Susan Kirby has been heading up Screen Producers Ireland (SPI) for fifteen months when we meet over Zoom.
A last-minute Covid scare halted our planned interview and instead Kirby gears up to talk about her first year in the job from the surroundings of her home in south Dublin.
Kirby arrived in SPI via the St Patrick’s Day Festival. During her 12-year tenure there, she transformed the patriotic brand from a two-day Dublin-centric event into the week-long extravaganza it is now.
With a background in theatre and the arts, Kirby was keen to take up the job at SPI, which is the representative group for 150 producers in Ireland. SPI’s members vary from some of the biggest producers in Ireland to sole traders working in niche areas.
Kirby’s predecessor Elaine Geraghty vacated the role in late 2020 to take up an offer of managing director at Ardmore and Troy Studios.
Fortuitously for both perhaps, it is a time of extraordinary growth in the screen production sector and the so-called “golden era” for content production.
A rising tide
2021 broke records for both the scale of screen production in Ireland and the amount contributed to the domestic economy by the industry, as both international and indigenous production soared.
More than €500 million was contributed to the Irish economy by film, documentary, animation and television drama production.
Indigenous Irish film activity surged 52 per cent, local TV drama spend went up by 40 per cent and international production swelled by 45 per cent. Animation also had a great year as it was up 27 per cent.
The figures are based on estimates from the state development agency for the Irish film, television and animation industry, Screen Ireland.
The surge is being put down to an unprecedented global demand for content fuelled by streamers like Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple and Amazon, plus pent-up post-pandemic demand and some spillover from the UK, where studios are wedged.
The announcement earlier this month of a €300 million investment into a new studio in Greystones by an international consortium led by the Hollywood mogul Michael Hackman seems only to add to the anticipation that Ireland’s production scene will continue to grow at warp speed.
For Kirby, the new studio space is an obvious sign of long-term commercial optimism in the audiovisual sector in Ireland.
“The development of the Greystones Media Campus, and the substantial state involvement and private investment, is a real sign of confidence in the Irish AV sector for the future,“ Kirby said.
“We look forward to working with state agencies, like Screen Ireland, to ensure we have the crew levels needed to sustain the productions that will be filming here and working with the Government to ensure that the Irish Film and TV tax credit remains internationally competitive to draw these productions over here.”
The Greystones studio is set to open in 2024, the same year the Section 481 tax credit for film production is due for review.
S481 is the foundation upon which the screen industry in Ireland functions. It offers a 32 per cent tax rebate to productions with budgets of up to €70 million. The international standard is around 25 per cent, so Ireland does have somewhat of a competitive advantage but keeping that and elevating it, by raising the current cap, is on Kirby’s to-lobby list.
“€70 million equates to the budget for a medium-scale production in international terms, so Ireland needs to be able to compete for larger productions,” she said.
“This would then mean that the sector has sustainable career options for people working in the industry, as they will be able to move between international and indigenous productions throughout the year.
“From our perspective, it’s important that there is clarity around Section 481. It is due to be reviewed in 2024 and we would like the process to begin now.
“We would also support the continued regional uplift, which adds an additional 3 per cent to productions that are working outside of the traditional hubs of Dublin and Wicklow.
“It is a very fast-moving sector and the decisions to locate productions are being made now, on the basis of our competitiveness, so we need to move quickly.”
Future of the media
Concern over adequate and plentiful funding for the sector is constant and SPI, like many other bodies, is waiting for the Future of Media Commission report to be released. It was submitted to the government last autumn.
The Commission is expected to make a recommendation to reform or abolish the TV licence fee, which funds RTÉ, potentially replacing it with a universal household levy.
The state broadcaster is the largest commissioner of independent productions in the state and its budget has been reduced from around €80 million before the 2008 financial crash to €40 million.
Predictably, without a sustainable funding model for the broadcaster, the independent production sector is suffering.
“Outside of S481, RTÉ is probably the largest funding source for the sector and a significant number of our members would rely on RTÉ as a large part of their business portfolio,” Kirby said.
“There is a symbiotic relationship between RTÉ and the independent production sector, as there is with TG4. It is critical to our sector that RTÉ is put on a strong footing.
“What will be key in the Commission’s report will be recommendations for the kind of sustainable funding of RTÉ, be that through licence fee reform and/or cost saving.
“Ideally, we would like to see RTÉ move to a publisher-broadcaster model over the next number of years, a similar model to TG4.”
It’s likely that any move to a publisher-broadcaster model, which would mean commissioning or buying all programming from independent producers similar to the way TG4 or Channel Four in the UK operates, would be heavily resisted by RTE. With the current pace of play however, it’s unlikely that bridge is even on the horizon yet.
The delay in publishing the report is causing friction across the board and the Oireachtas media committee have also complained about the long and unexplained period of silence on the status of the report.
The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media told The Currency: “The report will not be published until An Taoiseach and Minister [for Culture Catherine] 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. “
Kirby is emphatic in her calls for the Commission’s work to be released and for the sector to be cut free from its current impasse.
“The continued delay to the publication of the Future of Media Commission report is causing a policy vacuum which is slowing down any prospects of tangible reform and increased investments across the sector,” she said.
“It is very difficult for an organisation like RTÉ to commit to any strategy when its underpinning financial support is unclear for the coming years. Until there is clear sight of the recommendations and the beginning of a public debate on the future of funding for RTÉ and TG4, elements of our work are stuck in perpetual limbo.”
In an unusual move, SPI has joined forces with the Animation Ireland, RTÉ and TG4, and others, to campaign for a levy on streaming services. Other European countries have introduced a similar levy on services like Sky TV and Netflix with success. The levy in France is 5 per cent, and 2 .5 per cent in Germany.
These levies have been implemented without a cost to the consumer as they have so far been absorbed by the streaming giants. A 3 per cent levy here would generate €24 million.
“The purpose of it, it would be pointed towards the support of Irish creative talent and independent productions being able to compete globally,” Kirby said.
“At the moment we feel Ireland is falling behind our European counterparts, and we feel Ireland needs to, with urgency, bring in the levy.”
Provision for a levy to be introduced is included in the EU’s Audio Visual Media Services Directive, which was passed in 2018.
“We would like to see the BAI take on the planning for the levy now,” she said.
“We are looking to achieve additionality with this, it would be a new fund, rather than replacing anything else. You look at Irish productions like Normal People and Kin, we want to create further opportunities for Irish people and those bodies of creative talent and build intellectual property in the sector.”