Balance is a word often heard in conversations with the leading figures in the Irish screen industry.

According to many in the sector, there is now an increasingly precarious balance of supporting indigenous productions while making room for the international juggernauts that bring millions of euro to the Irish economy and thousands of jobs, such as Disney’s Disenchanted, filmed in Co Wicklow, or Apple’s sci-fi series Foundation, adapted from Isaac Asimov’s 1951 novel.

The uncertain balance presents a fundamental question: how to exponentially grow the Irish screen industry through foreign investment and build a resilient sector, without sacrificing the identity and voice of Irish creatives?

It is a question at the top of many in the industry’s mind.

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In the early weeks of April, a long awaited announcement came: the development of a €300 million studio in Greystones, which will effectively double high-spec studio space in Ireland upon completion in 2024. 

There will be 14 soundstages and 670,000 square feet of studio space set across 44 acres, ultimately creating 1,500 new jobs in the audio visual sector. 

The project was first announced in August 2021 following the purchase of Ardmore and Troy Studios, and is being undertaken by a partnership between Hackman Capital Partners and Square Mile Capital Management, alongside its affiliate, The MBS Group. 

Michael Hackman, the founder and CEO of Hackman Capital Partners, is a Hollywood mogul credited with turning global studio real estate into a thriving new asset class.

The new owners of Greystones Media Campus already run the world’s biggest studio and media portfolio. Between July and December 2021, Hackman and its affiliates expanded further, buying up studios across the US, including the famous Kaufman Astoria studios in New York, Canada, the UK and Ireland.

Space for content production is an area where demand continues to outstrip supply, and the continuation of this is something the Greystones partnership are betting on. 

Tax and talent

The Irish film and TV industry has been roaring over the past few years, both with a slate of indigenous productions that are receiving international acclaim, and foreign productions being made here. 

In 2021, a record year for the screen industry, it contributed €500 million to the Irish economy, surpassing the previous record of €358 million in 2019, according to figures from industry group Screen Ireland. 

One of the greatest areas of growth was international production activity, which surged 45 per cent, and employed thousands of people, across shooting crews, talent and production. 

Ireland has played host to dozens of international feature films in production or post-production in recent years including The Northman, The Green Knight, The Last Duel, and a plethora of TV series, including an adaptation of Graham Norton’s Holding.

In part the surge is being put down to the unprecedented global demand for content fuelled by streamers Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple and Amazon. 

All are pumping money into original series and films and finding Ireland a lucrative place to base themselves, thanks in part to the Section 481 tax relief scheme. 

Section 481 allows for tax relief of 32 per cent, with an additional 3 per cent uplift if the production takes place in a regional area of Ireland, and is among the most appealing tax breaks for the film industry in the world. 

There is a project cap of €70 million and a minimum spend of €125,000

Tax incentives have become a cornerstone of film and TV  producers’ financing plans, typically providing a headline rate of around 25 per cent of eligible expenditure. 

In Australia, which has been billed “Aussiewood” for the level of blockbuster activity on the continent there is a 16.5 per cent tax rebate for production, and a 30 per cent tax rebate for post-production activity.

France offers a 30 per cent rebate for international production, with a per project cap of €30 million, the UK offers up to 25 per cent cash rebate of qualifying expenditure. There is no cap on the project’s budget or amount payable, in the UK, but the tax relief is capped at 80 per cent of the core expenditure.

As Ireland’s Section 481 has a sunset clause, it is due for review in 2024 and it is expected that there will be significant lobbying before then for the government to raise the €70 million cap far higher to entice mega international productions to Ireland.

But indigenous Irish film productions tend not to use studio space and operate on far smaller budgets, John McDonnell and Brendan McCarthy, co-founders of Fantastic Films, told The Currency from location in Lahinch, Co Clare. 

Fantastic Films is one of the leading European production companies of genre films, including Vivarium, starring Jesse Eisenberg, and Arracht, the Irish language horror that was nominated as the Irish entry for the Best International Film for the 2021 Oscars. 

McDonnell and Brendan McCarthy don’t see themselves in competition with the big production houses for studio space, but they, like others, are cautioning against an imbalance of Irish productions and international use of Irish space and resources

Citing Australia as an example of a country that has chased Hollywood to the exclusion of its own industry, McDonnell said: “We want to be a services industry for larger productions, which helps people get experience, as well as work and income. 

“But I think culturally it is really important that we also have an Irish voice. We’ve had so much success in the past with Irish projects, in terms of Oscar wins, and all of those international things that we think it’s really important to have a balance.”

What Fantastic Films have found with the surge in international production on the island, is an increase in competition from higher-budget streaming projects for finding talent and cast. 

“Streamers operate on a higher per minute cost, and tend to run longer than an independent project. So there is greater competition for talent, whether you want to be or not, you are competing for a shooting crew etc,” McDonnell said. 

McDonnell and McCarthy see the solution to the battle for talent hopefully being rectified, to some extent, by crew altering their expectations and recognising the artistic and creative benefits of working on an independent production rather than a hugely commercial one. 

