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'Money is a challenge - and it rarely if ever feels glamorous': Irish filmmakers on how the industry really works

We spoke to Lorcan Finnegan, Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor and Neasa Hardiman.

L-R: Lorcan Finnegan, Neasa Hardiman, Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor
L-R: Lorcan Finnegan, Neasa Hardiman, Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor

IRELAND REALLY LOVES the movies. According to a 2018 survey, we have the highest per capita visits to the cinema in the whole of the EU – 3.4 compared with the EU average of 1.7.

We also have our own busy film industry (which makes up some of the almost 17k jobs in Ireland’s audiovisual sector), and unlike many other countries we benefit from a resource like Screen Ireland, which is a public-funded body that provides financial help (and other support) to filmmakers.

Interestingly, our national cinema share dropped in recent years (from 4.1% in 2016 to 2.5% in 2018), meaning there’s still lots of room for more Irish films on screen.

In 2003, the Dublin International Film Festival was established in the capital by film critic Michael Dwyer and David McLoughlin. In 2009, Gráinne Humphreys took over as festival director. This year, the Virgin Media-sponsored festival kicked off on 26 February, running until this Sunday, 8 March.

The festival brings not just international films to the big screen, but Irish films too – its opening gala this year was Vivarium, directed by Dubliner Lorcan Finnegan. This year, with the focus of the festival on female directors, older Irish films like Pat Murphy’s debut Ann Devlin were introduced to a new audience too.

With the festival underway, and with Irish films – and actors like Saoirse Ronan and Barry Keoghan – on the global radar, we asked filmmakers about how the industry works.

How difficult is it to get funding? What about getting someone famous to star in your movie?

Here’s what directors Lorcan Finnegan (Without Name, Vivarium), Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor (Rose Plays Julie, Helen), and Neasa Hardiman (Sea Fever) told us. 

How long does the journey from idea to film release typically take?

Vivarium Red Carpet - Lorcan Finnegan 1 Dublin director Lorcan Finnegan, who has directed commercials and music videos as well as his two features.

Lorcan Finnegan: I think that really depends on how the film is set up and is financed. It’s usually never fast enough though! My first feature Without Name was fully financed by Screen Ireland under their low budget Catalyst Project scheme and it was written, shot and premiered within about 18 months, which was great.

Vivarium was mostly financed with soft funding and was a co-production between Ireland, Belgium, Denmark and the US. It was developed with Screen Ireland first and then by Film4. That took over five years.

My next one appears to be coming together quicker and we’re taking a different approach, so we’ll see!

Virgin  Media DIFF Rose Plays Julie 11 Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, who moved from Ireland to London in 1987. They've made many different film projects including community shorts, and features. Source: Brian McEvoy

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: If you’re into data and statistics Stephen Follows has a brilliant film focused blog. According to his research: “Across all Hollywood studio movies, the average time between the first announcement and eventual release date is 871 days – or two years, four months and nineteen days.”

Of course, that is with regard to Hollywood studio films and it doesn’t take into consideration the development and delivery of the script. If we include the development of the script, the answer ends up being a long as a piece of string. 

With regard to our film, Rose Plays Julie, we first pitched the idea at a meeting at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2013. The film then officially went into pre-production in April 2018 – so after nearly five years of development – and we then premiered the completed film in October 2019. 

What is clear is that when you embark on making a film you’ll be in it for the long haul – particularly if you’re both writing and directing the film – and so you better be certain that it is something that you are very passionate about.

seafever-stills+bts-23 Neasa Hardiman, a director who has worked extensively on TV, including on Happy Valley, Casualty, Jessica Jones, and her film shorts. Source: MMAGUIRE

Neasa Hardiman: It can take anything from two years to 20 years. There’s no typical amount of time, really.

How easy – or difficult – is it to get a film funded in Ireland?

Lorcan Finnegan: It really depends on the script, the people involved and the feasibility of the project from a market perspective. Screen Ireland have been very supportive of my work though, from short films up to my first two features. I’ve been lucky.

