Irish producers ‘selling off family silver’ to get film and TV projects made

Levy would bridge funding gaps and help keep IP rights in Ireland, committee hears

Film and television producers are sacrificing their intellectual property (IP) rights to bridge a widening funding gap, while many other Irish screen stories are simply not being made, the Oireachtas media committee heard on Thursday.

Industry representatives urged the committee to recommend the immediate introduction of a content levy on streaming and pay-TV companies. This would generate a fund that could be contested by indigenous producers in a sector “extremely vulnerable” to dominant global players.

Susan Kirby, chief executive of Screen Producers Ireland (SPI), which represents more than 130 independent production companies, said a levy "at a minimum of 3-4 per cent" should be applied from 2023 to the Irish revenues of pay-TV, video-on-demand and overseas broadcasters targeting Irish audiences.

A report by consultants Indecon, commissioned by the Joint Creative Audio-Visual Group of which SPI is a member, suggests a 3 per cent levy could generate an annual fund of €23 million for Irish content.


Negotiating power

“Our ability to tell our own stories is being eroded,” the group warned in a video submission highlighting the “jaw-dropping” growth of international streamers and pay-TV giants.

Animation Ireland chief executive Ronan McCabe said the fund would give Irish producers more negotiating power and help them keep their IP, rather than becoming "glorified outsourcing companies for international players".

Mary Callery, head of international at production company Shinawil and a former drama commissioning editor at RTÉ, said the patchwork of domestic funding sources previously contributed 40-50 per cent of a project cost, but this had plummeted over the past decade.

“We are inevitably left with a gap of around 20 per cent, having raised the maximum amount of money available on the international market... We end up selling off bits of the idea in order to raise the money to make it. It’s like selling off the family silver.”

The “real shame” was that there were “many, many more” projects like Normal People, Smother and The Young Offenders “waiting to be made”, Ms Callery said.

Birch Hamilton, executive director of the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland (SDGI), said the Irish industry was finding it "impossible" to compete and was feeling "a real tangible loss" as a result.

Costs per episode for series such as Disney Plus's The Mandalorian are now reported to be averaging $25 million (€20.5 million), a sum comparable to the capital budget of State development body Screen Ireland last year.

“We’re just not investing in any meaningful way,” said Ms Hamilton. The State would “miss out” if it did not respond to what is “a pivotal moment” for the global content business, she added.

Legislative backdrop

The EU's revised audio-visual services media directive allows member states to place financial obligations on audio-visual media service providers – from pay-TV companies like Sky to on-demand streamers like Netflix – and nine EU members have already done so.

The Government's Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill provides for the introduction of a content levy, but Minister for Media Catherine Martin said in December that research would first be undertaken to ensure a levy "would be of sufficient benefit".

The Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media, which is conducting pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill, heard last week that domestic broadcasters RTÉ, TG4 and Virgin Media Television were all in favour of a content levy.

RTÉ, TG4, SPI, Animation Ireland, SDGI, the Writers Guild of Ireland and the Screen Composers Guild of Ireland have joined forces under the banner of the Joint Creative Audio-Visual Group to campaign for its introduction.

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics