Impact of Covid-19 on the Film and Television Industry: Discussion

Before we begin our discussion, I wish to note that the committee has agreed in private session that it will write again to the general director of RTÉ, Ms Dee Forbes, seeking further clarification from RTÉ regarding the circumstances in the recently reported incidence of non-compliance with Covid-19 public health guidelines and regulations within RTÉ.

I request that members sit only in the permitted seats and in front of the available microphones to ensure they are heard. It is important as failing to do so can cause serious problems in broadcasting for editorial and sound staff. I remind members to please maintain social distance at all times during the following meeting. Members are requested to use wipes and hand sanitiser provided to clean the seats and desks shared to supplement the regular sanitisation in the breaks between meetings.

I welcome our guests from Screen Ireland. Ms Désirée Finnegan, chief executive, is joining us in person. Her colleagues, Ms Teresa McGrane, deputy CEO of Screen Ireland, and Mr. Gareth Lee, manager of Screen Skills Ireland, will join remotely via Microsoft Teams. I would also like to welcome Mr. Stuart Switzer, a member of the board of Screen Producers Ireland, SPI, who is in committee room 3, and his colleague, Ms Aoife O’ Sullivan, chairperson of SPI's film and TV drama committee, who will also join remotely via Microsoft Teams.

The format of the meeting is such that I will invite witnesses to make opening statements, which will be followed by questions from the members of the committee. The rota for those questions has been circulated among members.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask the witnesses to note they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their presentations they make to the committee here today. This means they have absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they may say at the meeting. They are, however, expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chairman to ensure that this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in the context of the identification of a person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that witnesses comply with any such direction. I will begin by asking Ms Finnegan to make her presentation, followed by Mr. Switzer. We will then take questions from members.

Ms Désirée Finnegan

I thank the Chairman and committee members for the invitation. My name is Désirée Finnegan and I am joined by Teresa McGrane and Gareth Lee.

Screen Ireland is involved in the creative development, production, distribution and marketing of Irish feature film, animation, documentary, shorts and more recently, television drama. Screen Ireland is responsible for promoting the expression of national Irish culture on screen, developing skills across the sector and attracting international productions to Ireland.

The creative screen industries are transforming at an unprecedented rate globally, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Irish industry has experienced significant growth over the past decade but the pandemic has now impacted every part of the industry. Live-action production in Ireland and around the globe effectively ceased in March 2020. Producers, directors, writers, cast and crew were all affected and the Government’s social welfare and business supports have proved essential.

With production at a standstill, focus was redirected to project development, which could continue remotely. Distributors had to contend with films scheduled for cinema release transitioning to other at-home viewing platforms. Cinemas had to close and when allowed to reopen had to operate with severe restrictions, reduced capacity and limited international films to screen. The animation industry demonstrated outstanding resilience, adapting quickly to remote working and keeping production activity going despite many challenges.

In immediate response to the crisis, Screen Ireland rapidly implemented a broad range of Covid-19 measures. We have circulated a briefing paper to members outlining those measures. Screen Skills Ireland also transitioned all of its courses online free-of-charge, including Covid-19 return to work and compliance officer training.

Throughout the pandemic, Screen Ireland’s key priority has been to get the industry back to work, with health and safety of cast and crew the primary concern. In preparation for recommencing production, Screen Ireland supported SPI in the development of comprehensive health and safety guidelines.

Production insurance has also been a significant challenge. With exclusions in effect, the live action sector would not have been in a position to return to production without cover related to losses relating to Covid-19. Screen Ireland was awarded €5 million by the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, to administer a production continuation fund for the sector. This fund was run as a pilot in 2020 and we believe it will still be required into 2021.

I am pleased to inform the committee that the industry has worked collaboratively since the start of the crisis, prioritising health and safety, and has demonstrated its resilience and creativity. By the end of 2020, a total of 12 feature films, three TV productions, eight animated TV shows and 13 documentaries supported by Screen Ireland will have been produced. We are expecting a significant amount of production activity in 2021, including large-scale TV productions in counties Limerick, Cork, Donegal and Dublin. There are also a number of proposed developments in studio infrastructure that have the potential to transform Ireland’s international offering in the coming years. I thank for the committee for its time today and we look forward to answering any questions you might have. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Mr. Stuart Switzer

Good afternoon, Chairman and members. On behalf of SPI, we want to thank the committee for the invitation to discuss with it the impact of Covid-19 on Ireland's dynamic film and television industry.

SPI is the national organisation for independent film, television and animation production companies, representing the entrepreneurs, employers and creative driving force behind Ireland’s content on screen. We represent everybody from first time producers to first-time producers and large-scale productions to smaller one-off productions. Our member companies include some of the most successful and popular factual and entertainment makers on our screens. I refer to shows like "Ear to the Ground", produced by Indie Pics; "The Hunger", produced by Tyrone Productions; "After School Hub" by Macalla Teo; and "Pablo" by Paper Owl Films. These productions have captured the public imagination across all ages. Our film and drama producers have gained well deserved international recognition and awards around the world for productions like "Normal People", produced by Element Pictures, "Black 47", produced by Wild Atlantic Pictures and "The Other Lamb" by my colleague's company, Subotica Films.

At the outset, we would like to recognise the support for our sector that has been provided through increased funding to my colleague in Screen Ireland via the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's sound and vision fund, TG4 and, of course, the range of other supports that have helped sustain our production companies through this difficult time.

Nonetheless, as with all sectors, the independent production sector found itself in an extremely difficult position due to Covid-19 when the first lockdown was announced. A snapshot survey conducted by SPI in April found that 24 productions had to stand down, 59 productions delayed their start dates and 800 workers were laid off. This resulted in €20 million in unpaid wages, while insurance companies put up roadblocks in the context of access to funding.