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: Like with all public funding it’s HIGHLY competitive. There is a limited amount of money to go round.  Just to refer to the UK for a moment, the hit rate at the BFI is 3%. We imagine it might be similar in Ireland. A failure rate of 97%. That’s sobering.

We think you have to be very tenacious. There will be many disappointments along the way. It can be a very bruising process and there are no guarantees at any stage. There are so many things that might result in a project failing to get over the finishing line. There are a lot of ducks to line up. If you have ever tried to line up ducks you will know that this is not easy. Ducks have a tendency to stray off. Extensive studies have shown ducks hate to line up!  

Neasa Hardiman: We’re incredibly lucky in Ireland to have a brilliant, transparent, publicly-funded agency in Screen Ireland. Screen Ireland offers great support to film makers to develop their projects. But of course Screen Ireland isn’t in a position to fully finance feature films at a commercial level. In addition to accessing private equity finance, a lot of Irish film makers engage in coproductions with other European producers to enhance the budget of their film. That can be a lengthy process, but film financing is difficult everywhere!

Is it easier now to make a film here than it was 10 years ago, or is it the same? (If applicable)

Lorcan Finnegan: I wasn’t making feature films 10 years ago so it’s hard to say. Overall the cost of making films may have come down but with more people making films the competition has gone up.

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: It’s a difficult question to answer. We have seen big differences in the 10 years since we premiered our first feature, Helen. For us the main differences are with regard to distributing a film as opposed to making a film. One could argue that it has never been easier to make a film due to the changes in how a film gets made with the advent of digital technology across the industry. Low to no budget filmmaking is arguably within everyone’s grasp. 

However, what happens once the film has been made?  There is where things have become much more difficult and challenging. Another big difference is the sheer quantity of people now wanting to make feature film as opposed to 10 years ago. That alone also makes it more difficult. And because it’s more difficult to get film on the big screen (or any screen for that matter) there is a tendency for funders of films to be more risk-averse. 

Neasa Hardiman: I think the Irish film industry has developed exponentially in the last years.

We’re in a great period of creative blossoming.

There has been a lot of focus in recent years on gender parity in filmmaking. Have you seen an impact from initiatives (eg Screen Ireland initiatives) and awareness of the issue?

Lorcan Finnegan: Yes, it is great! I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Kate Dolan’s horror film You’re Not My Mother which is being funded by Screen Ireland’s POV scheme.

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: It’s probably too soon to fully understand the impact of the various initiatives but everything and anything that can be done to address the issue is a step in the right direction. 

(White) men have had the run of the industry for a long time now. It’s time for the industry to change. And that change is long overdue.  Changing and diversifying who gets to make films (which means whose stories get told) will also be good for the industry and audiences. 

Neasa Hardiman: There’s definitely a higher level of awareness regarding how few female directors and cinematographers are given the opportunity to make films. I hope we’ll see the impact of this awareness over the coming years.

vivarium

What are the biggest challenges for Irish filmmakers?

Lorcan Finnegan: I’d say they are the same challenges filmmakers face all over the world, primarily getting the money together! Not just to shoot the script but to finance script development too. You need a good script to get anywhere. We are very lucky in Ireland to have Screen Ireland, other countries are not so fortunate.

Christine Molly and Joe Lawlor: Rose Plays Julie is the first feature film we’ve made entirely in Ireland and the experience was a very positive one for us.  There are always challenges when making a film, wherever it gets made. 

If we were to get specific, Ireland isn’t the cheapest country in which to make a film, and so budgets get stretched. That is a reality of the contemporary Irish landscape. It’s an expensive country. However, that can be compensated for by brilliant professionals working in the industry in Ireland, who are very well versed with working in Ireland and getting things done. 

Low budget filmmaking is the biggest challenge and it would be the same whichever country one is working in. We feel there could be more done to help low budget film projects. For example certain rules that apply to low budget apply to middle or big budget, this ‘one size fits all’ should be looked at.

