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oscars business

How Oscars week was used to help boost Irish 'screen tourism'

Meetings took place between studios like Marvel and Lucasfilm and Minister Catherine Martin and Tourism Ireland.

LAST UPDATE | 19 Mar 2023

Aoife Barry reports from LA.

BREATH-TAKING SCENERY… and a generous tax credit. Two major things Ireland has when it comes to tempting filmmakers from abroad here to make films.

During the lead-up to the 2023 Oscars, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin TD was among those who visited LA to meet film industry figures. It was an ideal time to be doing the work of meeting bigwigs at studios like Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Searchlight and Netflix. Many eyes were turned Ireland’s way thanks our record 14 Oscar nominations, further proof that we punch above our weight in the film world. 

Ireland stood out among the countries represented at the Oscars because, compared to a film behemoth like the US, Ireland has a tiny film industry, yet since the late 1980s has ended up at the Oscars regularly. Our actors can reach Hollywood-famous level, like Colin Farrell. And this year proved our young actors, like Paul Mescal, can achieve Oscar nomination status just a few years out of acting school. An Cailín Ciúin showed an Irish languagr film can be nominated in the Best International Feature category. Clearly something is in the water over here.

But as well as what’s happening inside our indigenous film industry, one major element that puts Ireland on the filmmaking map is how good the island looks on film. That’s in large part why Minister Martin, Screen Ireland, the IDA, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Tourism Ireland were among those in LA for a week to meet Hollywood studio heads to try and impress on them exactly this.

The trade mission was part of the Government’s St Patrick’s Day programme, and at her meetings, Martin wanted to update key industry partners on the growth and evolution of the film sector in Ireland, as well as discussing new opportunities for collaboration and for production. 

Tourism Ireland was going to be emphasising for industry players how the country had been used for recent films such as Disenchanted (filmed partly in Enniskerry) and Cocaine Bear (where Co Wicklow stood in for Georgia), as well as showing its behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of Banshees of Inisherin.

Ireland on screen

KasIrishFilmFestival / YouTube

Ireland’s unique beauty has been well captured on film over the decades – think of films like David Lean’s 1970 epic Ryan’s Daughter, filmed in Dingle, or Saving Private Ryan, which utilised Curracloe Beach for some scenes.

But it was 2015′s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (directed by JJ Abrams, who last week hosted The Oscar Wilde Awards at his Bad Robot HQ in Santa Monica) which kicked off the most recent phase of putting Ireland on film. It showed that huge studios like Disney (which Lucasfilm is part of) are open to using Ireland as a setting in big-budget franchise movies – and that this will mean a very dedicated and large fanbase that would be interested in visiting the country as a result.

But choosing to film here isn’t uncomplicated. Skellig Michael, the stunning UNESCO heritage site on the Kerry coast, became a location in The Force Awakens called Ahch-To. It reappeared in the follow-up, The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson. 

Not everyone was happy about what this would mean: An Taisce was concerned about the impact on the monastic site on Skellig Michael, for example. A filming crew arriving on such a precious and arguably fragile site was a massive consideration. 

Indeed, when permission was granted for shooting to go ahead by the then-Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys, it was with strict considerations for environmental and ecological preservation.

On screen, Skellig Michael looked stunning. And as Star Wars fans are nothing if not dedicated to the franchise, this decision meant that what’s called ‘screen tourism’ to the Wild Atlantic Way could only increase as a result.

As the Irish News reported:

“Vincent Kidd, proprietor of the Royal Hotel on Valentia Island, said it had brought areas like Valentia, Portmagee, Dingle and Donegal to an ‘audience of billions’ that no marketing campaign could ever hope to achieve.”

Discover Ireland / YouTube

Screen tourism is particularly important in helping build back up Ireland’s tourism industry post-pandemic. 2019 was the country’s best year ever for Irish tourism, Martin pointed out during the Oscars week – over 11 million international people visited the island of Ireland. The United States is one of Ireland’s top markets. That same year, 10% of all American visitors who came to Europe came to Ireland, around 1.7 million people in total. 

During a speech on Oscars week to help launch a screening of the Ireland IMAX film by Tourism Ireland in LA, Minister Martin pointed out that the body will be leveraging screen tourism “extensively” throughout 2023, “capitalising on the positive exposure” of films like An Cailín Ciúin (which was set in Co Waterford but filmed in Co Meath) and Banshees of Inisherin (filmed on Achill Island and Inis Mór. both along the Wild Atlantic Way). 