SPI worked closely with industry stakeholders, including Screen Ireland and Screen Skills Ireland, to develop return-to-production guidelines for all genres of content in order to allow productions to continue under level 5 restrictions. These guidelines operated no matter the size of the cast, crew or budget. From ten-person short films to 700-person TV dramas, the same guidelines were followed regardless of the cost. Cast and crew safety was paramount.

I want to outline my experience as a producer while adhering to Covid-19 protocols. Coco Content has been in business since 1986 and hopes to continue to be for some years yet. We produce award-winning programmes like "Room to Improve", "First Dates Ireland", "Home Rescue", "St. Patrick’s Festival" and "Open for Business". It covers a range of productions for both our public service broadcaster, RTÉ, as well as Virgin Media. We also produce international documentaries. Our latest was "1916: The Irish Rebellion", which has screened in over 60 countries.

Production during Covid takes more time and money. This reduces profit and means that there are less funds available to invest in new ideas. It is a catch-22 situation. The purpose of our recommendations is to bring more productions back, employ more cast and crew in order that we can create more original Irish and international content for audiences to enjoy and help to reboot the economy. While all in society hope that the public health measures required will be short- to medium-term in nature, we are asking the committee to look beyond this to ensure the long-term sustainability of the independent production sector.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I welcome our members who are joining us remotely. I call Senator Warfield.

I thank the witnesses for attending. The audiovisual action plan announced in 2018 by the then Minister, Deputy Madigan, involved funding of €200 million. In this budget, however, €26 million was given to Screen Ireland while the full budget came to €30 million. Where does the commitment for 2021 leave us in terms of the audiovisual action plan? What is Screen Ireland doing to advocate for the implementation of that plan?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

There are recommendations in the plan which came from the Olsberg report in 2016. We had many discussions around the need for funding in 2021, particularly the backlog of production due to five months of no production at all. We had discussions about pursuing some of those key objectives around building television drama and further developing studio infrastructure across the country. We feel that there are additional costs which will accrue in 2021, such as the increase in costs relating to the implementation of health and safety protocols. As long as that is required, we will require additional funding to cover it into next year. The audiovisual action plan contains several key recommendations that we are committed to implementing in the coming years.

Several years ago, RTÉ announced that it was moving to a commissioning model for children's programming and moving away from in-house production. This was something I was cautious about and raised it in the Seanad at the time. Has that move to a commissioning model served viewers well? Is it better value for public money?

In 2019, RTÉ spent €39 million on commissioning programmes from the independent sector. It is legally obliged to do so. TG4 spent €23 million commissioning programming from the independent sector. In RTÉ's case, 75% of commissions went to just 12 production companies. I am concerned that only a small number of production companies are being awarded a significant chunk of that €39 million budget. Is that good for emerging talent? Are the independent production countries finding it difficult to break into those commissions? Does it run the risk of the commissions being safe and predictable with experienced talent being favoured?

Mr. Stuart Switzer

The model of commissioning has served us well but there is not enough children's programming being commissioned by RTÉ. The backdrop to and the reason why is the difficult financial state in which the public service broadcaster is.

In 2019, €39 million was spent on independent production. If we go back to 2008, it was €75 million. In 2019, the independent sector produced 475 hours of TV, while in 2008 we produced 850 hours. That encapsulates the challenge. We must capture the young into the fold of Irish television. The way to do that is to generate more funding for our public service broadcaster, as well as our commercial broadcaster, to ensure they can commission programming. Undoubtedly, the skills, the talent, the creativity and the ambition exist within our membership to produce that content.

Is Mr. Switzer happy with how RTÉ and TG4, as public service broadcasters, are commissioning programming?

Mr. Stuart Switzer

We are never happy. We would like to see more money spent. They are doing well. The move from internal to external in RTÉ has happened slowly. Some of the commissions have been excellent. Again, it is about funding and the art of the possible.

TG4 has a young workforce who are given responsibility for commissioning. That very much reflects the democratic nature of the digital space. I am concerned that TV is a bit of a closed shop when it comes to commissioning and that such a large amount of money is given to such a small number of production companies. However, I could be wrong.

Mr. Stuart Switzer

As a producer who is a member of one of the larger companies, I need to run to its defence. We are a conduit for new talent to emerge, flow through our business, get experience at the real coalface of broadcasting and move on to form their own companies with their own particular interests. That has happened on many occasions. People have joined us as interns, come through college or started at the bottom of the industry. Within a few short years, they have worked their way through and I now see their names on screens everywhere in various roles from producer to director to production manager, etc.

I take the Senator's point that on the surface it seems overly dependent on the 12 big companies. Those companies have significant track records. However, 70% of the money spent on TV goes on labour, talent and people. I hope that addresses the Senator's point.

I thank the witnesses for the content creation that is keeping us going through this period.

I would like to focus on how big the industry can grow and on the potential for Ireland when we come out of Covid-19 and how we get there. I will pose a number of questions and whoever chooses to answer them can do so. How big do the witnesses believe the sector can grow in Ireland? What needs do we have for studio infrastructure? I agree that we may need the continuation fund to run into 2021. How will that be allocated? As legislators, we will soon deal with the transposition of the audiovisual media services directive. What advice do the witnesses have for us on that, particularly on the content levy? We will review section 481. What changes do the witnesses feel we should make? I notice that Mr. Lee is on the call so I want to ask about the potential for growth in the animation sector, as well as about skill shortages within the sector. How do we need to respond to that from our broader education and training system?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

On the growth of the sector, there is no question that the pandemic has hit every aspect of the industry. The demand for content has been clear throughout the pandemic, however. The growth in direct-to-consumer services that we have seen across the world also speaks to the appetite of consumers. Animation is a great area to speak about because the animation sector has a world-class reputation. It is multi-award-winning and it is watched by millions of children around the world. The industry has adapted incredibly well to the pandemic and has continued. Whether it is "Wolfwalkers", which is No. 1 in the box office in cinemas, or "Two by Two", which was No. 1 in the UK and Ireland, there has been growth in animation. One of the measures we put in place last week was a new fund, which comprised additional funding from the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. It was €1 million to help support the industry in two ways. One of those approaches is an innovation fund, which looks at how we can help scale and innovate in animation to build on the growth it has achieved. The animation industry has approximately 2,000 direct employees in 35 studios. We wanted to help the industry in that respect and with the skills deficit the Senator mentioned. We will launch an animation academy to specifically address some of those issues. The growth is so fast that we must ensure we have enough people to meet that skills need. I will defer to Mr. Lee on the skills area.

