Monday, February 21, 2011

An epistle to 'the industry'

Herewith a letter doing the rounds from the Film Board to certain folks in the film business. I'll save any commentary for the next post.

Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board is Ireland’s only dedicated screen agency with a dual responsibility to both foster and develop creatively led and distinctive Irish filmmaking, and to develop an industry for the making of films in Ireland. Film and cinema is at the heart of our remit and we recognise that the environment in which filmmakers are working is subject to constant and increasing change. Nowhere more so than in the way in which filmmakers can either succeed or fail to reach their audiences, which is at the heart of everything we do. We also recognise that many who work in film, also work in television and other forms of audio visual production and this wider definition of the industry has been identified and described in the Audio Visual Production Survey commissioned by the IFB and produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

You and your members know in a most direct way that we are living in a time of dramatic change and economic turmoil and so too is Bord Scannán na hÉireann/ the Irish Film Board. As an agency we know that we must constantly evolve if the agency is to remain relevant and meet the needs of both filmmakers, the wider production industry and retain the on-going support of Government and the public. It is in these contexts that I would like to outline and put forward, on behalf of the Board, the key priorities and issues we plan to actively engage with in the months ahead.

The appointment of a new Chief Executive is a major next step in the evolution of Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board and will in time result in some realignment of responsibilities within the IFB as we identify and engage with the issues that most directly affect those working in the industry today and in the future. The role of Chief Executive includes overall responsibility for ensuring that the IFB’s dual remit to filmmakers and the broader industry are fully met, and in the year ahead we anticipate a substantial increase in the focus on sectoral and industry development. We see this as essential if we are to ensure that filmmaking and the audiovisual production sector as a whole benefits from the emerging focus and support for Ireland’s Creative Industries. We believe that Irish filmmaking and the broader production industry will continue to be at the heart of Government
policies for growth and job creation for as long as the case is successfully made and measurable results can demonstrate the success of such policies.

The creative direction of Irish filmmaking and the ongoing support for Irish filmmaking talent is a key responsibility and is at the heart of any strategy for industry success and growth. As part of our overall plan for the year we also therefore intend to engage an additional person with a record of proven achievement in filmmaking to work as part of our Production and Development team. We will encourage open discussion among filmmakers about what constitutes Irish film and the creative direction it should be taking, and we will seek to work with Irish filmmakers to ensure that their films increasingly appeal to cinema-going audiences.

We have previously announced that the IFB has initiated, with the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport, an industry wide consultation in order to set out a strategy and policy recommendations to Government that would support the sustainable growth of the whole Audio Visual Production Sector over the next five years. Chaired by former Secretary General Brendan Tuohy, consultation work commenced towards the end of 2009 and early 2010. Since then the IFB has acted as the co-ordinator of an extensive consultation process carried out by the strategy group with all the organizations, representative groups and interested parties that contribute to the Audio visual production sector in Ireland. The results of the industry wide consultation and the recommendations of the strategy group were reaching their conclusion towards the end of 2010 and with the announcement of an election in February 2011 it now seems likely that the report will be submitted to the new Government at an early date following its formation.

In the event that the industry strategy document is adopted by the Government we anticipate that this will result in a substantial increase in the number of direct responsibilities of the IFB although the prospect of additional resources in the current climate is limited. This will be the challenge facing our new Chief Executive together with the staff of the IFB. Together with our staff the Board is committed to working with you and for you to advance the interests of all who make films, or work in film, animation and television in the year ahead.


Fred said...

Very interesting document. This jumped out at me:

We will encourage open discussion among filmmakers about what constitutes Irish film and the creative direction it should be taking, and we will seek to work with Irish filmmakers to ensure that their films increasingly appeal to cinema-going audiences.

I don't know about you but this seems a little odd. Clearly, the majority of the films made by Irish filmmakers have made little inroads into the consciousness of the average cinemagoer (although s/he may well catch the film when they're eventually shown on TV).

Should the IFB be spreading the net wider than Irish filmmakers for input on what constitutes the nature and creative direction of Irish film? Filmmakers may indeed be an informed group of people, but are hardly a representative subset of the general audience. Or is the Board hinting that it will be demanding that projects submitted have wider potential appeal -- and that there will be budgets to match?

It's also fascinating to see the IFB embrace more and more (in its reports, releases and general communications) the size of the "greater audiovisual industry", many of whom, I suspect, when they are working at all, are not working very often (for pay) on IFB-funded projects. I think this reflects a general co-option of non-filmmakers into the cause, in the service of "Information Society" and "Knowledge Economy" rhetoric and the like. I don't blame the Board for jumping on the growth and jobs creation bandwagon, to put it bluntly. But such "industrial" talk distances the board from its cultural remit, surely?

