Bono plays pivotal role in Dublin’s Hollywood studio drama

Originators of plans for Ringsend project say U2 singer’s assistance proved invaluable

Bono: Help invaluable even if the U2 frontman is not an investor. Photograph: The Irish Times

Bono: Help invaluable even if the U2 frontman is not an investor. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The exact date of the telephone call is unknown, but the Lobbying Register records that sometime between January 1st and April 30th this year Bono rang Alan Kelly.

“An informal phone call was made in order to promote the idea of a world class film studio in Dublin,” between the singer, who is listed by his full name, Paul Hewson, and Kelly, who was still Minister for the Environment at the time.

The studio dream has been in the works for nearly five years between James Morris of Windmill Lane Studios and Alan Maloney, the producer of the Oscar-nominated film Brooklyn.

During much of that time, Belfast has shown the way, hosting Game of Thrones and holding its own plans to build ever-bigger studios in the city’s now unused docklands.

Feature film productions have touched down in Ireland intermittently over the past 50 years. John Boorman’s Excalibur was shot here and the D-Day Landings were restaged in Wexford for Saving Private Ryan. Sections of Star Wars: The Force Awakens were shot on Skellig Michael (with, according to the assessment report, “no adverse impact”).

Star Wars: Episode VIII is currently filming in Kerry and Donegal, attracting hordes of tourists who have gazed longingly from a distance on the teeming sets.

What has changed recently is the growing willingness of mostly Hollywood production companies to shoot high-end television overseas.

Morgan O’Sullivan, the veteran Irish producer, was among the first to lure such series to Ireland when he helped set up The Tudors, an Irish-British-Canadian production, in 2007.

Irish actors

In more recent years, O’Sullivan has helped produce visiting series such as Penny Dreadful, Camelot and Vikings. “We’re just going into our fifth season of Vikings,” he told The Irish Times. “We are also doing a pilot for Hulu and we are doing a series for AMC, Into The Badlands, with two Irish actors in it, which is going to come here.”

Dawn, that pilot for Hulu, one of the new, all-powerful streaming sites, is currently shooting in Wicklow. Game of Thrones has re-invented the Northern Irish film industry.

Obviously, tax breaks play a part in attracting such productions to Ireland and elsewhere. “We are fortunate to now have rebates from the UK, Croatia and Iceland,” Bernie Caulfield, executive producer on Game of Thrones, told Variety. “Productions of our scale need these incentives to survive.”

There is, however, more to it than that. As production values have risen, audiences have come to expect a greater degree of realism from television series.

When a character heads into Nordic wasteland, the viewer is now no longer happy with a feeble back projection. “We have been shooting here for four years going on five and we are still finding new locations for our kingdoms,” Caulfield explained. “I can’t think of anywhere else you could scout that in such close proximity to the city.”

This is all exciting and it is all new. “The furthest I ever shot was Toronto and Vancouver,” Howard Gordon, producer of 24 and Homeland said of his early days. The last series of Homeland moved production to South Africa, which stood in for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That notion of one exotic country playing another is something the Irish film industry should keep an eye on. At last week’s Cannes Film Festival, the Panama Film Commission distributed images showing parts of that country pretending to be New York, Bora Bora and Thailand. The sun-drenched archway purporting to be “Ireland” was, happily, among the least convincing.

James Morris and Alan Moloney believe their plan for a world class film studio in Dublin could create nearly 3,000 jobs directly and roughly the same again in jobs indirectly supported by its creation, if it happens.

The duo have Irish-American backers, though their identities are under wraps, for now. However a number of Hollywood studios – believed to be Universal, Disney and others – have made supportive noises.

Tireless campaigner

Bono’s help is invaluable, even though he is not an investor, Morris and Maloney are quick to point out. Not only can he get to speak to Irish ministers, but he can speak, too, with Hollywood mandarins.

“We are delighted to have the support of Bono who has been a tireless campaigner for the creative arts, for investment in Ireland – and has a global reputation in the creative industries. We should also point out that Bono has no financial interest whatsoever in this proposal.”

Morris and Moloney said there was a growing demand for studio space. “Ireland,” the statement said, “is now a very attractive location to produce television series and movies. Ireland needs the infrastructure to capitalise on the growth of the film and digital industries and the growing international success of Irish film making talent.

In the last Budget, the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, increased the caps on film tax credits to €70m to encourage the opening of more studio space by enticing Game of Thrones-style high-quality productions.

Ringsend site

The sprawling glass bottle and adjoining sites in Ringsend, the proposed location for the studios, cover a total of 84 acres. It is expected that some 3,000 homes will also be built in the area. The site is currently controlled by Nama. Sources familiar with the plans say that 3,000 apartments could be build on 40 acres, leaving sufficient space for other uses. The area has recently been designated a “strategic development zone” by the government which will allow Dublin City Council to fast-track planning decisions.

Mr Morris is a former chairman of the Irish Film Board, and was a founder of the Windmill Lane studios in Dublin. He also led the consortium that established TV3 in 1998. Mr Moloney is a TV and film producer who has been involved in a string of acclaimed films and TV series.

The film industry has long complained of a lack of studio space in Ireland. There are tax advantages for film-makers here but many big productions are not viable because of the lack of studio space.