Mr. Gareth Lee

The Senator raised two questions. To continue on the point on animation, I agree that it has been fantastic to see the growth of that sector over the past ten to 15 years. Prior to taking up my role with Screen Skills Ireland, I worked with Ballyfermot College of Further Education, which is renowned for its animation programmes. Over my years there, it was fantastic to see a situation arise where graduates were able to leave the college and have jobs ready there for them to move into. We have strong further and higher education provision for animation and that has helped the sector. The work that Screen Skills Ireland does in our continuous professional development courses that support the sector is important and that needs to continue. The sector is also well-served by having a dedicated animation skill net to support the sector.

If we take the issue a bit more widely and talk about skills deficits and needs, a collective effort is needed to be out in front of the opportunities that are there. From a Screen Skills Ireland point of view, the opportunity is large and from a skills point of view, we need to try to be out in front of that opportunity as much as possible. Reference was made earlier on to studio infrastructure and so on. If some of that studio infrastructure comes to pass, we will need to be in a position in which we have skilled crew ready and available to take on work that comes in on the back of that infrastructure. It is a collective response.

We have a good working relationship with the Department of Education and we link with it and with providers within the higher and further education space. One of Screen Skills Ireland's key strengths is that we are connected in with the industry through our skills needs analysis process that we undertake annually through our regular engagement with industry and through our role on section 481 with the skills requirement there. We have front-line access to data around the skills needs that are there currently and the skills needs that are coming down the track. That data will be useful in influencing Screen Skills Ireland's provision and we also disseminate that information to higher education institutions so that they can respond to those needs as they arise.

I am conscious of time but there were three other quick questions, which were on the audiovisual media services directive and the content levy, what we will do with section 481, and studio infrastructure.

Ms Désirée Finnegan

On the audiovisual media services directive, that presents a significant opportunity for Irish content and content-makers. It would provide for a 30% quota of European works, which would be significant for Irish companies. It also insists on the prominence of that quota. On the levy front, we feel an additional funding stream would be incredibly important for the industry so we are supportive of that.

Mr. Stuart Switzer

I totally endorse that point of view. One thing we would press for is that I understand that the content levy part of this directive has to come in via a statutory instrument. The members of the committee are experts on these issues. It could be as late as 2025 before that happens, which is not what the industry wants. It is important that we levy the big world players, such as the streamers and the people who are making the market, so that we can invest in our indigenous industry to take them on at their own game. That is not in a combative sense but in the sense of communities and partnerships. To delay the content levy to as late as 2025 will not do our industry any favours.

What about section 481 and the studio infrastructure?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

On the studio infrastructure, green production expenditure in 2019 reached €117 billion globally. We had a trade mission to Los Angeles at the end of 2019 where we heard directly of the need for more infrastructure. We currently have three studios, each of which has been expanding and a number of new announcements were made throughout the year on new infrastructure. We welcome all of those announcements. There is a need and a demand for more infrastructure across the country.

I thank all the witnesses for their contributions this afternoon and for their contributions in keeping us all somewhat sane in recent months. TG4 has been especially successful at building a strong sense of Irish community around the world with its content that is, as far as I can gather, licence-free and easily distributed around the world. How do the witnesses see the significant opportunity that presents itself to us to connect in a more meaningful way with our diaspora through content produced in Ireland? What opportunities do the witnesses see arising for collaboration across the diaspora and how should we work to nurture and support that?

Senator Byrne referred to the issue of animation. A good friend of mine in music, Eimear Noone, who is renowned worldwide for her composing and conducting, was recently involved in a successful animation project. On the skills development that the Senator Byrne, how do we drill right down into primary schools and post-primary schools and open up the opportunities that definitely exist for young people who have a talent in that area? Through the use of technology we have seen a great democratisation of the creative process. One no longer needs to own expensive equipment to be truly creative and to have that content disseminated around the world. From the witnesses' perspectives, what should we be doing in primary and post-primary schools to support those young people who undoubtedly have these talents, who want to express them and who want to see them recognised?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

On TG4, I want to reference one of the collaborations we have with it, which is the Cine4 programme, through which we produce Irish language feature films. It is a unique experience to sit in a screening room and watch a feature film in the Irish language. We had a screening where President Higgins attended and it was something unique. That film was "Arracht" and it has just been nominated as the Irish submission for the Academy Awards and will be under consideration. With regard to the diaspora, our international reputation is stellar. Over the past ten years, we have achieved 30 Academy Awards nominations. For a country of our size, that is quite an achievement. Screen Ireland is recruiting for a representative based in Los Angeles to try to help build on some of these relationships. It is something we feel is very important for international productions coming into the country and the relationships of Irish companies with American partners. They are working with every one of the major studios and streamers. Eímear Noone is a success story and it was fantastic to see her at the Academy Awards.

With regard to skills and young people, there is more work to be done in schools. I will hand over to Mr. Lee to discuss some of the work in skills development and younger audiences.

Mr. Gareth Lee

I also want to reference Eímear Noone. Interestingly, she accessed some training through Screen Skills Ireland many years ago, which really helped her career. She accessed it when she was quite a young age. The remit of Screen Skills Ireland is on continuous professional development. This is where we do most of our work. More and more we see the need to try to be involved at the earlier level Deputy Cannon mentioned. The way we have tried to do this so far is to work with other stakeholders and empower and fund them to do some of the work on our behalf. We work quite closely with the Irish Film Institute on its careers and screen programme to promote careers in the screen industry to transition year students. We have also worked quite closely with young Irish film-makers on a summer programme relating to film-making and animation in order to get young people interested in both forms.

