Screen Ireland spotlights equality wins and ‘underfunded’ TV drama
Producer backs return of slate funding that helped Oscar-tipped ‘The Favourite’ get made
Seána Kerslake, star of forthcoming film ‘The Hole in the Ground’ is pictured with its director and writer Lee Cronin (right) and Screen Ireland chief executive James Hickey at the launch of its 2019 production catalogue. Photograph: Julien Behal
A psychological horror about an ominous sinkhole, an Atlantic-set thriller with a mysterious sea monster and a black comedy featuring “possessed magpies and toasters” are among the Irish-made films on a new “coming soon” catalogue published by Screen Ireland (Fís Éireann).
The organisation, previously known as the Irish Film Board, has released details of its production slate as well as its priorities and ambitions for 2019, a year when its recent name change will be followed by a shift in focus, as television drama takes a greater share of the spotlight.
“It is more than just a name change. Film is a key priority for us, we retain that priority, but we are also having a major focus on the broader remit,” said chairwoman Annie Doona.
“We also have a view that indigenous TV drama has been underfunded and under-developed in recent years and this is something that we will have a focus on into the next year or two,” said Dr Doona.
An announcement on the financial size of its support for television drama will be made soon, Screen Ireland’s outgoing chief executive James Hickey said. Conversations with broadcasters RTÉ and Virgin Media Television over the past six months had been “particularly good”, he indicated.
The agency’s funding contracts will in future include “key principles” of gender equality and diversity, dignity in the workplace, commitments to the career development of personnel and environmental sustainability, Screen Ireland also said.
“We want those who are receiving funding to ensure that they are supporting a workplace free from bullying, harassment and intimidation,” Dr Doona said, adding that there should be “zero tolerance for bad behaviour” on set.
Screen Ireland received an increase in funding applications from productions with female directing and writing talent attached last year, which it said would help it reach its gender equality target of 50:50 on funding decisions by 2020.
In 2018, 36 per cent of funded projects had female directors attached, up from 20 per cent the year before, while 45 per cent of funded projects had female writers attached, also up from 20 per cent.
“We are edging towards the magic 50 per cent,” she said.
Flanked by Irish creative talent, Dr Doona and Mr Hickey said investment of €13.7 million in 50 projects in Ireland last year, including 21 feature films, had generated around €40 million for the exchequer.
There is now a renewed sense of confidence within the Irish film, television and animation industry, which has been estimated by consultants Olsberg/SPI to employ 12,000 people, double what it did a decade ago.
Production activity figures in 2018, due to be released shortly, is understood to have risen from the €286 million recorded in 2017, while Screen Ireland has a capital budget of €16.2 million to invest this year, up from €14.2 million in 2018.
The agency’s funding was halved during the recession, but the Government has since promised to allocate €200 million between 2018 and 2027.
There is still plenty to sort out, however. Mr Hickey said an expansion in studio infrastructure was “urgently needed” to support further growth in inward investment, which he said reached “record levels” last year.
“There is no doubt there is a significant demand for more studios,” he said.
Challenges also lie ahead for regional production, cinema distribution finance and in increasing the development funding that is “the lifeblood” of the business.
Ed Guiney, who co-runs Element Pictures and is a producer of Oscar-tipped The Favourite, called for more “agility” in the funding process to help production companies “follow the talent” in a highly competitive international business.
Element was able to get involved with period comedy The Favourite 10 years ago because it had pre-existing slate funding in place with the film board that it could spend at its discretion.
“When The Favourite came into us, we were able to jump on it and commission the script at a time when it would have been hard to fund that film any other way. It was a really crucial piece of money at a crucial time.”
However, slate funding of this kind, “where producers can have a pot of money and decide how to spend it, rather than have to continuously apply” to the agency, was a casualty of the recession. “It doesn’t exist at the moment and I would love to see it come back in,” said Mr Guiney.
It is hoped that The Favourite will make it five out of five after Screen Ireland-backed projects - Song of the Sea, Room, Brooklyn, The Lobster and The Breadwinner - garnered Academy Award nominations in major categories in each of the last four years.
Louise Bagnall, director of Cartoon Saloon’s Late Afternoon, is on a 10-strong Oscar shortlist in the animated short category and will find out next Tuesday if it has received a nomination.
“To have even got this far is a massive boost. You don’t make a short film thinking about these things,” she said. “You’re just trying to tell a story.”
Ms Bagnall said she had “grown into her role” by working on projects such as Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner. “Even on my short film, there were people working on it who now want to make their own short film. It is a cycle that continues.”
Neasa Hardiman, an established Bafta-winning television director whose debut film feature Sea Fever will be released later this year, said she believed “the raw, excited, engaged talent” was there, but the Irish industry lacked the pathways necessary for them to build sustainable careers.
“Filmmakers don’t spring like Athena from the head of Zeus. They have to learn how to do it. And how do they learn how to do it? By doing it.”
The creative talent present pointed to a catch-22 often encountered by people at the start of their careers. Lee Cronin, director and writer of feature The Hole in the Ground, described trying to break into television as “wanting to rent your first house, but they’re looking for a reference from a landlord”.
Starring Seána Kerslake, The Hole in the Ground is one of six Irish films on the main programme at the prestigious Sundance festival in Utah later this month.
“I’m not going to lie, you don’t make a lot of money on your first feature film. You’re not there to make a lot of money. But all the little wins give you the attitude to keep pushing forward,” Mr Cronin said.
“The fact that we get to step forward into the limelight and bring what is actually a very Irish story with what we hope is a very international, accessible wrapper, it’s just a really exciting thing... Snow boots are packed. Let’s go.”