Irish Film Board: Discussion with Chairman Designate

We will resume the meeting in public session to hear from Mr. Bill O'Herlihy on his designation as chairperson of the Irish Film Board, Bord Scannán na hÉireann. I welcome Mr. O'Herlihy and thank him for his attendance.

I draw attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l ) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, you are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against a person, persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I advise you that the opening statement and any other documents you have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Before the commencement of the presentation, I should say that the Irish film industry is one of our most important, providing investments and jobs directly through its own activities and indirectly through its promotion of Ireland and Irish things. Therefore, I am particularly glad to have the opportunity today to discuss Mr. O'Herlihy's future role as chairperson of a board in this important sector. I ask the witness to begin by providing some details of his professional career to date and how this will assist him in his new role. I am also interested in hearing plans for the future and how the witness sees his role as chairperson contributing to the success of the Irish Film Board.

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

I take this opportunity to thank the committee for giving me the opportunity to address it and outline my vision for the Irish Film Board, the strategies to realise this vision and the challenges and priorities I have identified in this regard. I am happy to answer any questions the committee might ask.

I was greatly honoured when the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, approached me about taking up the position of chairman of such a well-respected organisation. It was something that I thought about for a little while before accepting because I wished to be clear in my own mind that I would have the time and energy to ensure that I would be able to deliver in a positive and constructive manner on the strategies. I believe I can do this. I also very much welcome the appointment by the Minister of the six other members of the board, all of whom bring a breadth of expertise and experience in film and film production to the table, and I look forward to working with them and with the very experienced executive staff of the board.

The Irish Film Board was established under the Irish Film Board Act with a dual mandate of assisting and encouraging the making of film in Ireland and assisting and encouraging the development of an industry in Ireland for the making of films. This mandate was most recently elaborated and expanded on in the Creative Capital report published by the Minister in July 2011 and the implementation for the recommendations in the Creative Capital report is part of the recently published Action Plan for Jobs 2013.

The core business of the Irish Film Board is the development of indigenous Irish film making and the majority of funding is dedicated to this objective. The Irish Film Board supports Irish screenwriters, film directors, actors and crew in realising Irish creatively driven films. Recent examples include: "The Guard", directed by John Michael McDonagh and featuring Brendan Gleeson; "What Richard Did", directed by Lenny Abrahamson and featuring Jack Rayner; "Pilgrim Hill", directed by Gerard Barrett; and the soon to be released animation feature film, "Song of the Sea", directed by Tomm Moore and produced by the team that produced the Academy Award nominated "The Secret of Kells". Irish creative talent is the lifeblood of the industry and I will be working with my colleagues on the Irish Film Board, as well as with the executive of the Irish Film Board, in helping to promote that talent both in Ireland and internationally.

