the opportunity would have evaporated or everyone would have got bored and gone home.”
Guiney and Lowe say they are “lucky” that they have the resources and connections to avoid the hamstringing that smaller companies endure both as a result of what Guiney terms “a bureaucratic deadline approach” to funding and a “clash of cultures” between the industry and Revenue, which operates the vital Section 481 tax break.
Lowe attributes “logjams” in the system to the fact that the Revenue’s usual job is to collect money, not give it out. “There’s a lot that we could learn from how things are done elsewhere.”
What’s the one thing they would change about the Irish industry?
“Andrew will probably shoot me for saying this, but I would like to see more honest self-reflection,” says Guiney. “We are still quite a young industry and we lack a bit of self-confidence, so we’re desperate to talk about how successful we are, which is fine to the outside world, but I think it would be useful for us to have an honest conversation about what we could improve. I think there is a quite a lot of self-satisfaction in our industry. Small victories are seen as huge victories and they’re not.”
More time for films “to breathe and live” is Lowe’s one wish. “It’s a very frenetic place. Often films are released and have a really small window to make an impact before they are overtaken by the next thing. That’s tough sometimes.”
Over the years, it has been “proud” to produce films like A Date for Mad Mary and Rosie primarily for the Irish market, but it has been nevertheless been “frustrating” trying to win them exposure overseas. The business has become harder for lower-budget indie films that don’t have stars attached.
“The days when you could find distributors in key territories who could get behind a film and throw money at it and promote it – those days are gone,” says Lowe.
The Favourite, which could have been confined to local curiosity status, travelled nicely thanks to distributor Fox Searchlight, now owned by Disney. This was Element’s first film with Searchlight, with which it has since agreed an attractive first-look deal.
“It works from our point of view because it gives us the freedom to work with people like Screen Ireland here, and BBC Films and Film 4 and BFI in the UK,” says Lowe. “Then when we’re ready to go out into the marketplace, we bring it to Fox. If it’s a project they want to back, that gives us access to worldwide distribution.”
Element is thinking about raising money or making an overseas acquisition to expand further, although neither option has been settled.
Is the company what they thought it would be when they were starting out? “We’re very ambitious and probably glass-half-empty people,” says Guiney. “I don’t think we necessarily look round and say: ‘Isn’t it great, aren’t we doing great?’”
Lowe agrees. Do they always agree? “No, we don’t, but we have definitely developed that kind of shorthand where we have learned to concede to each other when we recognise it’s important.”
“It’s trust,” says Guiney. “And this goes right across the company, it’s not just about how Andrew and I work. If someone is really passionate about something and they can make the argument for it, that counts for an awful lot.”
They have “tried to be more formal” in how they work, says Lowe. Enterprise Ireland has sent them on management training courses. But “lines blur a lot between Ed and I in what we do”. The big decisions, they make together.
It seems churlish to ask this given Colman’s authentically unprepared speech was the highlight of Oscars night, but does it matter to them that she didn’t thank Element in it by name, as she had when she won at the Golden Globes?
They laugh. “We’re a business-to-business brand and everyone in the business knows we produced that film,” says Guiney. Then Lowe recalls Colman’s top-of-speech disclaimer. “She did also undertake to snog everyone she hadn’t mentioned.”
Names: Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe
Positions: Co-founders and company directors of Element Pictures
Background and family: Guiney (53) is from Ballsbridge in Dublin and is married with one son. Lowe (51) is from Baggot Street in Dublin and is married with four sons.
Something you might expect: “I don’t think we ultimately regret that much,” says Lowe.
Something that might surprise: “We do need to learn how to say no more often,” says Guiney.