“I think just an understanding that maybe you need to think about things in two different ways at the same time and not have the same expectation that because you’ve worked on a massive Disney movie or something and you get paid a particular amount of money, that’s what you should always get,” McCarthy said.

“I think you’ve more opportunities to develop as a creative in the independent sector and there is a danger of working on the kind of large productions that it can become more like factory work.” 

McCarthy points to the UK and to Australia as two jurisdictions where the indigenous industry is suffering as a result of the focus on foreign investment. 

“For all the talk about the British industry, the independent sector in the UK is suffering really badly,” he said.“ You know, they’re doing very well in servicing large American productions.

“Their actual indigenous industry is in deep trouble. The UK is becoming more and more of a service location and while that’s good in the short term, in terms of having a voice on the world stage as creators, it can be very detrimental.

“In Australia, all the state supports are now angled towards Hollywood in Australia. You really wonder about that, because tax breaks should be enough for those kinds of entities really, the idea of getting more seems a bit ludicrous, really. 

“If you’re going to invest taxpayers’ money, it’s not just about creating employment, but also creating a skill base and your own content and your own voice.”

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Siún Ní Raghallaigh, who co-owned and ran Ardmore and Troy for a decade before it sold up to Hackman, advises thinking of indigenous industry and foreign, as separate entities, both requiring expertise, talent and tax breaks but still separate. 

Ní Raghallaigh still acts as a consultant for Ardmore and Troy Studios, and is the chairperson of TG4’s board. 

“This is the golden time to be in the content creation industry, there is just such a demand for quality content, as well as mediocre content, don’t ask me why,” she said.

“But I think it is important to see the bigger picture and bigger vision, we need to focus on that as an industry.”

Ní Raghallaigh points out how the film industry contributes to a boon in other sectors and brings greater benefits to Ireland as a whole. 

“The larger the  scale, the more we produce for the island, the better it is. There is a net benefit to the economy of the tax incentive – that is how the industry dips into other sectors, like film tourism,” she said.

“As with any sector, we don’t want to become a manufacturing part of the industry. I don’t think we are that. But that is why it is important to see the bigger picture. The upside of that is the relationships we build. 

“If you take TG4’s Cine4, which funds Irish language feature films, like Arracht, Foscadh and An Cailín Ciúin, those films are getting fantastic exposure and it’s in part as a result of the relationships that have built between here and LA. Those relationships are ones we are slowly building into a two way street.”

An Cailín Ciúin won a Grand Prix prize earlier this year, at the Berlin International Film Festival and was funded from the Cine4 fund, an initiative from TG4, Screen Ireland  and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to develop original feature films in the Irish language. 

“The ecosystem is much larger than the just large incoming productions. We are a small country and we have always been dependent on FDI to a degree but from a broadcasting perspective, RTÉ and TG4 are the main source of commissions and to some extent Virgin too,” Ní Raghallaigh said.

“All of these pieces make up the ability for independent producers to make content. it is all sort of tied in.”

A political issue

One of Ni Raghallaigh’s primary concerns, which chims with others who spoke to The Currency, is the method of funding the state broadcaster RTÉ, and the Irish language broadcaster TG4. 

RTÉ is the biggest commissioner of TV productions in the country and right now the word that is attributed by many to its licence fee funding model is “broken”.

To find a better way of funding the broadcaster is one of the reasons The Future of Media Commission was established by this government in September 2020. 

One mooted recommendation has been to do away with the TV licence and to introduce a universal household charge. 

The Commission completed its independent report and gave it to the government months ago but it has been lingering unpublished since, to the chargrin of many.

“This report really matters,” Rory Coveney, director of strategy at RTÉ, said over a phone interview.

“It is about a plan for RTÉ to be here into the future. It is not about sustaining RTÉ itself, but about the content, the journalism we do, the documentaries we produce, the Irish stories we tell. We want to continue – and reinvigorate it and refresh. But right now it is just very difficult to plan ahead when we don’t know what our budget will be.”

In 2008, before the financial and property crash, RTÉ had a budget of around €80 million to commission independent production, through various budget cuts, that figure is now €40 million.

Coveney has not had sight of the Commission’s report, but has read the general news reports that there is a reccommendation to abolish the TV licence system and replace it with a levy.

“It goes without saying from RTÉ’s perspective, that the current system doesn’t work. Through avoidance and evasion of the fee, we estimate we have lost €60 million and there is no sustainable model for RTÉ in the future without this being addressed,” he said.

“We would love to be spending more – a thriving independent production sector is essential and it requires investment. There is a clear consequence not only for RTÉ but for the independent production sector, we want to be spending more but we don’t have the resources,” Coveney said.

The risk, from Coveney’s perspective is that without change, RTÉ becomes less relevant and that it is no longer able to hold audience’s attention, as the expectations of viewers is sky-high from an diet of streamed international content with huge budgets.

The delay in publishing the report has been heavily criticised by Fianna Fáil TD Niamh Smyth, who chairs the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Media. Others have also questioned why the report is taking months to be released. 