I joined at an exciting time in the industry. In 2012 two films which were made possible through the support of the IFB received four Oscar nominations between them. "Albert Nobbs", set in Ireland and completely filmed on location in Ireland, was nominated in the categories of best actress, best supporting actress and best make-up. "Pentecost", also set and filmed in Ireland with a full Irish cast and crew, was nominated for best short film. This followed on from 2010, which saw Irish talent picking up awards and nominations and some of the industry's highest accolades. Highlights included the Irish film industry receiving five Academy Award nominations, three of which were for films supported by the Irish Film Board - "The Secret of Kells", "Granny O’Grimm's Sleeping Beauty" and "The Door" - while Irish animator Richard Baneham and his team picked up the Oscar for best visual effects for their work on "Avatar". Back in 2008, there was the Oscar for best original song for "Once", which was made for only €300,000 with support from the IFB. Also in 2008, there was the Caméra d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival for "Hunger", and in 2007 "Garage" won an award at Cannes as well. These awards helped to give confidence and increased profile to Irish creative talent and are significant evidence that Irish film and talent emanating from Ireland have achieved recognition on the world stage.
Irish short films funded by the IFB have received eight Academy Award nominations since 2002. The IFB-funded comedy thriller "The Guard", starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, has become the most successful independent Irish film in Irish box office history, grossing more than €4.3 million at the Irish box office and more than $5 million in the United States.
The first Bollywood blockbuster to be shot in Ireland, "Ek Tha Tiger", starred two of Bollywood's biggest stars and was filmed on location in Dublin over five weeks. The film used an abundance of Dublin locations for spectacular dance sequences and stunts. It was distributed in more than 20 countries, which meant that images of Ireland and Dublin were projected on the big screen across the globe. All of this provided promotional opportunities for Tourism Ireland to exploit Ireland as a tourist destination. According to Fáilte Ireland figures, 20% of all tourists that visited Ireland in 2010 did so because of images of Ireland they saw on film.
Film is not just about the creative aspects of what is on the screen. It is also an industry and a business. It is an industry that raises finances, provides employment and pays for goods, facilities and services. It creates works that are distributed and promoted in Ireland and elsewhere, are seen by local and international audiences, convey a visual image of Ireland to a wider world, generate exports and revenue from abroad and encourage international tourists to visit Ireland. All of these activities require financial and business skills.
The Creative Capital report was commissioned by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and was compiled by a group of industry professionals under the chairmanship of Brendan Tuohy, the former Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. It was completed in April 2011 and was published by the Minister in July 2011. It was included as part of the Action Plan for Jobs 2012 and its continued implementation was also included in the recently published Action Plan for Jobs 2013, in which the implementation measure is stated as follows: "Continue to implement actions set out in the Creative Capital Report to double employment in the film and audiovisual sector by 2016."
The Creative Capital report envisages that if its recommendations are implemented, turnover in audiovisual production, which is already at €500 million, could be increased to more than €1 billion over a five-year period, and the number of full-time equivalent jobs - already more than 5,000 - could be increased to more than 10,000. The headings in the Creative Capital report are as follows: develop an industry and build strong companies; build exports; develop skills and talents; a strong domestic industry; mobilisation of the industry and the whole of the Government; and unlocking its potential. There are 42 recommendations in the report. Some have already been implemented in full, including the extension of the section 481 film tax incentive to 2020, and many are part of a concerted work in progress. I can contribute to that work and look forward to working with the various industry stakeholders as well as the Irish Film Board and its executive.
The particular matters I will focus on will include building strong companies in the sector and supporting a drive for exports of audiovisual works across all platforms. I will also focus on the development of training for those both behind and in front of the camera. I am familiar with the broadcasting environment in particular, and can bring my knowledge and experience to the table in addition to my behind-the-scenes experience through my many years working in public relations. I will also promote the development of the domestic audiovisual industry in all media and look forward to working with the industry in helping to mobilise creative talent in conjunction with the Government and its agencies.
Section 481 has now been extended until the end of 2020, which will assist in giving the sector continuity and certainty for the future and allow projects to proceed in the knowledge that this important underpinning of the industry will be there for the next seven years. This demonstrates the commitment and proactive approach of the Government to the future of the Irish film and television production sector.
With the knowledge and experience I have of both the public and the private sectors in Ireland, I believe I can contribute in a constructive way to the implementation of the Creative Capital report. The stakeholders in this industry include the IFB itself, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the Department of Finance, the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, public and private sector broadcasters including RTE, TV3 and TG4, cinema distributors and exhibitors, DVD distributors and retailers, and online video-on-demand and other film services. There is a rapidly increasing variety of ways in which audiences now access content. All of these elements contribute to a cultural industry which is all about creativity and talent, jobs and exports, international revenues and tourists, but it is ultimately about the audience, whether in a cinema or in front of a television or computer screen wanting to be entertained or uplifted, to laugh or cry and ultimately to be engaged in a life-enhancing experience. It also contributes to jobs created and the exports and revenues achieved, whether at the cinema box office, through television or online subscriptions or through DVD rentals and sales, which, in turn, create further opportunities for Irish talent in what is hopefully a virtuous circle of cultural and economic activity.
I believe my experience, qualifications and achievements will enable me, as chair of the board, to bring together the diversity of skills and talents on the board and in the executive, to bring a knowledge of business as well as promotion and marketing to that mix, to provide the benefit of what knowledge I have of the ways of government to what is an area of activity much affected by legislation and regulation and, hopefully, to supply some wit and wisdom to what has been described as the most powerful form of cultural and artistic expression in the modern age.
The Vice Chairman asked me about my background. I have been in broadcasting for almost 50 years and I am very familiar with, and have a full understanding of, the television and radio environments. Through working in news features initially, I think it is fair to say I had a major impact on the development of regional broadcasting in Ireland. In fact, I was RTE's first regional broadcaster, based in Cork. As a consequence of working on the programme on which I worked with Frank Hall, the whole culture of filming Ireland outside Dublin changed.
I covered current affairs for RTE television at a time of immense importance in establishing the relationship between the Government and public service broadcasting. I was public relations director to the Cork Film Festival and advised the director Dermot Breen to change the focus of the festival to the promotion of Irish films in order to ensure its long-term development, which was done. I worked with Seamus Smith, who was managing director of the National Film Studios of Ireland, to promote film-making in Ireland and, along with him, took part in promotional campaigns to Hollywood and the Cannes Film Festival, which successfully brought film projects to Ireland. I produced and financed independently a series of 13 programmes under the title "Distant Drum", a ground-breaking film about the diaspora which was filmed in the United States, South America, Australia, the Far East and Europe and was transmitted and bought by RTE over two seasons. I also produced a documentary on Seán Lemass. I acted as unit publicist on "The Purple Taxi" and "Excalibur", two major motion pictures made in Ireland. I have worked for more than 40 years in the communications industry. I thank the committee for listening to me.

