Posted on Saturday 9 April 2011 by Ulster Business

Sean Bean in HBO’s Game of Thrones

Sean Bean in HBO’s Game of Thrones

The arrival of a production on the scale of HBO's eagerly anticipated drama series Game of Thrones has made Northern Ireland's decision makers sit up and take notice of the contribution that the creative industries make to our local economy.

Where in the past the local film and television industry was seen as a 'nice to have', Northern Ireland now has a growing number of 'creative entrepreneurs' who are making a name for themselves on both the national and international stage. Recent successes include the movies Killing Bono and Your Highness shooting in Belfast, and local production companies such as Wild Rover, Sixteen South and Waddell Media winning major commissions from the UK and US. "The great thing from a Northern Ireland point of view is that there are exciting things happening across a pretty wide range of genres," says Richard Wiliams, chief executive of Northern Ireland Screen. "Game of Thrones is massive by anyone's standards. It doesn't have to be put through a Northern Ireland prism. It is a worldwide event, it is part of the schedule for HBO and Sky Atlantic, its production values are the highest of any television series. So no amount of hyperbole would be too much. But at the same time that is part of a wider landscape, it is not the only game in town." Williams says a combination of the big inward investment projects and successes by the indigenous industry is giving Northern Ireland increasing credibility. He notes that Game of Thrones brought £20m into the economy during a 12 month production period through spending on hotels and restaurants building contractors, drivers, travel agents and a host of other people in creative industries. The daily payroll for crew was 400 people, of which 300 were local. The NI Screen boss is optimistic that further studios can be built to complement the hugely successful Paint Hall and with a second series of Game of Thrones likely, the need for the additional infrastructure to accommodate more productions will be accentuated. But he also believes local companies having control and ownership of the intellectual property behind shows being sold internationally is boosting the creative talent pool and building momentum. "There is not a country in the Western world that does not chase the creative industries really hard. It is a growth area and it also has a portfolio of added value that for Northern Ireland is valuable in terms of reinventing itself culturally and socially as well as economically," says Williams. Here we profile four local 'creative entrepreneurs' working across the film, entertainment, children's television and documentary genres who are proving that to be true.

Colin Williams - Sixteen South

Sixteen South founder Colin Williams had succeeded in several different media careers before embarking on a journey that would see him become Northern Ireland's answer to Jim Henson. He initially set up Sixteen South in 2007 as a side project to his post-production company Inferno, after seeing an advert to pitch to Sesame Workshop in New York to produce a local version of their iconic show. Despite having only two weeks to put together a team and prepare a creative pitch, the company was successful and Sesame Tree was born. "There were a lot of late nights but it was the best two weeks ever, I loved it. We were creating the characters in that room. It's crazy because everything we did in that two weeks in terms of creating the characters, relationships and structure of the show, it stuck," says Williams. "The big thing about Sesame Street for me is that it is a formative show, it has the ability to teach and do some good. So it was amazing to win because it opened doors and brought us into the industry. We are working with one of the biggest children's brands in the world." While Sesame Tree first aired on BBC NI in March 2008, Colin convinced children's channel CBeebies to broadcast it across the UK, leading to a second series that aired in November 2010. Between these two series Sixteen South produced another new children's series Big City Park for Cbeebies. Shot on location in Ormeau Park the show featured characters with regional accents and was themed around getting kids to enjoy the outdoors. It won an IFTA and Williams has had offers to pick up the show from around the world. "The approach we are taking, because we are developing our own IP and our own shows, we're making shows that we want to make. We're creating shows that are relevant and that are going to enhance the lives of the kids that watch them. We've pitched the shows that we want to make rather than the shows that broadcasters think they are looking for," says Williams. "The show that we're developing at the moment teaches about community. Our idea is that the shows enhance the lives of the kids that watch them and also provide family entertainment," he adds. Sixteen South will have two new shows in production this year. One already has one of the biggest broadcasters in the world committed to developing it and will go out in the UK, Canada and Australia. The other is a well-established, Bafta-winning children's show which is currently made in Canada but which on the back of the success of Sesame Tree and Big City Park, Sixteen South has been able to bring to Belfast to make a 52 part series for a major US network. It gives Colin Williams great pleasure to see Belfast becoming a hub for the micro-niche around puppet shows for pre-school children's television. "We are on the backfoot coming from Northern Ireland, there's no question. In terms of our relationship to the rest of the UK, you are having to work harder to get a commission. Which means when you get a commission, it's all the sweeter," he says. "TV lives in London and I guess it would be easy for us to move to London to give ourselves less of a headache, but we're from here and this is where we're staying."

Jannine Waddell - Waddell Media

Based somewhat appropriately in Holywood, Waddell Media is successfully producing factual, lifestyle and entertainment programming for big US networks as well as those in the UK and Ireland. Managing Director Jannine Waddell came back to Northern Ireland six years ago from London, where she was editor of BBC Travel Programmes, to run the company started in the late 1980s by her father Brian. At present it is perhaps best known for producing the 4thought short films shown every day after the Channel 4 news. The programmes, shot in blocks about three weeks in advance, have meant a big investment in Waddell's research team. "Channel 4 hadn't commissioned anything in Northern Ireland for about 10 years before we got this 4thought series," says Waddell. "It is a fantastic bit of business and I think Channel 4 have taken quite a strategic vision there, because it is something they can build on and it is helping us build quite a large team, and build the sector too by helping develop the next creative talents." While Waddell says she would welcome quicker decisions from UK broadcasters over possible commissions, she does feel that Northern Ireland independents are beginning to break down the barriers that previously hindered the growth of the local industry. Her company is already a big supplier of factual series for RTE - with shows such as How Long will you Live and Health of the Nation - and is currently producing a documentary on the history of the Europa Hotel for BBC Northern Ireland which may be picked up by BBC4. But Waddell is keen to stress the company is not a specialist in one area. It owns animation studio Flickerpix and recently secured green lights from the Discovery Network's Animal Planet, Planet Green and Comcast's G4TV for their productions Texas Rodeo Tykes, Hip Hop Reverend and Super Hero Me. It is also producing a documentary about Jaws that will be the centrepiece of Discovery's Shark Week. "We definitely want to compete in the international arena. We never wanted to be localised, and to be honest I don't think you can afford to be. We definitely want to be competing nationally, but we've actually found it easier to get business in the States. To them we're just in Europe somewhere," says Waddell. "The company really started to develop whenever we got a big commission from Discovery US for a series called Future Weapons, which was a massive piece of business for us," she adds. "The value is in holding the rights to a programme you can then sell on. The ideal business model for us would be that somewhere in the States will make it for a big channel and then the UK will love it so much one of our networks will buy it back. That's what we're aspiring to."

Philip Morrow - Wild Rover

While CSI Belfast may not be on the cards, one local company is collaborating with Hollywood uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer on a major project set to air this year. Belfast-based Wild Rover Productions is currently completing filming for six episodes of Take the Money and Run for US network ABC. While precise details are being kept secret, the concept of the adventure reality show hinges on the question: can you commit the perfect crime and get away with it? "We have big hopes for it and are really pleased with what we've seen so far. But it is one of those shows that it is best if people go into it not knowing what it is. If everyone already knows what the challenge is it will affect the dynamics of the game," explains Managing Director Philip Morrow. It is only the second reality show Bruckheimer has put his name to after the Amazing Race, which has won more Emmys than any other reality show. "He almost exclusively works in the scripted space, so it was obviously a very big deal to persuade Jerry this was his next big thing. Also, working with the team that make the Amazing Race and CSI, it is absolutely perfect for this project," adds Morrow. Morrow established Wild Rover in 1999, prior to which he was an executive at Channel 4, Mentorn, Thames and UTV. The company had produced several successful shows such as Just for Laughs, Get Smarter in a Week and the David Meade Project before really hitting it big with its current quiz show Secret Fortune. A ratings success in a competitive Saturday night timeslot, the Nick Knowles fronted game show has already been commissioned for a second series and Wild Rover is working with "nasty" Nigel Lythgoe to potentially take the format to the US. "We have gradually evolved the company into one that is very much about the creation of entertaining formats that we think could work all over the world," says Morrow. "It is hard to come up with a good game show. In many ways they are one of the most disciplined and hardest areas of television to get right. People are very critical if you don't get them right." Morrow believes there is a growing confidence in the local production sector, and that the talent here is as good as anywhere in the world. He also thinks that the London-centric UK industry is beginning to take notice of Northern Irish production companies like Wild Rover who are proving they can compete. "While a lot of the time it can make life harder being from here, one of the strange conundrums of being a Northern Irish company is that if you're successful from here the profile is probably higher than a similar sized company from London," he says. "We're certainly feeling like we're on a bit of roll at the minute and long may it continue. I've no idea how far this is going to go, but we're enjoying the ride. It has certainly taken us a while to get to this point, it has been a long slog and there have been disappointments along the way. But we've hung on in there and it seems to be paying some dividends now."

Mark Huffam - Generator Entertainment

Northern Ireland film producer Mark Huffam was instrumental in bringing HBO's Game of Thrones - one of the largest television series ever to shoot in Europe - to Northern Ireland. Previous to this he produced comedy Killing Bono, which shot in Belfast last year, and medieval comedy Your Highness for Universal Pictures, which filmed here in 2009. As well as working on a raft of films for his own company Generator Entertainment, he has also worked on large scale movies as diverse as Saving Private Ryan and Mamma Mia! Currently he is Executive Producer on Prometheus, a feature shooting at Pinewood Studios in London directed by Ridley Scott. Ulster Business asked him for his take on the local industry. How did you first break into the industry? I first broke into the industry as a runner for the BBC. This is a good way to break in - as a runner or trainee. Take any job that's going to get your foot in the door - get as much experience as you can, learn the industry and become skilled in your area (also learn how to make a good cup of tea). This will make you a valuable crew member. For those not in the business what does your role as a movie producer involve? A movie producer supervises and controls all major aspects of the film-making process from start to end. For example: development of the script, acquiring funding, hiring key crew, the physical shooting of the film, post production, completion and final delivery of the project. When things go wrong, everyone turns to the Producer, so you have to be absolutely on top of everything which can be extremely pressured - the flipside of this is when things go right it is incredibly rewarding. Why have you been so keen to film so many of your productions in Northern Ireland? I believe that Northern Ireland has the potential to support a strong film industry and my goal is to bring more projects to Northern Ireland. While I enjoy working on location for short periods of time, Northern Ireland is my home and I would like to work on projects that come there, instead of having to go to where the work is. I hope to work again in Northern Ireland after I finish my current project in London. How do you assess the level of creative talent in Northern Ireland? There is a high level of talent in Northern Ireland, which continues to grow and be nurtured by films like Killing Bono. The Director - Nick Hamm -- is from Northern Ireland but has been working away from home. He came back to Belfast to film the comedy about a band living in the shadow of U2. We used local crew and local actors like Martin McCann. As more projects are made in Northern Ireland the existing talent will grow, and those who have left to pursue work elsewhere can return to their roots. How does Northern Ireland as a shooting location compare with other countries? Northern Ireland stands up very well against other countries who have a strong film industry. Government support comes in the form of Northern Ireland Screen funding, which offers a percentage of the film's total budget. Projects can also benefit from the UK tax credit for film production. Northern Ireland is perfectly situated between North America and Europe meaning a six hours flight time to New York, 2-3 hours flight time to most European capitals and one hour flight time to London. Within Northern Ireland most locations can be found within one hour of the studio in Belfast - coastal, beaches, forests, mountains etc. Cost-wise Northern Ireland is highly competitive - it has a cost effective workforce who have an excellent work ethic and a cost effective studio and office space. Cost of accommodation and living is much less for example than in London. When looking on a place to shoot the main concerns are locations, studio, crew and cost and Northern Ireland is competitive for all of these. Would additional studios at the Paint Hall attract more large productions? Yes. Due to previous successful productions interest is growing rapidly from outside investors to explore and develop Northern Ireland as a production location and further studios are required to support this. Game of Thrones using the existing Painthall Studio means we have a requirement for an alternative studio facility, and this in turn will attract productions of similar scale and quality. What would be your dream project to produce? My dream project would be a Western set in the badlands of Argentina starring Johnny Depp, Will Smith and Penelope Cruz!


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