One of the first roles I was involved in when I joined Screen Skills Ireland just over two years ago was the development of a careers and screen website. This is a website into which we have put a lot of time and effort. It maps out all of the career roles available in animation and live action. There are well over 200 roles listed on the site. It is interesting that a lot of the time when we speak to people they do not realise there are that many roles available within the industry. There is definitely work to be done on promoting the roles available in the animation industry and promote them at that early level.

A career guidance review was conducted a year or two ago. Recommendations from that review are being implemented at present. There is definitely a value in us and other stakeholders linking in with the career guidance model to promote careers in the screen industries through career guidance counsellors. Specifically on animation, there could be more linkages with art teachers in schools. I have had some art teachers reach out to me over the years on animation workshops. More work could be done in this area to promote animation to secondary and primary school pupils.

Mr. Stuart Switzer

I take the Deputy's point on distribution. We are a nation of 80 million, of whom only 5 million or 6 million live on our island. There is a huge opportunity to distribute Irish content to our wider family. It has been tried in the past but now the technology is there with the various players and video on demand. A huge opportunity exists for this material and this wonderful content we create in film and television to be seen by a wider diaspora and friends of Ireland.

Following the point on streaming platforms, we spoke at a previous meeting about how to compete or engage with them. Our national channels are trying to complete with streaming platforms. Do the witnesses have any comments on a strategic way of doing this? There has been great success with Irish productions on Netflix and elsewhere. It is a great opportunity to get it out. "Friends of Ireland" is an interesting phrase. How do we entice people. Do the witnesses have comments on this?

A topic that comes up all the time is how much production space people have. This affects all of the arts. I am a former theatre person and we never have enough room for anything. Production space is an issue I have heard being raised. We have some great production spaces and studios but there can never be enough. People at entry level in particular do not have access to college campuses. Production people are very creative at times and will find a space no matter what. Do witnesses have any comments on whether the State needs to take more of a role in this? Do they have any thoughts on this?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

When it comes to streaming partnerships, Irish production companies work with all of the streaming partners across the board. There is a huge opportunity to build even deeper relationships. This is part of why we went out with the Tánaiste on a trade mission in September 2019. We found that there were even more opportunities. This is part of why we are recruiting somebody to be based on the ground, particularly with the limitations on travel at present. It has made it even more important to have somebody there to build those relationships. There are significant opportunities we could be building on with regard to indigenous industry and international productions coming into the country.

There is a significant demand for infrastructure throughout the country. We welcome all of the new announcements that have been made and the expansion of the existing studios, which have all been incredibly busy. Since recommencing production, we have had three major international productions in the country being completed during this time. This has been a very good sign.

Mr. Stuart Switzer

I take the point that streaming services and video on demand are challenges but those challenges can be met head on by our broadcasters through creating their own digital players and streaming our content. They can change the offering. They can offer support for the offering. Effectively it is the new gateway. Rather than having a channel that demands people watch something at 9.30 p.m. they watch it in their time on the international video on demand platforms of our national broadcaster and commercial broadcasters. This is part of the way. It refers back to the earlier point on the audiovisual media services directive. The content levy could start to look at the wider world of television because investment is required in the players to bring the technology up to speed.

Ms Teresa McGrane

I want to comment on the interesting question about the spread of Irish content and how we get to international audiences. I would say never has Irish content been seen by more international audiences. When we are making Irish films we always have a sales agent and a number of distributors that distribute Irish content in particular territories. Obviously the territories we look at very keenly are the UK, Ireland, the US, many of the English-speaking territories and European territories, particularly France, Germany and Scandinavia. There is a huge amount of interest in Irish content. Good Irish content always finds an audience. Sometimes it is difficult when we are speaking about the major streaming video on demand players such as Netflix and Amazon.

There is a huge amount of Irish film on there. We never really get the viewership numbers because they tend to keep that secret, although during the week BBC iPlayer released figures for "Normal People" which, during the pandemic, has clocked up 62.5 million views. That is a powerful piece of content going right around the world, which will always be of interest to people, and Ireland will always be of interest to people.

We support many Irish film festivals internationally in major cities in the US, Europe and Australia. These festivals specifically show Irish films. They are quite small but their reach is significant in terms of the diaspora.

I thank the witnesses for attending. I have a few specific questions so I will go through them and whoever feels they are the appropriate person to answer, please feel free. I was thinking mid-lockdown about the fact there was, I assume, no production going on. It was mentioned that there were a number of months when there was nothing happening. Are we likely to see that reflected in a couple of years when we will see a gap in our chosen platform, whether a TV or streaming service? Are we likely to see the same stuff for months and notice there is nothing new happening? Will there be a real impact in a couple of years when we will ask if they will ever bring out something new? Ms Finnegan mentioned the 2020 figures: 12 films, three TV productions, eight animated TV shows and 13 documentaries. How does that compare to 2019? Do the witnesses have those figures? Perhaps we will not see those figures impacted for a couple of years.

I assume international productions have also been impacted by the restrictions on travel. We have a great reputation here. "Braveheart" and "Saving Private Ryan" were partially produced in the State, to name two films. Are we still able to attract such international productions as we have in the past? Can we work towards getting more in?

With a view to being helpful, I will ask a direct question. The witnesses touched on a few measures. What steps could the Government take to create more opportunities for Irish productions?

Mention was made of some international film festivals where Irish movies are featured. I presume Screen Ireland has a role in supporting Irish film festivals. In west Cork, we have the Fastnet Film Festival, which is terrific. It attracts a host of well-known Irish and international names. I think Saoirse Ronan is one of the advocates for it and she goes down there yearly. How will we face the challenges of supporting our own film festivals going forward?

