Posted on Wednesday 11 April 2012 by Ulster Business

Creative Industries

6Degrees was filmed in Belfast

Stephen McVey looks behind the recent success of Northern Ireland’s screen and television industry and finds there’s much more to the industry than the HBO series Game of Thrones

The film and television industry in Northern Ireland is going through an unprecedented period of growth.

Oscar© success, Hollywood feature films and the coup of bringing HBO to Belfast have been the highlights so far.

But like a perfectly poised movie, this is just the beginning of the story.  How we act now will decide whether the industry in Northern Ireland is remembered as a short film that had its glory days; or if we can find a way to sustain the success like a full feature franchise.

There are concerns that due to the cyclical nature of big productions, Northern Ireland might be left for dust, like a post Olympics host city after a hurricane of success. This possibility has not been overlooked by politicians and funders inNorthern Ireland, who have been working hard to implement a sustainable model in the industry.

Following on from the success of the student drama 6Degrees, Northern Ireland Screen has recently announced the welcome news that it is funding three network BBC dramas to be filmed in Northern Ireland over the coming months. The comedy Blandings, psychological thriller The Fall (starring Gillian Anderson) and army drama Privates are all being made in Northern Ireland. Filming has already begun on Privates, and after years of infrequent local productions, there are signs of a mini-boom in the creative industries.

Twenty Twenty, the production company who are making Privates, cited “the amazingly helpful and encouraging Northern Ireland Screen‚” as a key reason behind their choice to film here. The government backed agency is helping to develop the industry to a level where the Executive have taken notice of its contribution to the economy. NI Screen estimates that in 2010-2011, its main production investment fund returned £28.3m to the local economy at a ratio of 6.42:1, on an investment of £4.4m.        

It is difficult to ignore the opportunities that have arisen thanks to Game of Thrones, in spite of an eagerness to prove that there is more to our film and television industry than the HBO hit.

NI Screen Chief Executive Richard Williams is keen to maintain the momentum:  “New sound stages are being built at the Titanic Quarter as a consequence of Game of Thrones. They are tremendous for job creation, but they cannot be the sole diet of the creative industries here.” For a whole range of reasons, we must also have local producers supporting local writers supporting local directors to express every type of story from here.”

Recent Oscar© winners Terry and Oorlagh George have been announced as cultural ambassadors for Northern Ireland. They attended a screening of The Shore in the Queen’s Film theatre to celebrate the academy success of their charmingly poignant and comical short film.

Producer Oorlagh believes that the patience shown when waiting for the local talent to come through will soon be rewarded.

“People are getting opportunities to work on things like Game of Thrones where they are being trained professionally and then can go and make their own films. I think that infrastructure we’re just going to start to see pay off,” she said.

The BBC has a commitment to produce 3% of network programmes in Northern Ireland by 2015. It is a percentage that champions of the local industry would like to see increased. However the early signs are encouraging that this target will be surpassed. Speaking about the local production, 6Degrees, Ailsa Orr, head of programmes at BBC Northern Ireland highlighted the benefits to the industry: “It’s a showcase for some brilliant new acting talent, and has offered an important opportunity for local writers and upcoming production talent.”

The ability to sustain the growth of the creative industries in Northern Ireland has received a boost in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s 2012 budget. A tax credit scheme for gaming, TV production and animation is to be introduced, in a bid to keep creative talent in the UK. Recent productions, such as The Tudors, Camelot and the Julian Fellowes’ drama Titanic, were all made abroad to take advantage of tax incentives in other countries.

Whilst the news will be welcomed by those in the industry, the caveat is that the concession, dubbed “the Downton Abbey credit”, will only be applied to high end television programmes. HBO’s Executive VP of business and legal affairs, Glenn Whitehead, has indicated that this will make Northern Ireland an even more attractive option: “Today’s news on a new tax incentive has turned the UK from one of the most expensive options into a competitive and affordable location. We would therefore love to bring more productions to the UK.”

Tax credits for high-budget television drama will certainly help retain Game of Thrones and attract similar projects in the future. It could see a significant investment in the industry here that would take Northern Ireland to the next level. But it will not have any bearing on dramas like Privates, which was made on a budget of less than a third of the reported £1m per episode of Downton Abbey.

Tim Carter, chief executive of Twenty Twenty comments: “Some of our most lucrative exports are more modestly budgeted factual entertainment formats. Tax breaks can only help us in the global market.”

However, Terry George has advised caution: “You’ve got to be careful of not getting too full of yourself as well. It requires constant work to keep this up. Tax incentives will change, exchange rates will change and unless we build up the local talent, acting and technical, then this boom we are having at the minute will be ethereal and will go off to Budapest or Saigon or wherever it is.”

A long term legacy will require constant work and a focus on the development of young people. The key aspect will be finding a way to stay financially competitive, through continued investment from public and private sources. In tight times the arts are usually the easiest thing to cut away from, but this is our investment in the future. Our success story.

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