Screen industry calls for help as pandemic pause takes its toll

Irish production companies are struggling to survive despite huge demand for content

The Irish screen industry is facing into a deeply uncertain future after at least 24 productions were stood down in response to Covid-19, with 59 companies reporting delays to television programmes or films about to begin shooting.

Screen Producers Ireland (SPI) has warned that, without Government intervention, the industry will see a wave of closures as cashflow difficulties are compounded by insurance struggles.

At least 40 companies say either that they are not able to secure funding or they are experiencing delays in doing so for future projects, resulting in a “serious impact” on their ability to remain operational.

"Many of our members are SMEs and cashflow for them is king. Some companies could close or reduce to one or two core people," said SPI chief executive Elaine Geraghty.

SPI is calling on the Government to speed up approvals under its Section 481 tax credit scheme, which it says has been beset by “severe delays”. It is also asking the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to expedite its next funding round. The next one is not due until September, which is “too late”, Ms Geraghty said.

The widespread pain in the industry is being felt despite “huge appetite” for screen content, she noted.

The immediate impact of the pandemic saw 800 people laid off as productions ground to a halt, with an estimated loss of earnings of €20 million.

A survey of SPI members, conducted between March 26th and April 3rd, places payments forgone on contracts at about €9.7 million and estimates €3.9 million has been lost to third-party suppliers, including caterers and accommodation providers.

One SPI member placed the cost of an eight-week postponement on one production at €2 million, with further delays costing about €150,000 a week.

Attempts to resume production will be complicated by future social distancing requirements, an eventual bottleneck in demand for crew and other services and an inability to secure vital insurance.

“We think insurers are going to try to limit any payouts to date and they will likely exclude Covid-19 from future policies,” Ms Geraghty said. This leaves its members vulnerable to financial distress in the event subsequent waves of the pandemic prompts further shutdowns.

Production pause

High-profile television series to down tools in March included Foundation, the adaptation of the Isaac Asimov books being made at Limerick's Troy Studios for Apple, while Vikings: Valhalla, a Netflix spin-off from the series Vikings, was unable to go into production as scheduled at Ashford Studios. Ridley Scott's film The Last Duel, starring Matt Damon, also suspended production.

Other projects that had finished filming saw their post-production interrupted, while features such as Element Pictures’ Calm with Horses and Vivarium had their big-screen release runs curtailed or cancelled.

Some independent production companies are making coronavirus-related programming for RTÉ, including VIP's Operation Transformation: Keeping Well Apart, Indiepics' Ireland on Call and Macalla Teo's Home School Hub.

However, much of the industry remains fearful about the public service broadcaster’s commissioning plans for the rest of 2020 given it could lose as much as a third of its advertising revenue.

Ms Geraghty said she was hopeful of an update from RTÉ soon. SPI is calling for the Government to allocate "supplemental annual funding" to RTÉ, TG4, Screen Ireland and the BAI, to help producers survive the emergency and "reboot".