RTÉ representatives were in here recently and that organisation has a variety of challenges relating to income. I had a question on the audiovisual media services directive but the witnesses have explained that. Is there an opportunity for RTÉ to drastically increase its income from Irish productions being sold abroad? What can be done to develop that?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

In terms of the volume of productions seen in 2020, the number is not too far off what it was in 2019 but it is interesting to note that the value of those productions is down. We estimate they are down approximately €25 million. That is because we have been able to get the lower budget productions up and running. That is partly because those the funds covering some of the health and safety protocol implementation costs and the production continuation fund. For example, a couple of feature films came through one of our schemes. It is called the point of view scheme and is aimed at female directors. It is really the lower budget films that were able to get back in.

In terms of a gap, there is a lot being made so hopefully the Deputy will not see a gap in his viewing experience.

On the international production side, in our trade mission in 2019 the interest in Ireland as a location for international productions was significant. It is not only our tax incentive, though that is incredibly important - there are now almost 100 such fiscal incentives operating around the globe - it is also our workforce. There is very talented and skilled crew in the country. It is also our geographical location and English as a language. Many different elements go into that decision-making. In particular since the pandemic began, health and safety has become one of the top priorities in decision-making. We are still a competitive location for production and we have seen a great deal of interest in coming back to Ireland and bringing international productions here.

Screen Ireland has supported all the Irish film festivals, helping them transition online, which has been challenging for all the festivals, including the Galway Film Fleadh and the Cork Film Festival. They have done incredible work. It is very hard because marketing has to completely had to reimagine how they promote the films. All the traditional ways have not been available throughout this time. At Cork, one of the Screen Ireland films won the audience award, so creative solutions have been put in place to keep marketing and promoting Irish films.

Ms Aoife O'Sullivan

On the question of international productions, that is interesting and I will tell the committee about my experience during lockdown. I am a film and TV drama producer for the past 20 years with a company called Subotica. We were two weeks into an international production in March when lockdown happened and we had to stand down for five months. We restarted in August. Fortunately, we were able to get back to work because TV production was considered an essential service, which was great. There were many challenges and 50 pages of protocols but we managed it.

There was a question on international travel and bringing people in from abroad. That was difficult but manageable because we stuck to the quarantine guidelines, and people were brought in, quarantined and tested weekly. It went smoothly and it was a 16-week shoot in total, two before lockdown and 14 afterwards. We wrapped two weeks ago and are in post-production now. International production will not be hampered because even during level 5 restrictions we can continue, so we are fortunate in that regard.

Witnesses spoke about studio infrastructure and one of the biggest developments here occurred on 17 December when planning permission was sought for studios in Borleagh Manor, Gorey, which is on a 154-acre site and is connected to Pinewood Studios, which is a famous studio. That is great news. What benefits do the witnesses think this studio will bring and what impact will it have on film-making in Ireland?

Witnesses spoke about something that disturbed me, namely, the loss of 800 jobs. Those jobs involved a range of skill sets. How can we ensure the protection of these skill sets?

The witnesses spoke about barriers. What barriers were put up? They also spoke about blocked funding. Can they explain that? They spoke about international projects. Can they elaborate on them? How much animation innovation funding is available? That is one of the kernels of Irish film-making, when one considers digital gaming and so on. It creates far more jobs, as well, because there are artists, voice-overs and all that type of thing. There is far more employment in it.

Ms Désirée Finnegan

On the studio fund, the news of the potential development at Borleagh Manor is really welcome. There are significant opportunities in the local areas where such studios are built. Troy Studios in Limerick is an example. It is possible to a build local crew base, really working with the community. The Borleagh Manor proposal is a significant opportunity for Wexford. Proximity to motorways and airports is key when productions are brought in so they can easily move back and forth. It is welcome news.

I absolutely agree with the Deputy on the animation front, on the opportunity in the area of animation and on the emerging technology. The fund was designed with these in mind. It is a matter of considering what emerging technology exists. The animation sector has many interesting ideas on how it could develop. We wanted to give some seed funding to help to explore some of those ideas. The fund is €400,000. We are working in partnership with Animation Ireland to administer it. I really look forward to what might come from it.

What about the barriers and the 800 jobs that were lost?

Mr. Stuart Switzer

I will work backwards to address the Deputy's question. Expenditure by our national broadcaster, RTÉ, is really important. Under the legislation, it is obliged to spend €40 million per year in the independent sector. As far as we are concerned in SPI, the expenditure in 2020 will be about €20 million. Therefore, it is really important that the €20 million that will not have been spent this year be carried forward to next year. Expenditure by our national broadcaster is on domestic-facing programmes but it is also the touchpaper that results in some seed funding to build international television projects. One that may be close to the Deputy's heart is that of a Wexfordwoman, Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, who was the brain behind "1916: The Irish Rebellion", which we made over two years. Ten percent of the budget came from Ireland and 90% came from abroad. It was screened in over 60 countries. A small amount of seed capital from this country can grow from little acorns. That is really important to the television side of the business. The film and drama side works in a different way. It is multi-funded, etc., but it is really interesting. Hailing from somewhere not far from Wexford, I wish those concerned the best of luck with the studio.

I want to talk about the funding overall. It is complex insofar as it is broad. In Screen Ireland's briefing, it was stated that funding was coming from television broadcasters, online services, the State, the EU and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland but I wonder whether there is a funding graph that could be forwarded to the committee, perhaps later in the week, to give us an outline of the stream of funding available.

On the commission on the future of media broadcasting, are both SPI and Screen Ireland participants? Will they be tying in via submissions to the commission?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

To answer the first question, we will get a graph. Is the Deputy referring to the overall picture of funding for feature films and television drama, the percentages and where they come from?

Yes, just so we can have clarity.

Ms Désirée Finnegan

That is no problem at all. We are not part of the media commission but I will be absolutely happy to provide information on it.

