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How Ireland’s Film Sector Went From a ‘Cottage Industry’ to a Global Force (and Awards Season Darling)

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Ireland appears to be everywhere on screen at the minute — and it isn’t just a trend.

Where 2022 and 2023 had “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Paul Mescal, “The Quiet Girl” and short film “The Irish Goodbye” making noise throughout awards season, plus John Carney’s “Flora and Son” being snapped up in Sundance by Apple TV+, 2024 has already shown that the Irish industry has become a global force.

Cillian Murphy — who is expected to soon add to his BAFTA leading actor win for “Oppenheimer” with an Oscar — leads the charge this time, followed by “Saltburn” star Barry Keoghan (with a dancing, naked behind, perhaps). There’s also Yorgos Lanthimos’ awards-favorite “Poor Things,” produced by Irish powerhouse studio Element Pictures and shot by Dubliner Robbie Ryan (who earned his second Oscar nomination for the film). The Murphy-led and -produced Irish indie “Small Things Like These” (which, like “The Quiet Girl,” was based on a novella by Irish author Claire Keegan) just opened the Berlinale to rave reviews, while raucous music biopic “Kneecap” — an Irish/Northern Irish co-production — was one of the standouts from Sundance, where it was swooped upon by Sony Pictures Classics. If “Kneecap” isn’t submitted as the Irish entry to the Oscars next time around, expect a riot. 

But for those working in the Irish film and TV sector, these recent achievements — however stellar — aren’t just a brief flash in the pan moment, but rather the culmination of a movement that’s been ascending for some time. 

“It’s a bit like the overnight success that takes 30 years to come,” says Alan Maloney, who produced “Small Things Like These” with Murphy through their newly-formed Big Things Films banner. “I think what you’re seeing is the result of 25 to 30 years of investment in the industry.”

Maloney — whose credits include “Brooklyn” and “Albert Nobbs” (and whose relationship with Murphy dates back to 2003’s “Intermission”) — notes that when he first started out in the 1990s, it would be an “exception” if there was one film that came out of in Ireland each year. “But now there’s a constant stream of production, in film and television, with multiple projects happening all the time,” he says. “It’s gone from being a cottage industry to a full-fledged industry.”

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Ed Guiney, co-founder of Element Pictures, traces the recent surge — especially when it comes to awards and global recognition — to around 2016, when both Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” and John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” found themselves among the contenders. But he, like most producers, points to state agency Screen Ireland — which was reinstated as the Irish Film Board in 1993 (the day after Neil Jordan won the best screenplay Oscar for “The Crying Game”) before being renamed to encompass TV in 2018 — for its “sustained investment” over the last three decades.

“In a way, we were quite late to the game in Ireland in terms of government funding and support,” he says, adding that the country’s renowned literary tradition and “storytelling impulse” helped get things moving quickly once it was established. “I think we’ve taken to it like ducks to water.”  

Screen Ireland CEO Désirée Finnegan says that she recently tallied up 40 different funding streams that the organization now has in place, from assisting with slate development within companies to helping both emerging and established writers, funding directors independently to develop a particular idea and supporting emerging actors. Indicating its commitment, the organization’s total budget for 2024 stands at an all-time high of $42 million, up from $40.4 million in 2023. 

“There’s a belief that when artists are properly supported, you give them space to create the best work possible,” she says. 

For Ruth Treacy, co-founder of Tailored Films, some of the most recent success is down to Screen Ireland not just continuing its funding during the COVID-19 pandemic, but actively putting money into slate and company development. 

“They allowed a lot of companies to keep going and really use that time very wisely,” she says, adding that when the lockdowns lifted, these companies were “ready to pounce with their next production.”

Treacy is currently in post-production on “Bring Them Down,” a film about feuds between farmers that is likened to a modern Irish Western. Mescal was initially due to star in the film, but when he dropped out Keoghan stepped into his muddy boots (“I remember when Paul couldn’t do it, we thought, ‘Oh my God, the only person who has a similar profile is Barry,’ and we couldn’t believe our luck when he said he’d do it,” she recalls). 