In a statement, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media told The Currency that the report had been submitted to the government last Autumn.

It continued: “The consideration of the Commission’s report cannot be carried out in isolation, and must also have regard to a range of other complex and inter-related issues in the wider media and digital space, including the national digital strategy Harnessing Digital – The Digital Ireland Framework and Ireland’s approach to the implementation of the forthcoming Digital Services Act.”

When asked for clarification as to whether there was any timeline for the report to be published, a spokesperson for the department said; “The report will not be published until An Taoiseach and Minister Martin (together with other key Ministers) have completed their consideration of the report and its recommendations, and until it has been submitted to Cabinet.  That timeframe has yet to be put in place. “

Funding and the future

Susan Kirby, CEO of Screen Producers Ireland (SPI), pictured in the Lighthouse Cinema. PIC Bryan Meade

For Susan Kirby, the chief executive of the representative body Screen Producers Ireland (SPI), it is crucial to the sector that RTÉ is properly funded, but she believes it should go one step further to a producer broadcaster model where all content is commissioned. 

“Ideally, we would like RTÉ to move to a producer broadcaster model over the next number of years, which is the similar model to TG4,” she said.

“But we would also like to see reform of the licence fee, to see that they’re adequately funded, and that that funding can then be given to the large suppliers as one of their largest creation partners, which is the independent production sector.”

SPI is currently lobbying the government for a content levy to be applied to the Irish revenues of streaming platforms, which would then be spent directly on Irish content. 

The need for the Irish industry to have Intellectual Property of its own and develop the creative voices of individual Irish based producers, is what this comes back to for Kirby. 

“I think by building our own IP, we’re not just developing a service industry, which, in a way, makes you very susceptible to external forces,” she said.

“You have that balance of being able to compete for major international inbound work, while also having a strong indigenous sector.” 

An animating model

Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, which was nominated for an Oscar.

An interesting case for both the building of distinct and creative talent, which also builds out expertise in production and post-production through international investment, is Cartoon Saloon. 

The animation company is known worldwide, not only for its five Oscar nominations but also by the breadth of its work, which streams around the world. 

Puffin Rock, a cartoon for pre-school children, is hugely popular in China, Tomm Moore, co-founder and creative director of Cartoon Saloon, told The Currency

“We have been going for 20 years now, but it felt like we were a bit split. We were looking for the work from Netflix, Disney, Amazon, and then about five years ago got to a place where we decided to make partnership with a company in Canada called Mercury Filmworks and they were very much specialised,” he said. 

He added: It is a different service to the other side of our business which is putting together our own projects and getting our own projects funded, whether that is through co productions, European co productions or using the Screen Ireland and tax incentives to get our own projects developed and then sell them on to Netflix or Apple. 

“They were different because they were our own projects rather than work for hire. So we set up a sister studio in Kilkenny, with Mercury, called Lighthouse and it is primarily focused on that kind of work. So we do a lot of stuff for Disney, Amazon and Netflix. 

“So that is tipping along and in Cartoon Saloon we are focused on the indigenous stuff. The odd time in Cartoon Saloon we would be doing projects with bigger companies, but less and less. There is a separation now. 

“We are constantly approached by people who want to work on high end service stuff. For the first ten years we were working on whatever paid the bills, but it did get to a point where people were asking us to work on stuff that was in our wheelhouse.”

Cartoon Saloon employes around 500 people across their two studios in Kilkenny and while in the past it may have been difficult to get talent to move to Kilkenny, the studio has built such a sterling international repurtaiton that it is no longer an issue.

Moore sees the industry as being a two-way street, where Irish people can cut their teeth in the big service projects, can gain learning and expertise and then this can in turn lead to them being able to lead their own ideas. 

For Moore and for Cartoon Saloon, the five Oscar nominations have brought incredible awareness, recognition and industry validation of their work and craft of hand-drawn animation. 

“Obviously it’s been amazing but I do think we need to move on , and set our sights on a more kind of sustainable ongoing sense of quality and success,” he said.

“I would hate it to become an albatross that, that if a project doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, that it would somehow be seen as less than which I think would be a pity because, I know, we’ve been incredibly lucky.”

Despite the luck in getting nominated, Cartoon Saloon has never won an Academy Award, something which Moore calls “frustrating”. 

“Something happens when it comes to the actual awards, that the same companies will win,” he said.

What Cartoon Saloon is aiming for now is a big breakout hit, one that establishes their name away from the Oscar nominations and entirely in its own right. And that might be on the way with their Puffin Rock, feature film, which is currently in production with a Chinese partner. 

“There is a true line in the company that we didn’t set up primarily as a business,” he said.

“We had a lot of values and ethics that we wanted to bring to the industry, and Puffin Rock really teaches kids about wildlife and about nature, in a gentle way. It’s more for kids, rather than being just being made for toys that they hope you buy afterwards.”

Cartoon Saloon has successfully straddled the divide between local and international success. It is a model that other producers – and the wider industry – will be hoping to mirror.

Further reading:

“If you build it, they will come”: How new studios are looking to bring more movies to Ireland