Neasa Hardiman: Irish film makers are in a great position. We speak English, we work with highly skilled professional crews, and we’re steeped in a terrific cultural history of storytelling. I think the biggest challenge for emerging filmmakers may be finding sufficient opportunity in Ireland to hone their craft through continuing to make work.

Is it hard for Irish filmmakers to make money?

Lorcan Finnegan: Yes. It seems most Irish filmmakers make TV commercials, write for other people or direct TV shows to earn money while their films are in development or during the long financing and casting phases.

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: Yes.  Of course it depends on what job within the industry one has. If we talk from our experience as writer/directors, it is very hard to make money. Films take a long time to make and along the way they are all-consuming.  It’s certainly not a way to get rich quick. Or get rich ever!! 

The playwright Maria Irene Fornés said that for her, “writing plays is not a way of earning a living but it is a way of earning a life”. We definitely concur with that thinking.  

Neasa Hardiman: It depends. There are numerous Irish filmmakers who work on lucrative international projects.

But it’s more difficult to earn a living or support a family if the filmmaker is working exclusively in Ireland.

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Do film festivals have a big impact on how your film progresses?

Lorcan Finnegan: It depends on the type of film but for most independent films a big festival launch helps generate awareness and buzz for a film. All the major trade press outlets go to the big festivals, so that’s where you get the reviews. Other festivals also attend the big festivals and program their festivals based on what films they liked.

Distributors buy films at festivals too, so if you don’t already have distribution a good festival is the place for the sales agents to sell your film.

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: Yes and no. There are a limited number of film festivals – Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto – that have markets attached to them and where films get bought and sold.  Not all films can screen at these festivals. 

That doesn’t mean that a film can’t get sold if it fails to get into one of those festivals. And it also doesn’t mean that all film at those films are good or better than ones that are not in those festivals. 

From our experience, the main challenge is to secure a good local distributor to release one’s film in its local territory. A passionate sales agent who believes in the film is also a big factor in how any film might progress following its premiere. Anyone will tell you that the market is difficult right now. 

When we released our first feature, Helen in 2009, we were one of 11 films released in the UK that weekend. When Rose Plays Julie is released in May, we’ll be one of at least 20. With the best will in the world, no one is going to see 20 films in a week. Not even the critics whose job it is to watch films. And no paper, and very few publications, are going to review 20+ films every week. And no cinema can screen 20+ films every week.

Festivals can help a film on its journey but at the end of the day it’s what happens when a film is released that matters most. 

Neasa Hardiman: Yes.

Does being an Irish filmmaker help when working abroad?

Lorcan Finnegan: I think Irish people are generally well liked and can adapt well to situations. We’re very well positioned right between Europe and the US and we speak English, so it’s certainly not a hindrance!

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: Not in our experience. However, we left Ireland in 1987 to live in the UK. Although we’ve always maintained a working relationship to Ireland our experience is different to Irish filmmakers who live and work in Ireland.

Neasa Hardiman: Film is a globalised business. When you walk onto a film set in New York or London or LA, you hear voices and accents from across the world. Everybody brings their own cultural sensibility. There are advantages to every cultural heritage!

sea fever2

What is the casting process generally like?

Lorcan Finnegan: Some people hate the uncertainty but I find it quite exciting. When you are going out to big names you usually have to offer the part, rather than asking for an audition, so your casting director sends the script and materials to their agent and you hope they like it. Then you wait.

It can take a while so you have to have the next offer lined up and be psychologically ready for disappointment if the actor passes on it, but also ready to go out to the next name on your list. Casting less famous actors and getting to see audition tapes or having actors come in to a casting room is great. Sometimes it’s nice to have a mix of both.

