Ready for their Cannes close-up? Irish film-makers in the spotlight

Cinema is an increasingly puzzling market. So what counts as success for an Irish release?

As you read this, the lower decks of the Palais des Festivals in Cannes are awash with producers, distributors and funders. There has been all kinds of flux in the industry, but the Cannes Marché du Film, or Film Market, remains the place where the big deals are done. Just showing your face here counts as a demonstration of strength.

Ireland is represented by dozens of film professionals. Screen Ireland, the body formerly known as the Irish Film Board, which presses the flesh daily at the Irish Pavilion, is hosting its annual party by the lapping Mediterranean this weekend. Many there will be pondering what counts as success for an Irish release in an increasingly puzzling marketplace.

You look at the films you're going up against and you feel like you're a mouse standing in front of a tsunami. How do you get people's attention when you are up against Iron Man?

Brendan McCarthy, founder of the Irish production company Fantastic Films, has been chewing over these questions for decades. "Honestly, we feel it every time we've had a film in Cineworld," he says. "You look at the films you're going up against and you feel like you're a mouse standing in front of a tsunami. What are we doing here? You are talking about getting people's attention. How do you do that when you are up against Iron Man or James Bond?"

McCarthy is laughing as he says this. Founded to produce genre films for international audiences, Fantastic Films has had a good run with horror films such as The Hallow, Let Us Prey and Wake Wood. Lorcan Finnegan's Vivarium, which McCarthy also produced, is the first Irish film in 51 years to play in International Critics' Week at Cannes.


The wider industry continues to surge. In 2016 three Irish films managed to break $1 million at the Irish box office alone: Room, The Young Offenders and Sing Street. Last year, Lance Daly's Black 47, a famine drama, outpaced mainstream hits such as Ready Player One and Ant Man and the Wasp to take nearly $1.5 million domestically. Yorgos Lanthimos's Oscar-winning The Favourite, produced by Element Pictures in Dublin, made $95 million worldwide.

These are the hits. Meanwhile dozens of domestic releases barely puff their way into five figures. What constitutes a success in this world? How do we begin to assess the ambitions of recent Irish releases such as Rosie, The Dig or The Camino Voyage against a film like Avengers: Endgame, which now looks likely to brush $3 billion?

Patrick O’Neill, managing director of Wildcard Distribution, ponders these questions daily. His company distributed Irish releases such as Cardboard Gangsters, The Young Offenders and Black 47.

“As a film-maker, what constitutes success is: what helps me in my career,” he says. “Will it help me towards a second film? For some film-makers festivals can be important. That helps you towards critical acclaim and acknowledgment in the wider sector.”

Inevitably, when it comes to hard cash, the question drifts into piece-of-string territory. It is not just a question of budget. Where that money comes from is important.

“You have to look at the financing and ask how much soft money is involved and how much equity,” O’Neill says. “Who needs to get paid back? You could have a $5 million movie, but $4 million might be tax breaks and other soft funds. For that film, an international sale might constitute success. You might be moving into profit then. But the same budgeted film might have $4 million hard money and $1 million soft money. And that may work out as a failure in that sense.”

Andrew Lowe, the Oscar-nominated founder of Element Pictures, the production company behind The Favourite and Room, also pulls out a slide rule when attempting a comprehensive answer.

We try and ensure that each print of the film is as profitable as possible. We're less interested in the gross box-office figure. It might amass money, but it might not make you a lot of money

“From a distribution point of view, our approach is that we try and ensure that each print of the film is as profitable as possible,” he says. “We’re less interested in the gross box office figure. It might amass money, but it might not make you a lot of money. That was our approach going back to [Lenny Abrahamson’s] Garage, which had a really healthy screen average – around €20,000, I think.”

It’s worth remembering who does what job. A production company such as Fantastic Films produces the project and then sets out to find a distributor to place the finished films in cinemas. (Just to confuse matters, Element has also acted as its own distributor in Ireland.)

Distributors have these conversations at the Venice and Berlin film festivals. Galway Film Fleadh, each July, has become the place to showcase new Irish cinema. But Cannes still has that special oomph. Element, Wildcard and Fantastic are here. James Hickey, in his last month as chief executive of Screen Ireland, will be offering a parting wave at the film-board bash,

“Independent film will always have a challenge getting to audiences at the box office,” Hickey explains. “There is a sense that because it isn’t a franchise the audience may not know what they are going to see. Independent films are up against that brand recognition.”

Traditionally, when a film has been sold to a territory, the local distributor will offer an “initial minimum guarantee” on returns. After that the sums get more complicated.

“You are then waiting to see if there are any overages after the initial minimum guarantee has been recouped. That is still how distribution for cinema works,” Hickey explains.

Many film-makers now admit that, unless your name is Marvel, the theatrical box-office haul is likely to be a small part of the total return. Ancillary used to mean VHS and DVD, but that market is not what it was.

Independent movies don't make very much at the box office any more. But they do build a profile there. So Netflix or the BBC tend to pay a lot more for them

"Look, independent movies don't make very much at the box office any more," Brendan McCarthy explains. "But they do build their own profile there. So when they later appear on Netflix or the BBC they tend to pay a lot more for them."