Will the additional Covid funding that was obtained be sufficient going into quarter 2 of 2021 if the restrictions are still in place? Will Screen Ireland be in dire need of additional funding?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

The increase we received was very welcome. It was a €9 million increase in capital funding, which represented a 52% increase on our budget of 2020. The key elements we believe will need to extend into 2021 include the support for the implementation of health and safety protocols. We really felt it was important that we were helping to offset some of the costs to ensure we were giving support to the productions. Another element is the production continuation fund. As long as the exclusions exist or are in effect in the industry, we will need to make sure we are helping to provide cover. I might ask Ms McGrane to speak a little about the production continuation fund because we believe it has been absolutely key in getting indigenous productions back up and running. We anticipate that we will need that in 2021, or for as long as the restrictions are in place and the virus is being transmitted.

Ms Finnegan mentioned the additional €1 million euro in respect of productions under Covid. She said it was from her own funding. Was it additional funding from the Department?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

No. The €1 million in funding was reallocated from funds we had. We actually reallocated about €4 million from production funding into development. The additional funding we received was €3 million in television drama stimulus funding, which was part of the July jobs stimulus package. That went very directly into television drama. It went towards a number of initiatives with the broadcasters and towards establishing the first television drama academy for Ireland. We recently received some additional funding - €1 million of this was for the animation activity and a further €1.3 million was for the cinemas. We just launched, on Monday, a cinema stimulus fund to help support the cinemas in their reopening. They are operating with such restrictions that it is necessary to support them and the work they do in the community across Ireland. The exhibition landscape in Ireland is unique. We have a screen density across the country. We have cinemas in very small towns, relatively speaking. In 2019, we had the highest rate of cinema admissions per capita in Europe. Therefore, we really felt the additional funding was very specifically for those key areas.

I thank Ms Finnegan. My next question is for SPI. With the clock ticking, it might not be possible to get a detailed, comprehensive response but maybe the delegates will forward it to us because we would be very interested in finding out the issues that are arising regarding the insurance industry and what the Government can do to help in that regard. What response have the delegates had from the Government thus far? It would help us to do our work if the delegates outlined in great detail what is needed.

The collective agreement was announced this week. It is quite welcome. What percentage of the workers in the screen production industry are unionised and covered under the agreement? Do the witnesses know offhand? Maybe they can furnish us with the details later.

Mr. Stuart Switzer

My colleague Aoife O'Sullivan will address that as she has more expertise in this area than I do.

Ms Aoife O'Sullivan

On Monday, we received the good news that the agreement had been passed. It is a new shooting crew agreement for the industry on which there were difficult negotiations for three years involving SIPTU, helped by the guilds that represent the various unions. That was really good to get across the line. It is so good for employee relations. It includes a transferable pension scheme that can go from production to production, increased pay rates, and a monitoring committee that makes sure the relevant document is live. The monitoring committee will be in place to make sure that rates, including night rates, and anything will have to change and stay relevant will do so over time. I am aware that 83% of the SIPTU membership voted in favour of the agreement. I do not have the percentage of the industry that is in SIPTU. We can get the figures for the Deputy after the meeting and send them on to her. As far as I am aware, the rate is quite high.

On tax relief, and the self-assessment procedures regarding section 481, is the new system put in place in 2018 is better or worse than the previous one? How do the witnesses find it?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

My understanding is that it has been working quite effectively, but perhaps Mr. Swtizer can speak on this issue as a producer.

Mr. Stuart Switzer

I am not passing all the difficult questions onto my colleague, but this is Ms O'Sullivan's area, not mine.

Ms Aoife O'Sullivan

Yes, it is much better. The move from the investor-based system to the straight tax credit system was a good one, and the system has been running very smoothly. There were many delays in the system before, and now that we have self-assessment, we can get up to 90% of the tax credit at the first stage, which is quite quick. Delays can happen at the compliance stage, but so far, so good, and the system is working very well. This year has helped, in that the Revenue has been very understanding of the fact that Covid has caused many challenges for the industry, and it has been very quick to get back to us on various applications, both at the 90% stage and at the final 10% compliance stage. Therefore, the system is much better than it was previously.

I want to thank our witnesses for joining us today and for taking the time out to speak to us about this important topic. Recently, in my own constituency of Mayo, the "Wild Mountain Thyme" production was filmed on location outside Ballina in the village of Crossmolina, which caused excitement among locals. The film was screened in October and it was fantastic for the region and the area. That followed "The Quiet Man", which was filmed in Cong, and John Wayne visited the village. The impact that these productions have on the area in respect of promoting them as a tourist destination, is very welcome. My question is this: how can we get local authorities to be more active on the ground to promote the areas as locations to both film producers and screenwriters? I know that Martina Niland is a native of Aughagower and her own production company, Port Pictures, was instrumental in Mayo being used as a location for "Wild Mountain Thyme". Is there more that we can do as a Government in respect of an action plan for promoting areas? The bulk of productions filmed in Ireland are made in County Kerry, and it is very active. It has a good commission set up for this purpose. County Wicklow would be the same. It comes down to the stunning scenery and the natural resources in those counties. I would like to hear the thoughts of the witnesses on how to ensure we achieve balanced regional development in this area.

Ms Désirée Finnegan

Screen Ireland has been engaging with all of the film commissioners that are in almost every county across Ireland. We feel that developing the audiovisual sector across the country is a priority. We are actually in the middle of working through a strategic plan for 2021 to 2023, and we are going to actively engage with representatives from across the regions to get their input into what kind of other activity we could be undertaking to help support them. There is a lot of work that we could do in that area. I agree with the Deputy that the impact that productions can have on a local area is significant, given that there can be Irish cast and crew on those productions, and the spend that those productions can generate is really important. It is an important priority for us in the three-year plan coming up.

