At Old Nangor Road in Clondalkin, Dublin, lies the Grange Castle Business Park. Nestled on the southwest edge of the city and surrounded by a blend of fields and country homes, the park is crowded with some of the largest multinational corporations in Ireland, including Microsoft, Pfizer, and Google, and it’s preparing to welcome in a new neighbour. 

In late June, South Dublin City Council (SDCC) approved the sale of 56 acres of the park’s land to build the nation’s largest film studio campus, the Grange Castle Media Park.

The sale is the latest development in Ireland’s budding film industry, which has seen a series of new studios, both large and small, pop up in the last five years. The reason is the emergence of original content from streaming platforms like Netflix and Apple TV, which has created a worldwide demand for studio space. 

The Grange Castle Media Park, along with a second project, the Greystones Media Campus in development in Wicklow, are the nation’s two headlining new studios. 

The Grange Castle project is led by a company called Lens Media, backed by Irish producer Alan Moloney, known for Siege of Jadotville and Brooklyn, Oscar-nominated American Producer Gary Levinsohn of Saving Private Ryan, and post-production company Windmill Lane founder James Morris.

Lens Media initially bought 48 acres of property from SDCC to develop the studio in May 2020 at a price of €26.4 million, but progress on the project went quiet for over a year until last June. 

The reason was that after the council approved the transfer of land at the Grange Castle Business Park, Lens Media realised that eight acres of it were undevelopable. The company came back to the council looking to buy 56 acres to offset the eight that were off-limits – a process that took until June to be approved. 

The initial €26.4 million price tag for the now 48 acres of developable land remained the same, with Lens Media paying SDCC an additional €1.1 million for the eight acres of undevelopable land. 

Lens Media plans to invest €125 million into the project to build an 800,000-square-foot behemoth media campus, complete with sound studios, offices, and workshop spaces.

The park will create 1,800 new full-time jobs, according to Lens Media, with an additional 1,800 new peripheral or freelance jobs created as a result of productions working at the property. 

The Grange Castle project is the second attempt from Lens Media’s shareholders to build a new film studio in the country.

Moloney and Morris first began plans to build a new, state-of-the-art film studio in Poolbeg in 2011. Under the name “Dublin Bay Studios,” the two looked to self-finance a 180,000 square foot campus across 18 acres in East Dublin. The project remained afloat for six years before falling through in 2017, forcing the two industry professionals to relocate to the Grange Castle location.

Lens Media declined to comment when contacted by The Currency.

Section 481 tax

Film studio projects like the one at Grange Castle will look to ride off of the Irish film market created by the country’s film tax credit. 

Under Section 481 of Irish tax law, corporations behind film or TV productions are able to claim 32 per cent of their budget as a tax credit, up to a total expenditure of €70 million.

Section 481 is the genesis of Irish film, according to John Gleeson, partner at accounting firm Saffory Champness and an expert on the Irish film tax credit. 

“If 481 wasn’t there, there would be no business coming into the country, it’s a pivotal reason people choose to bring productions into Ireland,” Gleeson said. “It started off as a way to attract Hollywood movies and shows into the country, but there has been such a shift in focus to filming outside of the US now, that a tax credit has become the floor. Unless you have a tax incentive, it’s very unlikely to have Hollywood companies come to your jurisdiction.”

“Ireland has a great reputation for making good quality film, but it’s suffering from its lack of scale”

Ivan Dunleavy, Tara Studios

Despite Ireland’s competitive tax break, the island has long lacked the amount of infrastructure and space to fully capitalise on it, Gleeson said, which has created the market for new studios like the one at Grange Park.

Gleeson is also looking to take advantage of that market himself. 

Along with his longtime friend and business partner Ivan Dunleavy, he is in the works of building his own studio, Tara Studios, in Wexford. 

“Ireland has a great reputation for making good quality film, but it’s suffering from its lack of scale,” said Tara’s Dunleavy, who was formerly the CEO of Pinewood studios, one of Europe’s biggest film studio companies. “There is no obvious reason why the crew and talent here couldn’t be doing more. The tax incentive was there, and it was a sin that it wasn’t being taken full advantage of.”

Gleeson said he heard feedback for many years from his colleagues in Los Angeles that if Ireland just had more studio space, they would get a lot more work. 

Gleeson and Dunleavy’s proposed project will comprise seven studios spread out across a 160-acre plot of land, which they hope will create 30 permanent studio jobs along with up to 350 peripheral or part-time jobs. 

The two were reticent to share details about their financial backing but said they “have had a number of angel investors support us through to date, beyond our own personal commitment”.

Gleeson and Dunleavy submitted their application for planning permission to Wexford County Council in November and expect to hear back in the next four weeks. 

A potentially competing film studio campus, the Greystones Media Park, is also in the works in Wicklow. It got its planning permission from Wicklow County Council in late January. 

The project is a 50/50 joint venture between Capwell Property, a company backed by the Sisk family of Sisk construction, and the state’s Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF). 

These parties declined to comment on the project when contacted by The Currency

The two stakeholders are looking to pour €150 million into the project between them to build over 780,000 square feet of studio across 15 buildings on 50 acres in the Greystones Business Park in Wicklow. 

The park is expected to create 1,500 full-time jobs, according to its backers. 

“The more space there is, the better.” 

Ardmore Studios CEO Elaine Geraghty

The prospective projects are the new kids on the block, hoping to take advantage of the same market several other studios in the country have been for years. One of these studios, Ireland’s oldest, is Ardmore Studios in Wicklow. First launched in 1958, the studio has been home to historical productions such as Braveheart and Camelot, and now hosts filming for popular TV shows like Netflix’s Winx. 

The studio’s chief executive welcomes the new players, holding no reservations about a more competitive studio market. 

“The rising tide will float all boats,” said Ardmore CEO Elaine Geraghty. “We want more people and more productions to come to Ireland, it’s better for the entire industry. These productions are looking for space and we’ve got it. The more space there is, the better.” 

For Geraghty, Ireland’s film industry growth comes as no surprise. 

“We’ve seen an explosion of content over the last year and a half, people are craving new content, there is huge demand for film and TV,” she said. “The first thing is that when demand for content goes up, so does demand for space. If you look globally, it’s the same demand no matter what territory you are in, so having studio space is important.”

Geraghty also credits the Irish workforce for making the country a destination for international productions. 

“In all instances, no matter if it is a domestic or foreign production, it will have an Irish producer and an Irish crew,” she said. “We have great crews here in Ireland and an abundance of them.”

Tara Studios’ Dunleavy also emphasised the importance of Ireland’s overall film infrastructure. 

“It’s not just about tax, there are other ingredients in baking the pie, you need crew talent, equipment, and when you get that, it becomes a far more compelling argument,” he said. 

“Stability is very important, it’s easy for someone to say ‘Ireland has a tax credit of x per cent and we will do better,’ but it’s not so much the absolute value, it’s about the reliability of structures around that, studios, crew, equipment – that’s where Ireland, the UK and Canada excel.”

“The days of Ireland being an isolated place where you filmed just for the scenery are gone.”

Tim Morris, Windmill Lane

Tom Morris, brother of Lens Media backer James Morris and owner of audio and visual post-production company Windmill Lane, spoke to how the growing film industry will benefit Ireland. 

“There’s a huge amount of money being poured into the industry with streaming companies,” Morris said. “It’s become a really big industry, and there is a huge demand for content creation. These streaming companies are hungry beasts and they just want more, more, more. Like everything, when you get an expansion of demand, you have capacity problems, you need infrastructure, studios, facilities, everything.”

Windmill Lane handles all aspects of a production after the filming process, including colour correction, sound editing, and visual effects. The company is also heavily involved in the Irish commercial and advertisement sector, as well as the domestic and international film market. 

Tim Morris’ brother, James, founded Windmill Lane in the late ’70s. Tim has been with the company since the beginning and has seen the progression of the Irish film industry from its infancy. 

“The real big change for us was the advent of digital film tech arriving,” Tim Morris said. “Before, everything was on film, and Ireland didn’t have the laboratories to process the film. We would film on set, the film would be picked up by a crew in the evening, flown over to London, processed, and rushed back.” 

The Irish film market first started to see growth when movies went digital, he said.

“With the advent of broadband capabilities, all of that was done away with, and we were no longer an island. The days of Ireland being an isolated place where you filmed just for the scenery are gone.”

Demand for space

Morris said the industry has been steadily climbing in the country ever since, and it has hit its peak now during the pandemic. 

“My understanding is that all the studio space in Ireland is booked out, it’s at 100 per cent capacity, and most of Europe is the same,” he said. “The global industry has responded to Covid, and there has been a huge increase in demand for studios, so people are building studios all over the place.”

Karen Fitzpatrick, marketing director for Windmill Lane, said she was on a call last year with Netflix where they said they were releasing content several months ahead of schedule because people were burning through their library so quickly during the pandemic. 

“The amount of work being done here and abroad is probably the most in history.”

Karen Fitzpatrick, Windmill Lane

With streaming services pushing out their content at an accelerated pace, they also need to produce it at an accelerated pace, and the Irish film market is seeing the benefits of that. 

“The amount of work being done here and abroad is probably the most in history,” Fitzpatrick said. “When it comes to studios, there is an element of ‘if you build it, they will come’.”

The nation likely won’t be able to meet the current demand for film space for at least another couple of years, Morris said, when new studios like the two major projects in Grange Castle and Greystones Park are completed. 

The Ardmore Studios company was the first to get the ball rolling when it came to building new studios in the country to help drive the film Industry. Limerick-based Troy studios, founded in 2017 and owned by the same company as Ardmore, now under the name “Troy and Ardmore Studios,” is Ireland’s largest. It currently hosts Apple TV’s science-fiction drama Foundation, the most expensive production ever filmed in Ireland.

Several smaller studios have even popped up around the country in recent years, looking to cater towards a market too niche for the mainstream creators. 

One of those is [email protected] out of Galway, a derivative of the Cue One film equipment leasing company. 

[email protected] was founded in 2019 by Cue One managing director Kieran Cooney, who “saw that Galway was going to be the European capital of culture, and thought it would be a nice idea to put another available studio space in the city”. 

While looking for a new office for his film equipment business, Cooney came across the property for sale and decided to buy it. He funded the new studio entirely out of pocket, and it now hosts small children’s shows. 

Cooney has carved out a niche for himself in the Irish film industry, and he is glad he did with the presence of new, larger studios on the horizon.

“There have been a few murmurs about setting up new studios alright, but our stance depends on what area they want to get into,” he said. “We wouldn’t be large enough for an Amazon or Netflix-type production, we’re best suited for a chat show or something around that size.”

Cooney said he isn’t worried about the Irish film studio market becoming crowded anytime soon, thanks to the sheer lack of property available for such studios in the country.

“I don’t see it happening very quickly, the problem at the minute is that there isn’t enough commercial space available,” he said. “In order to get something like a studio of any size built at the minute, you can forget about it. There aren’t enough building companies out there to do the work. You wouldn’t see much change out of a €2-3 million investment, so you’d want to have a nice financial backing if you were starting a new one.”

When the new projects are built, and the studio space in the country expands, potential international productions could also benefit Ireland’s developed supporting players in the filmmaking process, along with the economy at large.

“A healthy industry is good for everybody,” Windmill’s Fitzpatrick said. “More production here means more exposure for companies like us.”

Tara’s Dunleavy said the economic impact of film studios is one of his biggest motivators for building a new studio. 

“The money that goes into these massive productions, this is money that is also being spent regionally, locally, it’s hitting these hubs of activity where those budgets are spent on hotels, taxi drivers, all sorts of things,” he said. “It’s not just about highly paid creative people, it’s about the economic activity that that kind of expenditure can create.”

Dunleavy added that when Saving Private Ryan was shot in Wexford over 25 years ago, the shoot injected €5 million into the economy.

Even if the new studios draw a crowd, though, Fitzpatrick says the Irish film industry, and economy in general, won’t necessarily benefit as much as many think. 

“In terms of a massive trickle-down effect, it’s not a given that that will be the case,” she said. “Productions might shoot here, but they may do post-production and visual effects elsewhere, they may buy their equipment elsewhere, they may bring staff from elsewhere, it’s not all coming from the inside.”

Morris said that Windmill often works on projects for clients that otherwise have no association with Ireland, which he says illustrates the growing global nature of the film industry. 

“When we talk about the ‘Irish film industry,’ what does that even mean? We have Irish productions that source staff and infrastructure from outside, and we have international productions that source from Ireland, it’s all become very blended, and the lines that countries get to claim a production as their own have been blurred,” Morris said.

The third act

Still, Morris believes the Irish players in the global film industry have their brightest days ahead.

“We definitely have the potential to be a filmmaking hub joining the likes of the Hollywoods of the world,” he said. “We are close to the UK and the US, which are huge parts of the global market and the biggest leaders in content creation. I’ve seen the way the Irish film industry has grown from a cottage industry to a really serious industry, and it can grow like that again.”

For the industry to grow, though, Tara’s Gleeson believes the government needs to work to keep the tax break competitive, especially when it comes to the cap.

Under the current law, productions can only claim their 32 per cent tax break up to a €70 million budget, meaning a €50 million project will get a tax break on €50 million, but a €100 million project will get a tax break on €70 million.

“As soon as you have a project over €70 million, you start excluding Ireland,” Gleeson said. “For projects over that number, we are ruled out at such an early stage. We don’t even get close to it.”

Gleeson said this model has been sustainable mainly due to TV show budgets, which have run on a per-shoot budget of about €50-60 million for most of the last decade, making Ireland an attractive destination for shows like the History Channel’s Vikings.

“We were able to do any TV series in the world, there were very few series where the shoot cost was over €70 million,” Gleeson said.

Now, with the emergence of original productions from streamers like Netflix, shoot cost budgets can reach €200 million, which could seal Ireland out of filming consideration if they don’t adapt. 

“Ireland really needs to address that cap to stay in the game for high-end television,” Gleeson said. “People are optimistic that it could happen in this year’s budget, but people have been optimistic in the past.”