During Minister Martin’s trip, she met with leading US studios and production companies, including Sony and Disney, which includes representatives from Marvel, Searchlight and Lucasfilm. She said at the time that the trade mission “aims to build on the recent critical success for the Irish screen industry and the recognition of Irish talent on the world’s stage”.

Her visit aimed “to strengthen working relationships between the Irish screen sector and some of the world’s largest film studios and production companies, as well as strengthening Ireland’s reputation as a global tourist destination”.

During the week, there was some big industry news when it was announced that Limerick would be the location for this year’s Cineposium, an industry gathering that it is hoped will have knock-on effects for Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. Limerick is home to Troy Studios, which opened in 2017 and is now Ireland’s biggest movie studio. It’s where, for example, they filmed the Apple TV series Foundation.

Tourism Ireland

Tourism Ireland is the body which markets Ireland overseas. Its Publicity and Brand Partnerships Manager Emma Gorman was in LA this week promoting Ireland to those within the film industry.

Being over in LA for such a big Oscars week is crucial to an organisation like Tourism Ireland, and this year’s nominations meant that there was an easy way to get in the room. With attention on Ireland, it could point to a film like Banshees of Inisherin to show the sort of stunning locations we have to offer to both filmmakers and tourists.

Speaking to The Journal in Beverly Hills, Gorman said that her job going over was to meet studio executives in person, to help create long-lasting relationships for when productions are coming to Ireland for filming, and to get cast endorsement for locations in Ireland.

A lot of travel decisions are based on personal recommendations, she said, and endorsements from celebrities carry huge weight – for example, having someone like Star Wars’ Mark Hamill speak highly of the West of Ireland would be massively important to Tourism Ireland. 

“I’m coming home now in the knowledge there are five or six big projects coming to Ireland,” Gorman told us mid-week. Getting the jump on the projects before they arrive to film in Ireland would help Tourism Ireland put its plan in place for how to approach things when the filming begins.

Gorman explained that when the productions are underway in Ireland, it’s harder to meet people as they’re focused on the job at hand, so making the connections before the productions come here helps when the filming begins. She found too that it can be Irish people working with the US film industry who help her make connections. “Strong relationships allow you to do business better,” she said.

Among the learnings during her trip were the budgetary concerns for filmmakers – they will want to go where they can make their film the cheapest. 

“There’s lots of research that shows that film definitely motivates people to go to visit destinations,” said Gorman of the tourism element. “People emotionally connect with the characters. And they tend to be repeat visitors, they may be travelling in large numbers. They want to spend money – they’re interested in buying stuff related to the thing [they're visiting for].”

Star Wars fans, for example, want to travel and typically have the money to travel, Gorman said. They are also slightly different to the typical tourist, and the film opened up Ireland to a broader audience for Tourism Ireland to promote to. While they do want to see a lot of what Ireland has to offer, they really want to embrace where their favourite screen characters spent time.

Gorman said that “travel decisions are often very emotional decisions as well”. People “want to do what their hero did”, and see the locations they visited – so Star Wars fans want to see the island where Luke Skywalker called his monastic home.

The cultural tourism impact of Star Wars and Game of Thrones (in Northern Ireland) hasn’t died off, said Gorman. With Game of Thrones, they were able to bring the name Northern Ireland into their tourism campaign: ‘Northern Ireland is Game of Thrones’. (Disney, which is behind Lucasfilm, has its own tourism experiences and didn’t team up with Tourism Ireland for a specific Star Wars tourism experience here.)

While knock-on effects on tourism in the Star Wars and Game of Thrones locations are still being seen, already locations are seeing the effect from Banshees too, said Gorman. On Achill Island, tourism operators are seeing people wanting to come outside of season, and are “anticipating a very busy summer”.

“They’re already having lots of enquiries. That will be brilliant, particularly for places like that where the season is so short. One of the things we really want to prioritise is sustainable tourism, facilitating that – that communities can live and survive and have a sustainable source of income. And growing the length of the season on Achill Island would be of course, one of those priorities.”

It’s in Tourism Ireland’s interests, then, to remind people that Banshees of Inisherin is set in Ireland, and while it might be obvious for that film, it’s even more important for films where the Irish setting isn’t quite as obvious.