At the same time, the implicit concern for the cinema audience is welcome. You could argue that the Board has concentrated too much to date on the filmmaker side of the equation. Now that the "industry" has reached a degree of maturity, perhaps it is indeed time to think about the bums on the seats -- whether that's through making more appealing films (with suitable budgets), or through trying to grow the audience for less overtly commercial fare through measures such as media literacy and education. Perhaps measures like these will form part of teh Sustainability report?

irish film portal said...

You touch on a number of points I hope to cover in my next post, commenting on this.

The IFB's footprint is certainly a bit dubious now that they have gathered the entirety of the audiovisual sector into their political armoury. I'm including non-linear storytelling (gaming) and other forms of digital media undertakings in this audiovisual hold-all. The 'smart' economy I think it's being called, until a new sound-bite comes into currency.

The open discussion is to be encouraged 'among' rather than 'with' filmmakers. Whereas working 'with' them to ensure their work appeals to audiences reads like an ultimatum of sorts. What has the Board been doing already but developing projects, giving them production finance and then giving them substantial marketing support for distribution? If after all that support a film doesn't appeal to audiences then the filmmakers aren't the only ones not getting it right.

It's not necessarily a question of budgets, though it is certainly true that some films can only be properly realised on reasonable budgets. And it's true that audiences are conditioned to expect a level of spectacle in mainstream cinema.

I agree entirely about the dichotomy between the rhetoric and the cultural remit. If the focus of policy is job creation then telling meaningful stories on the screen is just not going to happen.

I don't believe that the Board has developed good storytelling skills among filmmakers (writers and directors) since 1993. The result is evident in the films and therein lies their frequent lack of appeal.

Instead it has placed emphasis on the capacity to produce, focusing on producers and supporting their companies. But if the public funding were withdrawn how many production businesses would be self-sustaining?

Fred said...

If after all that support a film doesn't appeal to audiences then the filmmakers aren't the only ones not getting it right.

Exactly. Which begs the question: where are the funding decisions coming from? Does the volume-friendly microbudget culture tie in with IFB2's original "radical pluralism" philosophy, or are we just throwing shit against the wall?

Those of us with faith in Irish filmmmakers (and God knows, it only takes a Kisses an As If I Am Not There or a One Hundred Mornings to show where the money, and more of it, should be going) know that the wherewithal is out there.

Are we doing enough to encourage the careers of these promising writer/directors? Or are we sacrificing them on the altar of The Fading Light Zonad and Wide Open Spaces, the latter film so unloved that it doesn't even appear on Ardal O'Hanlon or Don Wycherly's IMDB profiles?

I say, give me a proven director, and give him/her a budget. It's time to reward the rare success, rather than reducing the entire industry to the failure of the many.

irish film portal said...

When it comes to the perceived success or failure of individual films there are, it seems to me, three factors - quality, taste, and positioning. No two members audience of the same audience may agree on the first two while the third is a judgement call made within the exhibition/distribution trade. If a film's funders and producers are also directly or indirectly responsible for the distribution and exhibition of the film then they are, in my opinion incapable of making a balanced judgement on its positioning.

A four print release of a film in particular venues with small but appreciative audiences could be a success. A ten print release of the same title in mainstream sites could be a complete failure. Meanwhile, critics may differ on the merits of the same film.

There is some vailidity to your suggestion to give the money, and enough of it, to the talent. This should also involve cutting down on the amount of 'leakage' of funds into spending that does not end up on the screen. So yes, 12 indigenous films a year with €1m budgets sounds reasonable in this day and age.

Part of the problem with the money-to-talent notion is that there is a learning curve in the business and it takes experience to become a good director or a good screenwriter. One issue with our indigenous film output, I think, is that successful producers keep several mediocre directors and screenwriters in work.

Perhaps it's time to leave producers out of the development phase (since that has been the practice since 1993), concentrate development funding on the writers and directors and then let them shop around for producers when the projects are ready to be financed.

As regards the 'micro-budget culture', I have always believed that this is a function of political/institutional risk avoidance on the part of the IFB.

They're happy to give a project a big lump of money (like, say, Ondine or Triage) to an Irish or non-Irish title as long as their share of the perceived risk is not too high. But where their share of the risk is perceived to be high they will only give a small amount because it is a high proportion of the budget. And in the latter cases there can be a higher paper budget (deferral pricing) than the actual cash budget and that gives the appearance of a lower percentage contribution.

Triage received €700,000, more than several micro-budgets put together, was part of Anglo Irish Bank's film roster, and has gone straight to DVD under the title Shell Shock. I can only presume that no distributor wanted to release it theatrically in Ireland.

To sum up, the low-risk micro-budget 'experiment' or 'training' films have been, generally, far more successful (certainly with the critics) than the films in which the IFB invested significantly bigger amounts.