Mr. Stuart Switzer

I would like to add to that response from the perspective of factual and entertainment television production. We tend to work with smaller crews on smaller productions. However, we try, as a company - as do our broadcasters - to locate production in every county in Ireland, bringing in people from all over Ireland, no matter where, who or why. Covid has proved difficult, with the restrictions on travel in place, etc., but for programmes such as "Room to Improve", we film in virtually every county in Ireland. Television is smaller in scale, but the productions do have an impact and create interest in the process and the work that we do, and hopefully they create audiences for our national broadcaster.

Ms Aoife O'Sullivan

Unfortunately, very often decisions on where to shoot film productions come down to monetary considerations, and the regional tax credit has been a real incentive for producers to go to the regions to shoot. I have two productions shooting in Kerry and Galway next year, and the regional tax credit has been a huge consideration in that. In the past, it was cheaper to shoot in Dublin and Wicklow, because most of the crews are based there, and travel and accommodation costs do not have to be considered. The regional tax credit helps to offset those costs, and enables productions to be set in the west, where sometimes they really want to be. There is no point in shooting in Wicklow for a film that is set in Kerry, Galway or Donegal, when producers can actually go there. Therefore, the extension of the regional tax credit would be good for the industry and would help decentralise it.

I welcome the witnesses who are attending both in person and virtually. I thank them for taking the time out to speak to us today. I apologise if I go over ground that has already been covered, but I had to step out to take a call.

I have had a strong interest in film from a young age. It might have something to do with the fact that my father worked on "Ryan's Daughter" in the late 1960s as a driver. He tells some great tales of his adventures driving Robert Mitchum around, and his not so adventurous encounters with John Mills and Sarah Miles. In Kerry, where I am from, that film represents a huge landmark in respect of what the film did for tourism in particular for the Dingle peninsula, and for Kerry in general. Of course, that is only one of the many positive impacts of film and the work the witnesses are engaged in.

I wanted to ask about section 481. I am glad to hear the positive responses to the questions on how the system is working, and the expansion of the scheme in particular. I understand that short features are also covered by the scheme. Am I right to say that the commercial advertising production is still not covered by section 481? Is that correct?

Ms Aoife O'Sullivan

Yes, that is correct.

Is work being done to expand the scheme to cover that area? I imagine that quite a lot of activity would ensue if the scheme were to be expanded to cover that area.

Ms Teresa McGrane

I am not aware of any plans to expand the scheme into that area.

Ms Désirée Finnegan

Advertising is not within the current remit of Screen Ireland. Our remit currently covers the areas of feature film, TV, drama, documentary, and short features.

I imagine many of the people that the witnesses work with are involved in commercial advertising work. Is the expansion of the scheme into that area something that would overall help the viability of the industry in the country?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

We will have to come back to the committee on that issue. We could talk to the commercial producers of Ireland and get some feedback for the committee, if members are happy with that.

That would be great. I looked at the budgets of the last number of years. It appears that 2014 was a particularly bad year and Screen Ireland was down to €14 million in total. By the middle of this year, before the most recent injection of funding, the organisation was up 72% on that figure. I imagine that 2020 has been a year in which the reset button has been pressed for many organisations, and a lot of funding will be required. How do the witnesses see 2021 playing out in terms of returning to normality? I know that the witnesses do not have a crystal ball, but do they feel that the financial challenges for 2021 are going to require further Government intervention, or will the funding that has been announced to date get the organisation to where we all hope it will be for the second half of 2021?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

We very much welcome the increased funding. In 2021, the two areas of importance will be the cost of implementing the health and safety protocols for every production, and the production continuation that helps to de-risk some of the costs of production.

Will the Government supports that have been announced be enough to get the industry to the other side of Covid?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

The Deputy also asked about production activity in 2021. We anticipate that production activity will be very busy, particularly in quarter 1, and we have four large-scale television productions that are due to start. We anticipate and are very hopeful that we can address the production backlog that was missed during 2020.

The funding of €8 million is very welcome because, as the international productions are still coming into the country, we want to make sure that we maintain the fine balance between indigenous and international productions. Having additional funding for indigenous productions is really important.

I presume that interest in digital and television production training in third level colleges has gone through the roof in recent years. Do third level colleges now prepare people to work in this part of the industry? When I studied at the National College of Art and Design, NCAD, digital was not to the fore as it is now so anyone who had an interest in digital production had to go to the college in Ballyfermot. What is now the Ballyfermot College of Further Education, was streets ahead of every other third level college in the country in promoting animation and television production. Where can young people who have the skillset but want to study these subjects pursue them as part of their future careers?

After our guests respond to my questions there will be time for them, particularly our guests who are attending remotely as it can be more difficult for them to engage in a conversation, to ask us questions and make suggestions, particularly on new topics.

Ms Désirée Finnegan

Mr. Lee will answer some of the questions but first I will mention the newly established Creative Futures Academy that is being led by a group of very talented and creative people. He might talk about that; there are some interesting initiatives happening at the moment or have just been announced.

Mr. Gareth Lee

There has been a growth in courses that are linked to the creative industries and technology. Historically, there were general courses but it is great to see more specialised courses come onstream. So now, more than ever, one will see third level courses in areas that are specific to animation or games. In the past five or six years as many as four or five new undergraduate courses in animation have been developed. As the Chairman has referenced, the kids of today adapt so quickly to technology that it makes sense for them to pursue a career path in the industry.

As Ms Finnegan referenced, we welcome the human capital initiative by the Department of Education and the Creative Futures Academy that is provided by the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, University College Dublin and the NCAD. The aim is to future-proof the industry in terms of creativity. I guess another strength is to bring the various disciplines together such as design and film-making, and UCD, a university that is strong on writing courses. There are a lot of very interesting initiatives that seek to address future skills that can be provided in higher education. Another welcome addition on the education landscape is the Springboard+ course that allows providers to introduce very industry-facing programmes that address a very specific need at a point in time. We have developed a number of certified programmes through Springboard+ with third level providers in the last few years that have added value to the provision for the sector.

I noted that Mr. Switzer said in his presentation that "production insurance has also been a significant challenge". We have touched on insurance a little and Deputy Munster suggested that Screen Producers Ireland might furnish us with more information. Please expand on the subject a little.

