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Cleona Ní Chrualaoi and Colm Bairéad of An Cailín Ciúin.
ireland on film

How the Irish-language film An Cailín Ciúin became an Oscar contender

The director, producer and Screen Ireland talk us through publicity, marketing and distributing the lauded film across the world.

MAKE A FILM, promote a film, cross your fingers that it will get an Oscar nomination.

If you thought this was the typical journey that a film hoping for the big leagues goes on, then you’ve been missing a whole lot of work that must go on behind the scenes. As the success of the Irish film An Cailín Ciúin shows, getting to the stage where you’re close to an Oscar nomination takes a village, and then some.

An Cailín Ciúin got the news in December that it had been shortlisted for Best International Film at the Academy Awards. On Tuesday, the film’s director, Colm Bairéad, and producer Cleona Ní Chrualaoi, and the rest of the team, will find out if it made the list of five nominated films in that category. If it does, then their next big hope is that the film – based on the book Foster, by Claire Keegan – could take home a gold statuette. 

It’s a journey that has been months and months in the making, as The Journal found out when we spoke to Bairéad and Ní Chrualaoi, as well as Screen Ireland, which supported the film, about their journey. The day after we spoke, the film was nominated for two Bafta awards, noted by insiders to be an incredible achievement for an Irish independent film – those awards will take place in February.

Strap in to be taken on a whistle-stop tour of their whirlwind of a year. 

‘You’ve only just started’

For starters, though: how does it feel to be at this point, where An Cailín Ciúin, which is Dubliner Bairéad’s first feature film, is being tipped for an Oscar?

“It’s been incredible – I don’t think we’ve taken it all in properly,” Ní Chrualaoi told The Journal. “It’s been an amazing year.”

Their journey, of course, began with making the film in 2020, during that winter’s lockdown. “I remember someone said to us at the time we’d just locked the film and finished it: ‘You’ve only just started’. Because it’s a huge amount of work that goes on in the publicity and marketing of the film and the distribution of the film,” said Ní Chrualaoi.

They kicked off with trying to get into an international film festival. This step is key as it means you will hopefully see positive reviews and get bit of a buzz going, and there’s the chance to win festival awards, which creates more buzz. 

“You’re holding off on other festivals in a way, to try and get one of the bigger festivals like Cannes, or Venice, or Sundance, or Berlin,” explained Ní Chrualaoi. Their film got into the Berlin Film Festival in early February.

Crucially, it also won an award at that festival, which got them headlines and media appearances. By that stage, even though it hadn’t been shown in Ireland yet, people were learning about An Cailín Ciúin and that it was winning awards. 

The film had its Irish premiere that same month at the Dublin International Film Festival (DIFF), becoming the first Irish language film to open the festival. This again helped to cement in people’s minds that this was an Irish film to watch out for.

Meanwhile, Screen Ireland had an executive producer on board throughout the filmmaking process (the film was funded by Screen Ireland, TG4′s Cine4 scheme and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland), and towards the end of post-production, work began on the marketing campaign.

“Our key objective is to make sure that the film is supported to get out to the international market, where they can pick up sales and get international distribution opportunities,” explained Louise Ryan, head of marketing and communications at Screen Ireland. “We provided publicity funding for them to make sure that this film will get reviewed, to make the most out of the opportunity that the premiere in Berlin would provide.”

Screen Ireland soon saw that from an industry perspective, there was momentum building – they could feel it from the day An Cailín Ciúin premiered. “There were really strong reactions to the film,” said Ryan. It was getting great reviews, but a lot of work went into getting those reviews in the first place. Festivals have huge amounts of films on show, and journalists and editors have to pick which ones they want to focus on. “You’re going up against such massive competition,” said Ryan.

It was a challenging year in some respects, because due to the pandemic there were fewer journalists than usual in Berlin, said Ryan, so they had to be “quite innovative”. “Eye-catching assets”, ie visuals to support the social media campaign, were created. A boutique social media agency for the film industry, Alphapanda, in Berlin, was hired with the Screen Ireland funding to do this job.

Another big boost came in March 2022, when the film won seven awards at the Irish Film and Television Awards (IFTAs). “To be recognised in that way by our peers in the industry was a beautiful moment,” said Bairéad. It meant that they could be pretty sure the film would be in contention to be chosen as Ireland’s entry for the 2023 Oscars.

Distribution

Meanwhile, one of the big concerns was getting the film a distributor. If they wanted to think about an Oscar campaign, they specifically needed a US distributor. As Ryan put it, “it’s a difficult uphill battle if you don’t have US distribution”. 