That was very impressive. Will Mr. O'Herlihy either give credit to or deny the rumour that Dunphy and Giles will be advising him?

I know it is traditional for Opposition members to contribute first, but on this occasion I ask that the committee agree to allow Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy to address the meeting first, as she has to leave soon owing to genuine family commitments. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Vice Chairman.

I welcome Mr. O'Herlihy and congratulate him on his appointment as chairperson designate of the Irish Film Board. His curriculum vitae shows that it is very fitting for him to hold the position. He is well known in many sectors and will make a very fine chairperson. I am very keen on the regional aspect of his expertise. Ireland has great potential in the film industry. Such is my support for the development of this sector that I proposed the setting up of a film commission in County Offaly when I was a county councillor and I persuaded Offaly County Council to do so. It is known as Film Offaly and is very active. An offshoot was the organisation of a film festival, the only one in the county and it is an unusual one in that it targets young film makers. The regional aspect of encouraging film making is very important. The handy option is to focus activity on counties Wicklow and Dublin, which was the case in the film industry for a long time, mainly because of the availability of Ardmore Studios, but we have so much more to offer across the country. I ask Mr. O'Herlihy to outline his views on developing the scheme that was in place previously to fund filming outside the Dublin area. Is it possible to fund people to film in the regions?

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

I cannot give chapter and verse on much of what the Deputy has said because I have not yet taken up the job.

I understand that, but I would like to hear Mr. O'Herlihy's views on what he would like to see happening in the regions.

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

For a start, as a tribal Cork man, I certainly want to see the sector developed outside Dublin. I know, for instance, that there is a very fine film maker in County Kerry and that work has been done in that county. Certainly, as chairman, I will be looking to develop opportunities outside Dublin. I will be speaking to board members and the executive of the Irish Film Board about ways to exploit such opportunities.

I thank Mr. O'Herlihy for his very interesting presentation. He has had an interesting life so far, with more to come by the looks of things.

I wish to address the issue of the ability of people around Ireland to see films. In the town I come from there used to be two cinemas. Then we progressed and developed and ended up with none. In County Roscommon as a whole there is one cinema. There was one cinema in Roscommon town, but it has closed down. What can the Irish Film Board or Mr. O'Herlihy do to make film viewing more accessible? When I say "more accessible", I mean the distributors of films should make it viable for community centres or town halls in remote areas to screen films. Where I come from, one has to make a two-hour round trip to see a film and the experience is ruined as a result. Does Mr. O'Herlihy envisage the Irish Film Board being able to do anything to address this issue? The promotion of Irish films is part of the board's remit, but many people do not have access to them. What does Mr. O'Herlihy believe the board could do to encourage our public service broadcaster to show Irish films in order that we do not have to watch another re-run of "Are You Being Served?" or something equally not up-to date?

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

To answer the latter question first, RTE recently showed a series of Irish films. The relationship between RTE and the Irish Film Board is very good. The chief executive, Mr. James Hickey, works closely with RTE to develop that relationship further and ensure greater access to Irish films.

To respond to the first question, the Deputy is reflecting the huge change that has taken place in the communications sector. The cinema is no longer the dominant feature. RTE recently screened a documentary about the cinema and the influence it had in the past, but that influence has waned enormously. The Deputy raised a very interesting point about distribution. My understanding is the executive is looking very closely at furthering its relationship with the distribution companies in order to ensure Irish films receive the projection they deserve. That issue is very much on the agenda of the Irish Film Board.

I congratulate Mr. O'Herlihy on his appointment as chairman designate. In my past life I produced a number of films in which the Irish Film Board invested, lest it comes back to haunt me at a future date.

I am aware that Mr. O'Herlihy is chairman designate and, therefore, may not be able to answer some of my questions. In that context, perhaps we might invite him to address the committee again in a year or so.

I am sure the committee will facilitate that request.

Broadly, I see several challenges for the Irish Film Board. One is the continuing tension between developing an Irish film industry and attracting film productions to Ireland. There may be a conflict between developing a culture of film making and film makers in Ireland and attracting major Hollywood productions to our shores. I ask Mr. O'Herlihy to outline his thoughts on that aspect.

