Ardmore expansion raises questions about future direction

The Wicklow studio has avoided fading to black, thanks to new opportunities in international TV-making

Ardmore Studios: Planned  expansion suggests the current environment and incentives in Ireland are attractive enough for investors. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Ardmore Studios: Planned expansion suggests the current environment and incentives in Ireland are attractive enough for investors. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Perched on a bluff overlooking the M11 motorway just south of Bray in Co Wicklow, Ardmore Studios is an unglamorous huddle of tatty industrial units centred on the 18th-century house which provides the facility with its name. Since it first opened in1958, Ardmore has had its share of ups and downs. It has acted as base for many of the most famous movies shot in Ireland, from Excalibur to My Left Foot to Braveheart, but it’s often been viewed as a bit of a white elephant.

The studio has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy on several occasions and it always seemed likely the site would be redeveloped for commuter-belt housing. It’s remarkable, really, that it has survived at all, thanks in large part to successive interventions by the likes of director John Boorman, producer Morgan O’Sullivan, U2 manager Paul McGuinness and, more than once, State agencies.

For the moment, though, its future looks secure. This month, financier Joe Devine’s Olcott Entertainment, which purchased Ardmore in 2018 for an undisclosed sum, lodged a planning application for a new 2,017 sq metre stage, along with the replacement of some of the existing service buildings with a new five-storey block.

The studio says the move will allow it to “compete at the heart of the international film and TV production market”. Devine also controls Troy Studios in Limerick, the location for the filming of the Netflix series Nightflyers, which was cancelled recently. Down the road from Ardmore, Ashford Studios has just announced it will be hosting Valhalla, a spin-off from Vikings, which wrapped its sixth and final series in Ashford last year.

All of this is generally presented as A Good Thing, which in many ways it is, especially for technicians and actors who are making a living and improving their skills . But what gets forgotten is that this sort of infrastructure for large international productions – the moviemaking equivalent of foreign direct investment – has in the past been highly controversial.

Indigenous audiovisual culture

Ardmore has been at the heart of those controversies since its earliest days. For several decades, under different owners, it was criticised for depending too much on productions which employed little or no Irish talent in key creative areas such as directing, camera and design. Critics argued that an indigenous audiovisual culture dedicated to putting Irish stories on screen was far preferable to a mere service industry for international producers.

That binary opposition was over-simplistic: filmmaking has always been simultaneously an artform and an industry, national and international. It creates jobs and stimulates economic activity in a number of ways, and large-scale productions do have a beneficial effect, supporting local companies, crews and facilities.

But there is a delicate balance to be struck, and the State plays a central role in that. According to the Department of Finance’s report on tax expenditures from October 2018, Section 481 tax relief for film production cost the State an estimated €242.5 million in foregone tax between 2015 and 2017.

That’s a lot of money, substantially higher than the entire allocation to the Arts Council over the same period. Yes, Section 481, which gives a 32 per cent tax credit on eligible spend in Ireland, attracts international money into the country on a much greater scale than any other cultural activity. And the Department of Culture, which administers the scheme, will point to the requirements that productions must meet certain cultural benchmarks to be considered (although the “Culture Test” they have to pass is so weirdly worded and broad as to be meaningless).

Industry lobbyists

The reality is that if Ireland wants to compete with other countries around the world in attracting these big-budget film and TV productions, it must also compete with the financial incentives those countries offer. A never-ending horse auction is going on around the world, with governments tweaking their financial sweeteners to get an extra edge. Industry lobbyists here have been agitating for an increase in the cap on how much can be claimed for a single project here (it’s currently €70 million).

It seems strange that so little attention is given to Section 481, even though it’s the biggest State intervention in culture after the TV licence fee. Not all beneficiaries of the tax relief are big international projects like Nightflyers or Vikings; in fact most are much smaller and more local. But because of their scale, these enormous productions get a large share of the benefit. The expansion at Ardmore suggests the current environment and incentives are attractive enough for investors to make a bet on increasing studio space to meet demand. With the ongoing audiovisual content boom sparked by Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and the rest, they’re probably right. The question is whether it’s also the best direction for Irish film and television to take.

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