Distribution is essentially the process of getting the film into cinemas, and you need a distributor to do that. They got on board a producer’s representative, who helped them liaise with festivals, but also got the ball rolling in terms of sales to distributors.

Break Out Pictures became An Cailín Ciúin’s Irish distributor. (Break Out is behind many other recent great Irish films, including Róise and Frank, Love Yourself Today and Arracht.)

Next they got the UK distributor Curzon on board. This was a joint acquisition with Break Out, and the two companies worked to release An Cailín Ciúin simultaneously in the UK and Ireland. After that, the Australia/New Zealand distributor Madman Entertainment came on board. 

Between March and the official release of the film in Ireland and the UK on 12 May, they continued to get the word out. ”We worked very hard behind the scenes, especially on our social media, trying to attract as much publicity and keep promoting the film, and keep shouting about anything positive that happened with the film,” said Ní Chrualaoi.

The first weekend in cinemas went well, but soon they realised something interesting was happening, said Bairéad. “Our opening weekend was solid. But then we noticed the figures – the numbers started going up.” By midweek of the first week, viewing numbers had increased.

Which is very, very rare. And it’s a real sign of word of mouth.

They watched as, month by month, the box office takings rose, said Ní Chrualaoi. They really paid attention when it passed €200,000. That figure kept rising. By the time it had been in the cinemas for six months, An Cailín Ciúin had reached €1 million in box office takings. 

Word of mouth

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In the background, the international push kept going. Soon, An Cailín Ciúin had been shown at 50 festivals internationally, across around 20 countries. (Some countries won’t be showing the film on general release in cinemas until later this year, after it has been shown in the USA.)

Each new festival meant fresh news that could be shared, about screenings in places like Busan, Sydney, and Rio. The pair travelled extensively with the film, particularly Bairéad. Each trip was a chance to spread further word about An Cailín Ciúin. 

Ní Chrualaoi said that one of the biggest turning points for the film was getting a sales agent, Bankside Films, on board after meetings at the Cannes film market. It sold the film on to Taiwan, South Korea, China, Middle East, Europe and – crucially – the US. 

“It’s very difficult to get US distribution, especially for a film like ours,” said Ní Chrualaoi. “[As it's] not in the English language. Not every film gets distribution in the US, so it was a real breakthrough moment for us when we secured US distribution.”

They teamed up with a company called Super LTD, which is an offshoot of the distributor Neon, which bought the film. Ryan explained that getting a US distributor is essential, but it has to be a distributor who’s invested in the film. From Screen Ireland’s point of view, investment and commitment is key. 

The momentum really started building towards an Oscars campaign when the US distributor was on board. It was confirmed in August 2022 that the film was selected by the Irish Film and Television Academy as Ireland’s entry for the 2023 Oscars. (The selection committee included actor John C Reilly, director Jim Sheridan, and others).

In December they learned that the film had been chosen for the shortlist in their category, making it the first Irish-language feature film to be shortlisted for the Oscars. It is one of 15 on a list that is to be pared down to five on Tuesday.

Bairéad and Crualaoi hired an award strategist to work alongside them on the film’s Oscar campaign. Were they always planning on such a campaign? “I don’t think we were necessarily planning strictly for that day before we shot the film or anything like that,” said Bairéad.

It was more when we made the film and then when you make it into a big festival like Berlin, you suddenly realise that your film has a certain market value. And it becomes a viable entity almost, for a certain type of distributor who specialises in arthouse cinema.

After Berlin, they started having ”more serious conversations about getting the film out into the world in a way that an Irish language film had never done before. There was no kind of precedent for us in that regard.”

“The fact that our film was so successful at the box office on its initial release in Ireland and in the UK – I think that was a real thing that didn’t go unnoticed in the industry,” said the director.

How the Oscars campaign works

There are almost 10,000 people who vote for the Oscars. They’re all members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), and are all working in the film industry (many are former winners or nominees). They can be based all over the world, and it’s their eyes that you want to get on your film to get a chance of a nomination.

The work of Oscar campaigning is an area full of secrecy and very strict rules, but the pair behind An Cailín Ciúin demystified some of it.

From 21 December, they have held seven screenings in seven different cities across the world – Sydney and Rome, Paris, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Berlin, and two screenings in LA as well. Some of these have been for AMPAS members.

They’ve travelled to the US four times since last October for various film festivals, and to hold screenings for Academy members in LA and in New York.

“There are Academy members all over the world that vote in this category, so you never know who you’re meeting – it’s all just helpful that you travel with your film as much as possible and represent it as best as you can,” said Bairéad of his international trips. 

Added Ryan: “An awful lot of the competitors would have billboards all over LA – you need very deep pockets for that, and when you’re a smaller film you have to do things differently, and be more innovative because you don’t have those deep pockets.”