When Mr. O'Herlihy accepted the appointment from the Minister, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, an enlightened appointment, was he able to elicit any commitment from him on capital funding in the next few years? As we know, it is capital rather than current funding that the Irish Film Board requires. I note that in 2013 the figure is €11.8 million, compared to €13.1 million in 2012. Given that the budget will be announced earlier this year, in October, and that we know there is a set budget within the Department for three years, has Mr. O'Herlihy been given any indication of what the capital budget for the board might be for 2014?

I ask Mr. O'Herlihy for his general view on the commitments made in the recently published report, Creative Capital: Building Ireland's Audiovisual Creative Economy, which referred to a doubling of turnover and creating 5,000 jobs between now and 2016. These targets are very ambitious, given the current economic climate. I ask for Mr. O'Herlihy's views on whether they are too optimistic, given the challenging environment to which he has alluded.

Again with the caveat of allowing Mr. O'Herlihy to return later in the year-----

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

The Senator should ask easy questions.

While it has been confirmed the section 481 tax relief scheme will run to at least 2020, changes have been made recently to the financial and tax regime in the United Kingdom vis-à-vis film making. Does Mr. O'Herlihy believe these changes will have a negative impact on film making in Ireland?

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

The environment is very difficult and there is no point in pretending otherwise. The position in Ireland is that we have improved the position on tax in the sense that qualifying Irish expenditure has increased from 28% to 32%, while the cost to the Government has been reduced, which is a positive step. However, there is no doubt that we face enormous competition from Northern Ireland and Britain because of the benefits to be gained there. To achieve the level of growth in Ireland that is being discussed, there must be a very strong selling of Ireland, in terms of creativity, the strength of our personnel, the attractiveness of locations here and so forth. That will be of major importance for the board, me as chairman, the chief executive and his team. There is no doubt, however, that it will not be easy.

To be honest, I have forgotten the other questions posed by the Senator.

I have no idea about the capital funding; I have not a clue, because I have not discussed that with the chief executive or the Minister. The first board meeting, if I am appointed, will take place on Thursday and I have no doubt it will exercise the board members greatly.

We must bear in mind that I do not pretend to be a film maker, even though I have a background to some extent in the sector. I understand the environment.

I consider that an advantage.

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

I will be completely objective.

That is exactly what should happen.

Mr. O'Herlihy had good mentors.

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

Exactly. When I worked in news features and current affairs and then in sport, I was used to asking forensic questions. I tried to find out exactly what the score was because I have never been an expert in any of those areas, but I survived. My job will be to put myself into the shoes of the audience as much as possible, to determine the taxpayer is getting value for money, which is critical in my opinion, and to ensure the remit of the Irish Film Board is followed through.

If we look at the appointments that have been made by the Minister, there is a terrific range of expertise on the board. This board has the capacity to be very strong because it encompasses production, education and acting, all skills that are fundamental to the development of the industry. I look forward to working with the other board members immensely, and with the very experienced executive staff, because we have big problems and these are the sort of people who are able to solve them.

Mr. O'Herlihy said earlier that when he was asked about taking up this position, he had to think about it. What was there to think about?

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

I asked myself if I was the right person for the job. More importantly, I asked myself if I have the expertise to chair meetings that will deliver on the vision of a board like this. The board is hugely important, not just in developing jobs but in promoting Ireland. One in five people who come to Ireland come because of the images they see on the silver screen. Apart from the cost of the board, this is an immensely important aspect of the job. I thought about that and wondered if I was good enough to do this. I also asked if I had the time to do it. I came to the conclusion that this is a particularly interesting project and that I should give it a lash, in the immortal traditions of poor old Mick Doyle.

I presume this will involve a certain number of meetings and familiarity with the work of the board and its strategy. There will be a relationship with the Minister as well. That is where topics like capital funding arise. The idea we could double numbers in full-time employment in the sector from 5,000 to 10,000 over such a short period of time sounds slightly fanciful. Some of this, however, would be about commitment on areas such as section 481 relief and real money. There are tangible benefits to this if 20% of visitors come as a result of films they see. That means a much greater return than simple box office numbers. Will there be a focus on the capital investment? That would be critical in the delivery of such numbers.

Has Mr. O'Herlihy identified anything that is not in the Creative Capital report that should be in it or does he have any doubts about elements of it? Would that question perhaps be better answered in a few months?

