Here's a movie quiz question: name five major Hollywood films that have been made in Ireland. That's easy, right? There was The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara; Ryan's Daughter with Robert Mitchum; Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, John Boorman's Excalibur; and that cod-Oirish one, Far and Away, with Tom O'Cruise and Nicole O'Kidman. Not to mention that uncannily accurate portrait of Ireland, Darby O'Gill and the Little People.
We could also name several movies that used Ireland as a location for some scenes, including Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan.
But here's a harder one: what big Hollywood movies have been made in Ireland this century? Okay, there was that dragon yarn, Reign of Fire, and that marriage proposal yarn, Leap Year, starring Amy Adams, whose plot was about as plausible as Darby O'Gill. There was Ella Enchanted, a fairy tale starring Anne Hathaway, and didn't the Cliffs of Moher feature in one of the Harry Potter movies?
You may not find it so easy to reel off the big movie blockbusters made in Ireland in the past few years, but if you look at the Irish film industry through a solely Hollywood lens, then you're not getting the full picture, says James Hickey, chief executive of the Irish Film Board. The landscape of filmed entertainment in Ireland has changed – now it's Irish filmmakers and producers who are creating a buzz in La La Land, while major TV production and state-of-the-art animation have exploded in recent years. The result of all this activity, says Hickey, is that the Irish film industry has never been in a healthier state.
"We've experienced record levels of production in the last two years, €250 million, and that was on feature films, TV drama and animation. We have high-end film productions like Sing Street, Room, Brooklyn, The Lobster. We've got big TV dramas like Penny Dreadful and Vikings, and now we've got Into the Badlands, which is going into its next season. TV drama has become a major international phenomenon over the last number of years, and in Ireland that goes back as far as The Tudors, which came here in 2007-2008. Ireland has played a big part in the development of large-scale international TV drama. And we have the crews here, and the producers and talent, to attract major TV drama production to locate here."
In the old days, filming in Ireland was almost wholly dependent on the whims of Hollywood producers. A big production might descend on an Irish village, creating a local buzz and providing a few temporary jobs as extras; when the production wrapped up and moved on, it was back to tumbleweed across the main road, and locals were left with nothing to do but try to drum up some tourism business on the back of the movie.
These days, Ireland boasts a thriving indigenous film and television industry, and no one’s sitting around waiting for some big-shot director to drop by and make another piece of cinematic paddywhackery.
Irish films have done pretty well in the international box-office in recent times, with Lenny Abrahamson's Room, John Crowley's Brooklyn, Peter Foote's The Young Offenders, John Carney's Sing Street and Yorgos Lantimos's The Lobster all pulling in cinemagoers, and some of them picking up Academy-Award and Golden-Globe nominations. John Butler's Handsome Devil has been picked up by Netflix, The Young Offenders is now being made into a TV series – which Hickey hopes will also be made in Ireland – while Yorgos Lanthimos's latest film, Killing of a Sacred Deer, starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
This made-in-Ireland dimension is very significant, according to Dublin Chamber of Commerce director of policy Aebhric McGibney. "The film industry is very important from an employment point of view," he says. "It also supports the creative sector and is important for the promotion of Irish culture. Films made on location here support Ireland's tourism brand as well. Even today, people are still coming because of Ryan's Daughter and The Quiet Man. But we need to move up the value chain where Irish producers own the intellectual property. We cannot be just another sub-supplier to the industry or location for film-making. We need to own the intellectual property and produce the content ourselves. Competing on price, grant aid and tax breaks will not be nearly enough. We need the producers to be based here creating the wealth."
But it’s still very important to attract inward production, says Hickey, because it generates valuable revenue to fund indigenous production, and gives Irish actors and crews more work and more opportunities to develop their skills and move up in their careers, and because – cod-Oirish guff aside – it’s good overall for Ireland’s image abroad, with a knock-on effect on Irish tourism.
“From our point of view, it’s really important that we develop indigenous talent as well as bringing in inward investment,” says Hickey. “Most of our funding initiatives are geared towards developing Irish creative talent. That’s the focus of where our money goes. That’s what we want to be at the cutting edge of dealing with.
"There's a symbiotic relationship between inward production on the one hand and Irish indigenous production on the other. Both can and do very successfully work together. We believe that's the way the industry should go forward. We need to develop indigenous talent, and we also need to continue to support inward production, because both will then deliver the kind of results which we've seen through Room and Brooklyn last year at the Academy Awards, and with Sing Street and The Lobster at this year's Golden Globes."
In 2015, the Government announced a revised and improved version of its Section 481 tax incentive. "Section 481 is intended to act as a stimulus to the growth of the film industry in Ireland," says Grant Thornton head of media and entertainment John Gleeson. "The scheme provides direct support to film production companies in the form of a corporation tax credit at a rate of 32 per cent of the cost of production of certain films."
The 32 per cent incentive applies to all production costs above and below the line. Above the line means all direct expenses associated with the production while below the line includes all other production expenditure including catering supplies and so on. The production company receives the incentive in the form of a cash rebate based on a notional overpayment of corporation tax.
Very importantly, the incentive doesn't have any hidden strings attached. "For example, there is no requirement to certify a film or TV programme as Irish," says Gleeson. "It just has to be made in Ireland. Furthermore, there is no requirement to make the whole or even the majority of the film in Ireland – expenditure incurred on shooting part of a film here can qualify as well. For example, Star Wars Episode 8 was a three- to four-week shoot and it qualified for the incentive."
Many of the films currently being made in Ireland are co-productions, with Irish producers working with producers from other countries, such as Mary Shelley, an Ireland-UK-Luxembourg co-production, The Professor and the Madman, an Irish-French-Icelandic co-production featuring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, an Irish-Canadian co-production.
Hickey admits, though, that competition to attract film and TV production from abroad is hotting up, and Ireland needs to be on the lookout for more Star Wars-type blockbusters to stay ahead of the game. Northern Ireland had a coup of its own, for instance, with Game of Thrones, one of the world's biggest TV series, setting up in the North for its entire series – although Hickey points out that the visual effects for GoT are done in Dublin.
“Competitiveness is always something we have to be careful and watchful about. Because we need to recognise the challenges we face in terms of making sure the cost base here works for international productions. Currently, we’re continuing to attract international production, and while it would be wrong to be complacent about these things, this year we’ve had tremendous success in terms of activity, and in terms of the success of our creative talent.”