With Bairéad being a first-time feature director, the film didn’t have the prestige and back catalogue of other films. But it did have heart, and hope. “This film, I think, really stood out because it really connected at an emotional level, at a human level, with audiences around the world,” said Ryan.

This helped in building up an “international team of supporters” as Ryan put it, including industry figures like editors and critics who had seen the film, loved it, and wanted to champion it. 

Crucially, the film got some big Irish names on board to support its Oscar hopes – including Pierce Brosnan, Kerry Condon, Chris O’Dowd and Aisling Bea. Hozier came to one of the screenings in LA. Bairéad did an interview with Michael Fassbender; director James Mangold (Walk the Line) also saw the film and posted about loving it. 

Early endorsements from filmmaker Mark Cousins and actor Fiona Shaw also really helped when it came to approaching festivals like DIFF, said Bairéad. Media figures including Ryan Tubridy, Diarmuid Gavin, Gavin Duffy, and Marian Keyes also posted and spoke of their own volition in support of the film. 

While having people of a certain stature to endorse the film helped, there are also the supporters online “that just have gotten behind the film and read, like and repost everything,” said Ní Chrualaoi. “It’s been amazing to have those people out there just championing the film.” 

When it came to the Oscar shortlist, the team had been hearing very positive feedback from US screenings. Everyone was hopeful and confident, but “there is no guarantee about these things” said Bairéad.

 ”We’re really getting a sense of how important timing is with everything,” said Bairéad. “Which obviously you have to manufacture to a certain degree if you can, but then there are things that are probably outside of your control that either help or hinder you and thankfully, in our case, it was the former.”

They did know that they were, as it’s put, “part of the conversation from early on”, meaning that insiders and the trade publications (like the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Indie Wire et al), had been mentioning the film as a potential Oscar contender.

 

They felt they were in a good place, but “were obviously very delighted” when the news came through. Their publicist started calling the film ‘The little engine that could’ . 

Since that announcement on 21 December, alongside the screenings they have been making new ads for the film to go into the trade publications, while the distribution side of things is still ongoing in the background.

On Tuesday, they will find out if An Cailín Ciúin has been nominated for an Oscar. They’re nervous, said Bairéad: “Because you’re really up against the best of the best from around the world.”

They’ve been keeping an eye on the trade publications who have listed them as a dead cert for a nomination. “But those predictions change week on week, so you know, you can’t really take them too seriously,” said Bairéad. “We’re just crossing everything and seeing where we land.”

They will watch the nomination announcement at a private gathering of cast and crew. “If we don’t get nominated, it’s an opportunity to just come together again, and celebrate everything the film has achieved in this past year,” said Ní Chrualaoi. Seeing as they never got to have a wrap party due to Covid-19 lockdowns, it would be a fitting day for a celebration. 

Regardless of if they do get that coveted Oscar nomination or not, An Cailín Ciúin has set a new benchmark for how far Irish language films can go – pretty much right to the top. 

“To my mind, it proves that the Irish language shouldn’t be seen as as something that restricts you as a filmmaker,” said Bairéad. “That notion that making a film in the Irish language is a ‘bad idea’… we can’t stand over that anymore, that’s been completely disproven.”

He added: “As an Irish speaker, I’m excited to see what other filmmakers come up with and to see how our national cinema can develop and be more inclusive of our own language.” 

I think that [the Oscars] needs to be the ambition for filmmakers now who are working in the Irish language. You know what, why shouldn’t their films be competing on the world stage?

There’s no guarantee of anything in the quest to get an Oscar, but as An Cailín Ciúin has shown, many amazing things are possible along the way. “It’s a huge uphill battle but the reward is fantastic,” said Ryan from Screen Ireland. “I always think to be shortlisted is [about] almost treating that like a nomination, and if they were to be nominated it’s almost like a win. But it’s not a given – the competition is fierce. And if they get down to the last five that would be amazing… But what it has achieved so far is extraordinary.”

Ní Chrualaoi and Bairéad, who are married and have two young children, treat An Cailín Ciúin “like another child or something – you have to take care of it and you have to nurture it, so we would do anything for it, the same way we would do anything for our children”, said Ni Chrualaoi.

It’s been quite the experience for them as filmmakers, but also as a couple.

“It’s been such an adventure for us,” said Ní Chrualaoi.

“It’s been amazing to share all the success and everything together – and the stress that goes along with it at times. It’s just been an extraordinary journey really, we couldn’t ask for more.”  

An Cailín Ciúin is still showing at selected cinemas nationally. The Oscar nominations will be announced at 1.30pm Irish time on Tuesday 24  January.

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