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: For us as filmmakers it is a fascinating part of the process. And very inspiring when one gets to see how much talent there is out there.  However, it’s also a tough part of the job. For Rose Plays Julie we auditioned over 40 actresses for the role of Rose. That’s a lot of rejection you’re directly responsible for, but tough decisions have to be made and it’s part and parcel of the casting process. Lucky for us we got to work with Emma Gunnery who was fantastic at guiding us through the process.

Neasa Hardiman: Casting is massively important. It’s a long and tricky process, but it’s essential to take your time over it.

Directing actors is intense, creatively exhilarating and all-consuming.

You need to make sure you have the right mix of people with whom you can do the work of deep, truthful, emotional exploration. When you get to the final stages of casting, where you’re putting actors together and working with them to improvise and experiment, it can be a thrilling process.

If you want a ‘big’ name in your film (particularly a person who isn’t Irish), how do you go about attracting them to the project?

Lorcan Finnegan: I don’t think there’s a single method that works. Each project and actor will be different. Having a good script is the best start, then having a good team helping make the offer, including the sales company, your manager or agent (or both) as well as your casting director. The director’s previous work usually help too.

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: God knows! It’s a very weird one this. If they are really big then it won’t be about money as you could never have enough anyway. Then it’s about the value of the project artistically. The script will be important in this but you can’t even get someone to read it unless other factors are in play. My sense is that it would be really good if you were the sibling of a big name. That would be very helpful.

Neasa Hardiman: Via the script. It all starts with the script.

What would you like to see change in the Irish film industry?

Lorcan Finnegan: Screen Ireland are doing an amazing job but they could finance more features and shorts if they had more to spend! I’d also like to see some nicer cinemas in our cities and the national broadcaster supporting more original Irish film and TV.

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: In terms of production, Ireland can shoot itself in the foot at times. We don’t live in Ireland so don’t know all the ins and outs but we have experienced the various issues and challenges with unions that can impact on film budgets. 

Yes, it’s important that those who work in the industry are protected but when that leads to unrealistic restrictions on working in a country that can be a big problem. We are really talking about low budget filmmaking. Other than working conditions there should be very few ‘rules’ placed on low budget filmmaking. We sense this discussion will need ‘to be continued…’

Neasa Hardiman: I’d like to see better pathways for people to develop their practice as writers and directors.

What do people not realise about the film industry?

Lorcan Finnegan: It’s pretty complex, constantly changing and has no clear rules so I’m sure there is plenty I don’t know about it myself. There still seems to be a lot of misunderstanding as to the role of a director vs the role of a producer and the difference between independently produced movies vs studio movies. There are lots of amazing films that don’t get released theatrically when others get several weeks in the cinema.

Studio movies often spend millions on marketing, whereas independent films tend to put all the money they have into making the film. That is one of the reasons film festivals are so important, festivals like DIFF bring amazing films from around the world to audiences that otherwise might not get a chance to see them.

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor: We’re sure there is a long list of things that people don’t realise. For example, in a lot of people’s minds the film industry is synonymous with glamour but in reality it rarely if ever feels glamorous. We also think that what people might not fully realise is how much of a collaborative art form it is. At every step along the way you need people who are very good at their job to help jointly realise the making of any film.

Even on a low budget film, a crew of about 30 people will be needed. But let’s end where we started with another Stephen Follows statistic. Although it refers to UK films, we’re sure it would apply to Ireland as well, and it might be surprising for your readers to learn, and may be something they didn’t realise about the film industry but the fact is, “only 13% of producers of low budget films have subsequently produced a second film; and under 3% of directors who have directed a film have gone on to direct two more; and only 23% of writers who wrote a film wrote a second film”.

There is a high burnout rate which is probably linked to the fact that it is a very challenging industry to work in.  No wonder there are so few people of low income backgrounds in the industry. 

Neasa Hardiman: It’s brilliant and compelling, but it consumes your whole life.

 Vivarium is released on 27 March 2020; Sea Fever is released on 17 April 2020; Rose Plays Julie is released on 15 May 2002.

Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival runs until Sunday 8 March. To book tickets for the next three days of film, visit the official website.

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