Ireland has appeared in a variety of ways on screen, from the more unusual Star Wars and Game of Thrones settings to the more bucolic Banshees setting. When it comes to worries about stereotypes when promoting Ireland as a destination, Gorman pointed out that promoting “the authenticity of Ireland, our culture, our heritage and our people is very important to us at Tourism Ireland”.

“And the authenticity of our living culture is one of the attractions of the island of Ireland to visitors.”

Section 481

Aside from the great locations, you’ll also hear about ’481′ drawing filmmakers to Ireland. That’s a reference to Section 481, the Irish scheme which gives producers tax relief against corporation tax. The relief was extended until the end of December 2023. Minister Martin described it this year as “central to the record number of Oscar nominations secured by Irish films and filmmakers” in 2023.

Earlier this year, we reported how Martin had lobbied for the 481 cap to be raised. Currently, there is a €70 million cap per project, and she wanted it raised in the most recent budget to €100 million, in order to attract more big budget projects to the country.

This came on foot of feedback from TV executives in particular about needing to rise the cap to allow more TV series to be filmed here. During a visit to meet NBC executives, the  topic was raised with the then-Taoiseach Micheál Martin. NBC said in correspondence that the current €70 million limit “presents a challenge for even eight or ten episode series to commit to Ireland”.

A similar case was made to Leo Varadkar when he visited NBC Los Angeles in 2019, where documents revealed to The Journal warnings were given that the typical cost of projects had increased significantly and that the €70 million cap “may become increasingly problematic for larger projects”.

Catherine Martin wrote to the previous Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe before the budget last year, telling him that Ireland is losing out to other countries in attracting major international productions and Ireland is not being considered due to the cap. 

The cap had already been increased from €50 million to €70 million in 2015. Former Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys had previously indicated that the previous cap made the scheme less attractive to big-budget films, and a sizeable increase was needed to encourage film studios to invest in increased studio capacity.

Balancing it all

The many meetings and briefings during Oscars week weren’t just about enticing filmmakers to Ireland, which speaks to the greater need to balance promoting Irish productions with welcoming others to film here.

In LA, Louise Ryan of Screen Ireland told The Journal that the body was meeting US executives to impress on them “the extraordinary amount of Irish content that’s coming to global audiences”.

“And equally, we’re looking to bring international projects home and show that Ireland is a great international destination for international content,” she said.

But she said that “both sides of the coin have always been incredibly important to the industry”.

“You must be investing in local IP [intellectual property] to really benefit. You must be investing in IP for your screen industry to grow and thrive.” But, she said, “equally, there’s huge benefits to having international projects filming on location in Ireland.”

Producer Rebecca O’Flanagan of Treasure Entertainment also spoke to The Journal about “keeping the balance between selling Ireland as a location, and also having the confidence to go ‘but we also can be the people who are creating the IP’ to the world.”

It’s one thing to try and tempt filmmakers over here, but not at the expense of the homegrown film industry.

“The reason there’s all this focus at the moment is because of the talent that’s punched out [of Ireland with the Oscar nominations],” said O’Flanagan, who has been a producer for Irish films including Viva, Papi Chulo, the forthcoming Flora and Son (directed by John Carney), and TV shows including Smother.

The Ireland as a location thing is a hugely important part of the industry, but it’s also [about] feeling the confidence in the indigenous Irish industry.

Does she think there is a new confidence among Irish filmmakers? “I think that all of those projects [nominated for the Oscars] are the product of a confidence in our voice, a confident sustained investment in indigenous Irish industry,” she said. 

“Okay, Banshees of Inisherin, obviously that has big money behind it and the talent behind it. But I think the smaller films, like when you go back to something like Once, they have actually come in front of an international audience not because anybody’s interested in Ireland as a location, not because people have come for the [Section] 481 or people have put big money behind them.”

They’ve come through because they are completely authentic in terms of Irish storytelling.

There is a common idea that the more specific you make a creative project, the more universal it is, she pointed out. “Because it’s the themes that you’re allowing to break out. It’s the storytelling that you’re allowing to break out.”

She said that for her, it is about remaining confident in the idea that while the incoming production is a huge part of the industry – economically and for things like training up crews – “there is hand in hand with that” realising that Ireland also has “the talent to be the people who are the creators, and that those ideas can get bigger”.

She added that while there might be small stories on a small scale, Irish filmmakers can also think bigger and should be supported in that.

“I love the idea of that IP being something that’s attracting bigger finance, but that the IP remains Irish.

“So you have those big productions but they’re Irish productions, as well as the incoming ones from studios.” 

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