This is interesting. McCarthy seems to be suggesting that the cinema run now acts as an advertisement for the sale to broadcasters and streaming services.

“Weirdly for independent and arthouse films that is the truth of it,” he says. “There is always a chance that there will be some massive pick up for it. That would change things. Then you get a studio behind it. But that is winning the lottery.”

McCarthy seems to be placing his genre product – films such as the science-fiction horror Vivarium – in the same category as arthouse films. Many would assume genre pictures are an easier sell.

“Well, the difference is that there is a guaranteed genre market. All of those people are more disposed to talk to you – because they know there is that market there.”

There has long been a suspicion that the very Irishness of a film can turn away audiences at home and abroad. The United States still bosses commercial cinema in many territories. When punters go a cinema they expect to see Scarlett Johansson shooting guns at Tom Cruise. That situation does, at home, look to be changing. The success of Black 47 and Young Offenders has demonstrated a shift in attitudes.

“Traditionally that was a thing,” Andrew Lowe says. “Irish audiences are more supportive of Irish films than they were in the past. That reflects quality and diversity. I think that’s great. And sometimes the films they embrace aren’t always the ones that the industry embraces. Mrs Brown’s Boys being a great example.”

It is sporting of Lowe to nod to a film from another company. In 2014, the film version of Brendan O'Carroll's TV series, distributed by Universal, annihilated the opening record, set by Michael Collins nearly 20 years earlier, for the biggest domestic opening for an Irish film. In Avengers style, it took €1.02 million in just three days. Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie ended up with a worldwide total of $25 million.

Lowe is not the only film professional to believe that it can be harder to sell Irish films to the UK than the US. “I think [John Carney’s] Once showed that,” he says. “The right sort of film will work in the US. Irish film struggles in the UK and I can’t explain that – beyond saying that it is so.”

Macdara Kelleher, producer of Black 47, has complex feelings about the performance of that film overseas. Whereas, to his surprise, the use of the Irish language proved a selling point at home – "That actually drew people in," he says – the effect was the opposite in the US.

“You have the same issues in the UK. But certainly subtitles for the first 15 minutes in the US didn’t help.”

Kelleher agrees that Britain is a harder sell for Irish films than the US, but there are ways. The conversation these days is all about Netflix and rival streaming services. But there are older ancillary markets – older even than VHS – that are still worth pursuing. Element discovered this when they set about marketing Paddy Breathnach’s Rosie on the other side of the Irish Sea.

"We had a really good response in the UK," Lowe says. "Five-star reviews across the board. On the back of that we sold it to British Airways and that is a hard thing to do. We are about to close a sale to a British broadcaster. That is a good example of a film where the box office performance does not define success."

That compelling study of the Irish homeless crisis will shortly be screening on every flight between Los Angeles and London.

None of this is to suggest that box office doesn't matter. The weighty domestic haul of the Dublin crime drama Cardboard Gangsters took a big bite out of its budget. A film like The Camino Voyage, the documentary following an unlikely sea journey to Spain, has not scored quite so dramatically, but its steady sales have kept it in and out of cinemas since last November. "We have multiple bookings coming across the country," Siobhan Farrell of distributors Eclipse says. "It has played three times in the Queen's Film Theatre [in Belfast]. That is a rare occurrence. There is a magic quality to it." That counts as a different sort of box-office success.

Maybe, as Brendan McCarthy muses, we shouldn't be using cash as any sort of measure. "I mean, The Birdie Song was very successful," he laughs. "So, what are we talking about?"

What does it mean to be ‘at Cannes’?

Every year, news reports confuse some readers as to what it means to be “at Cannes”. The only Irish film selected for any of the main strands this year is Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium, which plays in International Critics’ Week. But producers and funders will be talking up numerous domestic projects intended for premiere later in the year.

A group of British funders, including the BBC and the British Film Institute, is marketing a fistful of incoming films under the "Great 8" brand. Two of those are Irish coproductions. "Yes, two of them happen to be from films we funded along with the BFI," James Hickey, outgoing chief executive of Screen Ireland, explains. "One of them is Wildfire with Cathy Brady. The other is Calm With Horses. They have eight films, but curiously two of them are films that we have supported."

Brady's long-anticipated Wildfire stars Nora-Jane Noone and Martin McCann in a story set on the Irish Border. Brady is already celebrated for fine shorts such as Small Change and Kiss. Nick Rowland's Calm with Horses features Barry Keoghan and Hazel Doupe – star of the recent Float Like a Butterfly – in a rough rural drama written by Joseph Murtagh.

Also coming our way later this year is Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman's already highly praised Extra Ordinary. A hit at the South by Southwest Festival, in Austin, the comedy stars Maeve Higgins as a driving instructor with supernatural powers. John Butler's Papi Chulo, a comedy concerning a troubled LA weatherman, will arrive in cinemas soon. Peter Mackie Burns's Rialto sounds like an intriguing tale of obsession. Tom Sullivan's Arracht stars Dónall Ó Héalaí and Saise Ní Chuinn in a tale of the Famine. There's more where that came from.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist