John Gleeson, Grant Thornton’s Head of Media and Entertainment, was joined by industry leaders at the firm’s Belfast office to discuss activity within the Media sector.
Participants included Mark Huffam, Producer with Generator Entertainment; Colin Williams, Creative Director of Sixteen South; Kevin Jackson, an independent film and TV producer with Big Fish NI; and Grainne McGuinness, Managing Director of Paper Owl Films.
JG: What are the main strengths of the indigenous film and TV production industry in Northern Ireland? MH: The strength here is size - the industry isn’t enormous so you can actually get to speak to the people you want to speak to. We also have a government which is completely behind the industry and we have Northern Ireland Screen which, while we may all have our moans and gripes, is the best screen agency in the world. Invest NI supports them so you have a very focused public sector on what is a private sector industry. On top of that we have the advantages of the UK tax credit and of NI Screen funding. We also have probably the best city in the world in terms of location. Within 40 minutes in different directions, you have the most amazing variety of locations.
CW: I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for seven years and the change during that time has been immense. It feels like the industry is coming of age in this part of the world and I think that’s a combination of lots of things. I agree that government is really behind what we’re doing. I think they’re also willing to learn and listen and don’t feel as if they know all the answers. Invest NI is also starting to realise they don’t know all the answers and they’re giving NI Screen the freedom to go and do what they do. It feels like we can’t do anything wrong at the moment in this business. It’s not completely perfect but I think it’s never been better.
KJ: I also believe that one of our strengths is our common language. As English speakers we have access to a great number of people around the world who would prefer to be working in the English language because there is more money to be made. One could always dub, subtitle or reformat shows, but initially it’s a very popular language to be able to converse in, not just in business terms, but also when you’re looking at the end product. That is key. We’ve learnt to be part of the world and the world of broadcasting, film and television making has learnt to trust us.
GM: I would echo that sentiment about the location and about NI Screen. In terms of putting together a co-production in another territory, which is what we’re doing for our show, our co-producer is only an hour and three quarters down the road and it just makes things so much easier. I would particularly echo the sentiment about NI Screen. It is really pushing to develop the industry here and there are a few very smart people who have put things in place to make sure we’re all looking internationally. That’s not just with regards to funding, it’s also about providing expertise and introducing the right people.
JG: What are the areas which need more support and development to help grow and strengthen our industry?
GM: One thing that has long been identified is that, while there’s a great talent pool, it’s very thin and there could be a lot more. If there were two big productions going on at once, what happens? Therefore, I’d like to see more grassroots talent being developed.
KJ: One of the key things about developing grassroots talent is giving them the opportunity to not only experience the jobs on a regular basis, but also to see that there’s room for growth and development. Training mechanisms are vital. I know that NI Screen and other bodies are trying to assist with training programmes and continuous professional development. However, what we’re lacking is a Beaconsfield. If you had a centre of excellence here where you were teaching skills at a high level, not just something which is going to be an effort to introduce you to practical media, it would be a terrific advantage.
CW: There are probably different needs and wants in the different sectors of the same business. In terms of live action it’s clear that there are more people than ever working in high end production, but whether they’re working at the right levels is another question. There isn’t a huge amount of producers and directors for hire locally and that’s what we’d have to go outside Northern Ireland to look for. We want to make stuff which is going to be the best in the world so we can’t fill those positions with people who aren’t experienced, therefore it’s a Catch 22. Good editors, good producers and good directors - how do you start to train people in those areas?
MH: We (in live action) train people very fast, which might be different to Colin’s side of things. The truth is that in two weeks you’ll know whether a person has a future or not. So of those people who take a year out to work in our industry – the good ones very rarely go back to college because they get used to earning and it’s decent money.
JG: This is a question which applies to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Due to our population size, there is a risk that no matter what we do – even offering the best training possible and guaranteeing a long career – there might still not be enough people in Ireland to service the industry effectively. So, what do you do? In animation, for example, is there something that can be done – over and above training – which would encourage someone in Spain (for example) to think that coming to work as an animator in Ireland for five years is a rite of passage for their career? Is there some kind of programme that could make that happen?
CW: It might not have to happen. If we didn’t pay the same as London or Dublin we wouldn’t get them. There’s actually such a shortage of good animators now. Studios here, in Dublin and in the UK are all after the same pool of people and there aren’t enough people to go around. There are people, but you want the best and you want them to stay with you.
KJ: One of the things that we don’t have yet in Northern Ireland is an effective industry forum. We’re sitting around a table together discussing strengths and weaknesses but we still don’t have a forum where we sit down and share things. NI Screen will occasionally draw people together and that’s very useful but we don’t always share and talk. There are people around this table, and elsewhere, who have the international connections and they should have the opportunity to be able to talk to each other. There is no forum to do that, it’s happened through friendship more than anything else.
MH: That’s true. I probably see less of our industry neighbours in this country than I do in a lot of countries. We were the cottage industry for a long time but I would say we are probably the biggest business in Northern Ireland at the moment. Game of Thrones puts £120m into the local economy. What bugs me is that Northern Irish business men invest in film, but not in Northern Ireland. The message isn’t getting out that, actually, the industry is doing really well, it’s a great employer and it’s bringing in a huge amount of foreign investment into the territory.
JG: So apart from some kind of training and crewing, is communication in relation to how the industry is doing another area which needs addressed?
CW: Yes, and private investment is also far up my wish list because it would help us get things off the ground faster.
GM: And if you had a body or forum, as discussed, then its communication would drive the good news stories which would help drive the private investment.
KJ: We’re also very bad at making ourselves available to some extraordinarily talented people who come to these shores and perhaps invite us to a seminar or masterclass. Industry doesn’t turn out, we’re really lazy.
JG: What opportunities exist, or potentially exist, to grow and strengthen the production industry in Northern Ireland?
MH: Throughout the world, where there is a successful film industry there is one solid anchor - the existence of a studio. The most successful ones not only give you production facilities like stages, they also give you post-production facilities, dubbing theatres and cutting rooms. At the moment we have the Paint Hall which is doing a brilliant job but it is totally tied up for the foreseeable future with, I think, the most successful TV show of all time probably (Game of Thrones). So that’s off the market. There are plans and it’s all hopefully happening, but we move at a slower speed to everyone else.
KJ: The first thing is building the studio, then it’s populating the rest of that infrastructure. That means other people taking risks, it’s not just about a smaller company moving into those places, it’s other people starting to build their own sound stage, setting up their own dubbing theatres, bringing in their staff and crewing it up with excellence. Once you have a studio space that’s being used on a regular basis and there is sufficient room around it for all of that extra infrastructure, it will begin to build.
GM: The mix of business is a good mix. There is capacity and it’s very similar to the capacity in terms of animation talent. If business people can come together and say ‘we’ve got these three films, we can make this studio happen’, could the same thing happen in the animation industry where people get together and encourage new talent? Maybe it’s too ambitious to think that you could share your scheduling information and say ‘ok, well I’ll be finished this by that date’.
CW: We actually have done. We’ve met for coffee and laid our schedules out together. We identified the type of people each of us was looking for and we realised that, actually, we’re after different skill sets. We were completely transparent and that’s the way forward. You don’t want a situation where everyone is poaching each other’s people, because that’s not good for anyone.
JG: What is the current strategy for industry growth in Northern Ireland? Do you agree with it and what would you do differently? Can I kick it off and say that I think the strategy is different to the South? I think the strategy here is to grow a strong indigenous industry off the back of a strong international industry.
CW: I’m not sure if that’s happening though.
MH: I think it is because, whether we like it or not, Game of Thrones has put us so firmly on the map. The best experience I’ve had in a long time was making a film in Hungary and then going to Vancouver. You see these places which are centres of excellence and realise we’re already doing what they’re doing – and doing it just as well. And we could do it better if we actually had the same amount of space as they do. It was a real eye-opener.
CW: Is the indigenous industry growing, though? The projects coming in are amazing and we all play the Game of Thrones card, especially when we’re pitching to the States. It’s a great thing to be proud of, but is the indigenous industry growing? We still suffer from people feeling that they have got so far in Northern Ireland and that they need to go somewhere else.
GM: If you celebrate success you will attract more success and it comes back to that. Be open and collaborative. We talked earlier about communication and telling our own stories in order to attract investment, but better communication also helps attract further success, ideas and talents.
JG: Co-opetition - isn’t that the word for it?
KJ: NI Screen has a strategy. They’re trying very hard to support the indigenous production across all media and doing an extremely good job of doing that and yet they recognise that you can’t make people be better. You’ve got to go out and be better yourself, you’ve got to learn for yourself and take those opportunities as they come along.