Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ardmore RIP?

Report today in the Irish Times by Business Correspondent Ciarán Hancock that Ardmore Studios are about to close after World 2000's Vikings has decided to shoot at Ballyhenry Studios, Ashford.

This has been on the cards for some time so it's not entirely unexpected, particularly since a second series of Camelot was not greenlit. Morgan O'Sullivan of World 2000 was the person who obtained planning permission in 2009 for studios at Ballyhenry after two previous attempts failed in 2004 and 2006.

I have written previously about Ardmore here and about Ballyhenry here.

In recent years Ardmore has been getting quiet little funding bail-outs from the Film Board (€500,000 in 2006/7) and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (€221,970 in 2010). Anyone in the business will be aware that the old sound stages were no longer adequate for the major off-shore productions that the tax break has been generously re-designed to capture.

I believe it is currently owned 32% by the state through Enterprise Ireland with the remaining 68% being held in equal 34% shares by Ossie Kilkenny and Paul McGuinness. The facility has suffered from a lack of investment over the years and as a result it has become somewhat obsolete.

Successive Ministers - John O'Donoghue, Seamus Brennan, Martin Cullen, Mary Hanafin and Jimmy Deenihan - have arrived in office to find an Ardmore file on their desk and, I've no doubt, it will have contained a worryingly potted history of its cost/benefit to the state since it was first founded over fifty years ago.

Time and again the state in various guises has had to step in to throw it a lifeline and it has also benefitted indirectly from Film Board production funding decisions, particularly in the case of 'international production fund' backing for TV projects. With a new studio opening one would have to presume that Ardmore can no longer count on this indirect subsidy.

There was a real opportunity to capitalise on Ardmore's real estate value during the height of the property boom and to reinvest the sale price in a new green-field facility. There was a proposal at one stage to buy out the private sector interest, sell the property and develop a new studio as a PPP project with capital from the NDP.

This was stymied on the one hand by political and planning concerns in Bray and on Wicklow County Council, and on the other, arguably, by the possibility that none of the shareholders were entirely committed to the business of running a film studio. And then the property boom ended.

There are a range of ancilliary businesses and company offices at Ardmore and presumably they will remain in situ at least until the facility is sold, if that is what is to happen.

As to Ballyhenry's long term prospects - one would have to be very optimistic. Studios are booming across the water in England, so much so that Warner Brothers are building their own new facilities at Leavesden at a cost of $200m. It has a 100 acre backlot and 115,000sq ft of workshop, office and facility space in addition to its several enormous sound stages.

Competition is fierce in this business and, as Ardmore has discovered, there's no point in half measures. It would be a shame if it were to turn out that Ballyhenry is merely a better facility for large-scale TV production than Ardmore.

[PS - I take it that the use on RTE News of a clip from Song For a Raggy Boy was not intentionally ironic - it was deliberately filmed 'off grid' in a disused school in West Cork]

[PPS - Albert Reynolds speaking in the Dáil on the closure of Ardmore 30 years ago: Ardmore Film Studios were purchased by the Government in 1973 at a cost of £.5 million in the belief that this was an essential prerequisite to the development of the film industry in Ireland. The total employment in the company was 46. Total Exchequer grants of £1.5 million were paid since the company were set up. The company incurred losses of the order of £.5 million per annum before grants, due to their inability to attract sufficient business and the lack of a proper capital structure which resulted in heavy interest payments. The losses projected for this year alone were approximately £780,000. Indebtedness to the banks had reached almost £2 million. That puts the loss situation into perspective.]


Tom Dowling said...

The writing has been on the wall for a long time at Ardmore, poor vision band bad management have bought it to this point. Ardmore was almost completely reliant on Morgan O'Sullivan to bring in the work for the past 6-7 years. It was getting more difficult to convince international producers that Ardmore was a good choice. In 2004 a senor Paramount producer told me following The Honeymooners that while they were very pleased with the crew they were terribly disappointing with the quality of the studios. Ardmore still has a role to play provided they pick up their game. Today's IT piece was a bit of kite flying by Ardmore management in attempt to keep The Vikings at Ardmore but O'Sullivan/O'Connell have bigger plans. However if an hour travel time is to be paid to all crews traveling to Ashford as
unions are suggesting that could mean paying out €500,000 to crew before any production happens, wiping any advantage. Will any international producer be happy
with that? There is room for both studios I still cant figure out how our nearest neighbours have not got enough studios space to do the work yet Ardmore could not get a single production to use the sound stages in the past year.

irish film portal said...

Tom, I suspect you're right, this looks like a last ditch effort by shareholders to get the government in some guise to cough up for Ardmore.

There is the possibility that there was an offer on the table some years ago but that the shareholders put a higher value on the property than the state was prepared to pay. This would have prevented the building of a new, greenfield studio complex through a Public Private Partnership backed by the NDP.

Now they're left with a lame duck business at a time when property values are still falling. Plus there's no guarantee of a favourable planning decision. If the Co. Council is determined to restrict development of the site to light industrial use then it will be a very long time before they can get out.

Their only options are to keep paying the bills or to close it down and put a security guard on the gate.

Anonymous said...

Just been browsing through the IFTN website and find it amusing that they have avoided mentioning a thing about Ardmore's possible closure in their news section. Are they living the dream?

irish film portal said...

If it isn't good news it isn't news.

Anonymous said...

What will become of the various companies/squatters based at the studios, if Ardmore does close down?

irish film portal said...

Presumably if the studios were to close then the services/offices on site will carry on renting their premises until such time as Ardmore is sold.

irish film portal said...


If there are squatters on Ardmore property I'd be interested to hear confirmation of the fact, and the basis on which they have been allowed to remain. If persons or individuals have been trading rent free from Ardmore for a number of years it might complicate any mooted sale of the property.

irish film portal said...
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