Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, is of course subject to a British rather than an Irish structure of film funding, though today, the north and south work closely together to support filmmaking across the whole island. This is hardly surprising since the situation in Northern Ireland displays many similarities to that in the south and its history of development follows a similar trajectory. Just as was the case in the Republic of Ireland, until relatively recently, there was very little film or television drama production in Northern Ireland.
The impetus for change came again from an alliance of independent filmmakers, film academics and film writers who, by the 1980s, felt that a region represented so negatively in the international media as a news story, should have some means of representing itself to the outside world. (This desire for more local production was mirrored within BBC NI and as the 1980s progressed, there was a greater willingness within the Corporation to make in Belfast more primetime drama that addressed local issues, culture and politics). This lobby group established the Northern Ireland Film Council, which has evolved today into the main support body, Northern Ireland Screen (NI Screen). From its beginnings, the lobby in Northern Ireland set out to inject the cultural argument for state sponsorship of film into a fairly hostile cultural climate and this was the dominant rationale behind the early initiative. Since then, however, again in parallel with developments in both Britain and Ireland NI Screen has folded the cultural aspect of film into economic, business and commercial imperatives. It is currently funded by Invest Northern Ireland (Invest NI) the regional business development agency set up by the Dept. of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to grow the local economy and this explains its strong interest in attracting inward development from the international screen industry. NI Screen also administers Lottery funding for film in Northern Ireland and although it retains a strong role in supporting film culture generally through a range of training, archive and educational initiatives, its main strategy has been to attract inward investment.
In 2013, NI Screen published Opening Doors, its strategy for the years 2014-2018, phase 1 of its ambitious aim of establishing Northern Ireland as ‘the strongest screen industry outside of London in the UK and Ireland within 10 years’ (NI Screen 2013, 2). This ambition is built upon the unprecedented success of Home Box Office’s Game of Thrones, now in its sixth year using major locations and studio space in Northern Ireland. This is now the biggest TV production in Europe and has brought substantial benefits to the Northern Irish economy. ‘The first four seasons brought a direct economic benefit of £82m, according to the local assembly, including wages for cast and crew, hotels, services and tourism, and has created the equivalent of more than 900 full-time and 5,700 part-time jobs in a region of fewer than 2 million people’ (Addley 2014). Indeed, such has been the success of the location shooting that the fictional kingdom at the centre of the drama, Westeros, has been adopted in tourist information as a name for Northern Ireland itself (‘Welcome to Westeros’ a sign at Belfast’s International airport announced in 2014). Many of the locations used in the series – on the famed Causeway north coast, in Tollymore Forest Park and the Mourne mountains – are now firmly on the international tourist trail and visitors to Northern Ireland can now enjoy a ‘Game of Thrones’ tour to accompany their ‘Troubles’ tour.
There have been a number of other high-profile international successes that further reinforce such ambition. NI Screen was a partner with the BBC in two series of the thriller, The Fall, which was one of the Corporation’s biggest critical and audience successes in 2013-14 (The BBC also shot the second season of the highly-acclaimed police series, Line of Duty, in Belfast during the same period.) The critical acclaim for the NI Screen supported Good Vibrations (Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn, UK/IRL, 2012), the Oscar win for the short film The Shore (Terry George, UK, 2011) and the BAFTA win and Oscar nomination in 2015 for the short film, Boogaloo and Graham (Michael Lennox, UK, 2015) have also boosted the reputation of Northern Ireland film and added to the confidence that NI Screen’s policy document demonstrates.
There can be no doubt that the infrastructure for film and television drama in Northern Ireland is now greatly enhanced with the success of Game of Thrones. The most spectacular development has been in studio space. The old paint hall at the former Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast has been developed into the Titanic studios with three large sound stages (where Game of Thrones is based) and further studio space has been developed at the old Linen Mill just outside Belfast, with plans for further enhancement and development already in the pipeline for the period down to 2018. (These developments represent the realignment of the Northern Ireland economy from one dependent on heavy industry and large-scale Fordist production to an economy built on leisure and tourism and it is symbolic of the shift that the spaces of that industrial past have been successfully adapted as spaces for the production of screen entertainment.) There has been substantial upgrade also in training so that in-coming productions can now avail of experienced production crews and location expertise. NI Screen also offers a detailed advisory service for all in-coming productions.