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

That question would be better answered in due course. From the word go, I will be looking at what exactly must be delivered in the short term. In talking to the chief executive, and responding to the Creative Capital report, the figure for 100% growth from 5,000 to 10,000 jobs is not apparently unreasonable. The question is whether it can be done within five years. It might take a year or two longer but the feeling is that it can be done. It means certain things must be put in place. There must be coordination between the universities and institutes of learning and a member of the IADT sits on the board, which is hugely important for the development of the industry. There are many things that must happen to achieve that but there is no reason to think they will not happen.

As far as the capital budget is concerned, we must look at the facts. The capital budget has fallen over the years and I suspect in the current climate there is no question of it increasing. I do not know that; the Minister is better placed to answer that than I am.

I congratulate Mr. O'Herlihy again on his impending, I hope, appointment as chairman of the Irish Film Board. He is eminently qualified for the role and I wish him every success. Like Senator Mac Conghail, I am declaring my interest in that I am a director of a film company. I am not entirely sure and cannot recall the level of funding we might have received in the past from the IFB but that is probably because the amount was so small.

Following on from Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's remarks, there is a vital film sector in the regions, it is not exclusive to Dublin, Cork and Galway, as I can verify. The organisation I am involved with managed to access very important PEACE funding to do North-South projects with marginalised young people. Every summer an assumption is made by parents that young people want to get involved in sports camps but that is not everyone's cup of tea. We organise projects like "So You Wanna Make a Movie?", where we extend the film production experience to people who would not ordinarily do that, giving them access to that sort of opportunity. Having engaged young people at that level, some of them have gone on to work in the industry, which is a credit to that approach.

We have a burgeoning film industry at present, much of the credit for which must go to President Higgins and the measures he introduced in the 1990s. The industry, however, is notoriously difficult to get a foothold in for a variety of reasons. If we are to continue to succeed on the international scene and to build the indigenous film industry Senator Mac Conghail referred to, we must prioritise young people coming through the industry, whether they be on the creative or technical sides. Has Mr. O'Herlihy had any chance to consider how the Irish Film Board might go about that critical aspect of the business over the next few years, where it encourages and retains young talent, ensuring we have an indigenous industry for young people coming through the system?

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

What is of major importance on the agenda of the Irish Film Board is training. Training people so that they develop through the industry. There is a much greater requirement to develop the educational resources for career building and the realities of working in that marketplace. I cannot give members the complete answer to the question, for obvious reasons, because I do not really know. I know that training, education and the creation of a viable industry base in the coming years is a priority for the film board executive.

I congratulate Mr. Bill O'Herlihy and wish him every success. I have no doubt that he is eminently qualified and a willing partner in furthering the film sector.

Has he set specific targets in conjunction with the chief executive and the board of the Irish Film Board against which his success might be measured in the future? Has he envisaged a process to bring the work of the Irish Film Board to the regions? The local authorities have sought to instigate such an industry in the regions and County Offaly is a case a point. The members of the local authorities and to a greater extent the young population could benefit from such a roadshow as this would encourage creativity in our young people and prepare them for openings that might emerge in the sector in the future. Those in the film sector can be more than successful and a great benefit can accrue to the State by virtue of those who come here. Visitor numbers can always grow and expand. The regions are the gems of the country and I hope that Mr. O'Herlihy can lead a campaign to expose them so that we will all benefit.

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

That is a very interesting concept. I have not met the board as such yet, but I know some of the members individually. My intention is that the board, as a group, would define our objectives for the coming year and be measured against those objectives.

I think the Deputy's suggestion of bringing the Irish Film Board to the country is a terrific idea but it might not necessarily be practical from the point of view of the board, but certainly not from the point of view of the executive. One must bear in mind there is a major workload involved for a small number of people on the executive. Even in my marginal involvement so far, it is very obvious to me that they have a huge workload and the international and national travel is significant. The executive is imaginative and I will discuss this suggestion with the chief executive and if it is practical, I am sure it will be done.

We will finish on those comments. As has been suggested already, perhaps Mr. O'Herlihy will return and appear before the committee in 12 months time.

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

I would prefer not, but if I have to I will.

We have already given Mr. O'Herlihy the questions.

That concludes our consideration of the topic and I thank Mr. O'Herlihy for coming before us and giving us the benefit of his wisdom. I propose we notify the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, that we have completed our discussion with the chairperson designate of the Irish Film Board, Mr. Bill O'Herlihy. Is this agreed? Agreed.

I will conclude with the words of a well known-television sports commentator, "Okey dokey".

Mr. Bill O'Herlihy

I thank the Vice Chairman and members of the joint committee. I am honoured.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.15 p.m. and resumed in public session at 4.50 p.m.