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Perhaps underlining what Treacy describes as the “advantage” Ireland’s various funding models give a producer such as herself over counterparts in the U.K., “Bring Them Down” was initially set up as British project, which writer/director Chris Andrews had planned to be set and shot in rural England.

“But it ended up becoming a majority Irish project, because they couldn’t raise enough finance in the U.K.,” she says. Instead, “Bring Them Down” was rewritten as Irish (Mescal’s co-star Christopher Abbott had to learn how to speak Irish) and shot not far from Dublin (standing in for the West coast).

Central to Screen Ireland’s support is its Section 481 tax relief, a globally competitive incentive allowing producers to claim back 32% of their spend on film, TV and animation. The eligible expenditure ceiling of this was recently raised from $75 million per project to $134 million, with an eye on attracting major big budget projects to Irish shores. 

Not that the country had much trouble doing so previously, with Ireland having a long tradition of providing a welcome home to major productions from Hollywood studios (most of “Braveheart” was famously shot there). However, much like the rest of the industry, this inward investment has stepped up a gear over the last few years. Recent films shot in the country include “Cocaine Bear,” “The Pope’s Exorcist” and Universal’s upcoming monster horror “Abigail,” which wrapped in December (with young Irish actress Alisha Weir in a lead role). But perhaps topping all this is the recent news that Netflix’s hit series “Wednesday” will be shifting to County Wicklow for its second season, and is expected to start filming next month. 

Wild Atlantic Pictures has made a name for itself supporting or co-producing some of the larger scale productions that have shipped over to Ireland, working on many of the bigger recent projects, including “Abigail.” Co-CEO and co-founder Macdara Kelleher says there’s a fairly even split between the incoming studio titles his company produces and the local features they set up themselves, but that there’s now a symbiotic relationship between the two when it comes to local talent. 

On “Abigail,” for example, Kelleher notes that most of the heads of department were Irish, while it also was co-written by Irish screenwriter Stephen Shields (who happened to co-write “The Hole in the Ground,” the feature debut of Lee Cronin, who directed the recent hit “Evil Dead Rise,” which Wild Atlantic also co-produced). And it’s happening across the board. On Disney’s 2022 family fantasy “Disenchanted,” filmed in and around Wicklow and Dublin, Screen Ireland’s Finnegan says some 98% of the crew were Irish. 

“I think we always had this idea that if we had those big productions coming into Ireland and showing that we had world class crew and great studio infrastructure, there was no reason why we shouldn’t also be producing films by Irish talent at the highest level,” says Kelleher, who says there are similarities to how Peter Jackson brought “The Lord of the Rings” to New Zealand. “That’s a big part of our ethos.”

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For Tracy, Ireland has “always had a hidden arsenal of talents, but it’s the like the rest of the world has only realized it now.”

These synergies between international and local productions, and Ireland’s growing pool of talent behind the camera, grew even stronger in 2019 when Screen Ireland tweaked the tax incentive, which now requires that qualifying projects provide skills development. Finnegan says that, at the last count in 2023, more than 5,000 participants had gone through the initiative, which spans both new entrants into the sector and those already within it wanting to train up. 

“So there’s a lot of opportunities for creatives across the Irish industry on those big projects, and then they can come back in to make local projects,” she says.

While global audiences and voting bodies may only recently have started cottoning onto the impressive array of Irish screen talent working in front of and behind the camera, Áine Moriarty, founder and chief executive of the Irish Film & Television Academy, helped give many their first taste of what was to come in terms of awards and accolades, often decades earlier.

At the very first IFTA awards in 2003, she recalls a little-known Andrew Scott being named best actor for “Dead Bodies,” much to the bemusement of the assembled press who hadn’t heard of him before. That year, Scott was up against Cillian Murphy for “28 Days Later” and Colin Farrell for “Intermission.” In 2004, Abrahamson — now known for “Room” and launching the career of Mescal thanks to “Normal People” — won best director for his debut feature “Adam & Paul,” his first collaboration with the recently-launched Element Pictures.

As Moriary notes: “We all know where that journey led onto.” 

Source: Variety

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