And yet, despite all this success, some reservations about the overall strategy still persist. During 2010, this impressive infrastructure was utilised by Universal Pictures to make the $49 million sword and sorcery comedy Your Highness (David Gordon Green, US, 2011), a film that contributed much to the economy of Northern Ireland while adding little in the way of cultural enrichment to anyone. And Terry George, the director of the Academy award winning short, The Shore observed in an interview in 2011, ‘I have to voice a note of caution as the big studios and the big productions can vanish just as fast as they appeared, so while it’s wonderful to have HBO and NBC/Universal there if local productions, local film makers and local talent are not given long-term financial and structural support we’ll be left with empty studio space and a lot of people having to go abroad to find work’ (McDonald 2011).
Even in its ambitious strategy document, NI Screen admits that in catering for the international screen industry, it has committed less funding for local independent filmmaking than the Irish Film Board in the south, despite the fact that it was originally set up to support local filmmaking rather than to facilitate inward production. In its new strategy, NI Screen has committed itself to a substantial increase in its support for the local industry while maintaining and enlarging its activities with the international film industry (NI Screen 2013, 19).
It is difficult, therefore, to characterise filmmaking in Ireland as a ‘national’ cinema, at least in any narrow, essentialist definition of the term. Not only, as we have seen, is activity funded by different national bodies across two political jurisdictions, the strategies on both sides of the border follow a similar pattern that emphasises the importance of the international screen industries as drivers of both economic growth and trickle-down cultural development. Both the IFB in the south and NI Screen in the north seek to work with the internal national (including television) and external European support agencies but to do so in collaboration with the international industry (especially in the UK and USA). In this regard, then, rather than seeing the situation as a national cinema in itself, it is better to see the developments in Ireland, north and south, as the successful integration of Ireland into international screen culture. This does not, of course, preclude the development of local independent filmmaking but it does mean that this independent sector is supported within this wider screen culture, living within it rather than offering an alternative to it and therefore having to adhere to a greater extent to the aesthetic conventions of that culture. It seems impossible now to envisage any way in which the more experimental, politically engaged cinema of the 1970s/1980s could be accommodated within this culture.
It might be noted, as well, that this international screen culture is now dominated as much by high-end television production (like Game of Thrones or Vikings) as it is by large-scale studio film production and both state funding agencies in Ireland have given a high priority to attracting such television production. Increasingly as well, film and television production is seen as part of the ‘creative industries’ that also includes computer games, digital animation, software development, mobile technologies and related activities. This has greatly expanded the concept of screen culture and widened the areas of creativity that the funding agencies support. However, the question remains to what extent all this international activity in Ireland has helped or hindered the development of a culturally specific film and television drama culture within the global market. Certainly, some specific areas have been addressed. In Ireland, the special sensitivities over questions of cultural identity have meant that there are schemes in place in both jurisdictions to support audio-visual culture in the Irish language (and more controversially, also in Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland). The number of films made is small and most material in these languages is made for local television rather than for wider audiences. The fact remains, though, that film production in Ireland, north and south, is now promoted within an international framework and is geared towards facilitating the global industry.
McDonald, Henry. 2011. “Northern Ireland film boom fuelled by Game of Thrones and Belfast punk film.” The Guardian, December 28. Accessed November 12, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/dec/28/northern-ireland-game-of-thrones
Northern Ireland Screen. 2013. Opening Doors: A Strategy to Transform the Screen Industries in Northern Ireland. Belfast: NI Screen. http://www.northernirelandscreen.co.uk/DatabaseDocs/doc_776581.pdf
Martin McLoone is Emeritus Professor of Media Studies at the University of Ulster.