Mr. Stuart Switzer

The whole insurance area was difficult because we were not insured for a pandemic. As most of the funders are part of the factual end of the business and funding comes via broadcasters, we have worked closely with the broadcasters to ensure that production companies recouped as much as the cost that was sunk into the productions before the cancellation. Insurers, under the extra expense part of policies, have been difficult to tie down. Many producers have had the same experience because this is a worldwide issue. Insurers have linked arms quite tightly and said that these covers do not work for Covid and under civil authority. This matter is technical and tedious but at the end of the day the insurers are all running for cover and the industry, as a wider grouping, has found it very difficult to tie them down to get claims negotiated and paid.

That is shocking.

Ms Teresa McGrane

I shall pick up on two points mentioned by Ms Flanagan of which insurance is one. Insurance is so important for the production sector in 2021. We have a strong pipeline of projects coming here for 2021 but what has become clear is the extent of the unforeseen additional costs generated by the protocols in order to keep the industry working. For some projects, it has cost a staggering amount to test the cast and crew every week. People also need to work within pods so if there is a Covid outbreak then the affected pod can be removed thus avoiding transmission to the remaining cast and crew. There is also the cost of quarantine. I take my hat off to the industry that includes the producers, casts and crews who really wanted to work. The circumstances in which they have had to work have not been easy but they are getting better and people have grown more used to them.

The insurance issues have been very difficult. In February it hit us that the full suite of insurances were not available to production, which put it at huge risk in terms of any form of a Covid outbreak. The Department put in place a production continuation fund but we still require that all productions are insured to the hilt as far as possible. There had been a suite of insurances available to insure the cast, which was one of the big risks. Unfortunately, that has fallen away because there have been calls on the fund in Europe. We hope that the funding will come back to us in 2021. The production continuation fund has been an enormous confidence boost to encourage productions to get back up and running. It is our wish that the Government continues the scheme in 2021. We would like to expand it because it was limited in nature as we were never sure that we could continue shooting productions in level 5. We have continued, which frees up the funding a little. We would like the scheme to be expanded and for opportunities to be explored.

Ms Aoife O'Sullivan

On the insurance question, we were fortunate with the TV drama that I mentioned that we had been insured before the outbreak hit and we were covered for Covid-19 both in terms of insurance and the bond. Bonding is just as important as insurance when it comes to the bigger budget projects because they are tasked to deliver the project no matter what happens. The bond company is paid a fee and it delivers the project. If anything happens where the production company cannot deliver the project, the bond company have to pay for that. Now both bond the companies and insurance companies are excluding Covid-19 and it is very challenging. I had another project that was supposed to shoot this year that has been pushed to next year because it cannot be bonded or insured for Covid-19. As Ms McGrane said, this is a very significant factor for the industry. We still do not know and we have a claim in on the current production. We have no idea the extent to which the insurance company will honour that claim and I obviously cannot talk about specifics. Most producers in the industry who have claims with the insurance companies are in the same boat. We just do not know to what extent we will be covered and will probably find ourselves short at the end of the day, which is a bit of a worry.

Mr. Gareth Lee

On the skills side, I would like to reference the work of Screen Skills Ireland and to commend the team on their work this year. In March, Covid-19 hit us but, historically, we would have delivered all of our course provision face-to-face in physical environments. We had to move to the delivery of online provision, which we did very quickly. By the end of March we were up and running with online courses and were able to offer more than 80 different continuous professional development courses online to the industry throughout the pandemic. That has been a great support to the sector in keeping people upskilled but it also provided an opportunity for people to meet and to bring a sense of community to the sector during a difficult time.

There are challenges, which is what the committee is focused on, and many of us wish to talk about and address these as we go forward, not least of which is Covid-19. There are also, however, some very positive developments within the sector. From a section 481 skills side, we have introduced a new system for tracking and engaging on the skills side requirements of that section. That is leading to very positive skills development opportunities on productions and to us getting very close and detailed data on where the skills needs are in the industry, both current and future ones that are coming down the track.

Another positive point worth referring to is the development of the guilds and how important the work that they do is becoming. We have linked quite closely with the guilds in recent times on the development of a new competency framework for the sector, which will help in future planning around skills as well as the section 481 skills development process and will also lead to opportunities for curriculum development and all so on at third level, which will be important.

There are two other points that they may not have been discussed earlier but they are significant. The first is the Government’s announcement of a potential games tax credit down the line. That is an interesting development. There are many crossovers in skill sets across games, animation and visual effects. That could help grow the sector and bring a lot of cross-pollination of skills. Second, is where Ms O’Sullivan referred to the extension of the regional uplift of the 5% into next year, which is very welcome, given the difficult year that was 2020. From my point of view that is about growing a regional skills base and that takes time. The longer that the regional uplift can be extended to build a crew base, the better. It will mean greater links between producers, companies and studios to local third level and further education providers, which will bring real strength and sustainability to growing the sector in a regional way.

I thank Mr. Lee. I believe Ms McGrane wishes to come back in again.

Ms Teresa McGrane

My apologies that was-----

We are unable to hear Ms McGrane, yet.

Ms Teresa McGrane

My apologies, as that was done by mistake by me as I did not have my hand up. Now that I have the floor, however, I might just use it double up on what Mr. Lee has just said on the skills development role that we have now with section 481. That has been very innovative as we are the first country to link the development of skills with the tax credit. A great team in Screen Skills Ireland is working very proactively with productions, not just with trainees but in upskilling the whole way up through production. Many people are looking to us now and saying that that is a very innovative process and a great way of getting on-the-job training formalised.

There have also been many conversations on regional development and, as Ms Finnegan said, we are committed 100% to regional development. Most of the production that will happen next year will probably go outside of Dublin. Producers very much enjoy shooting outside of the Dublin area and love getting out to new locations. We are very committed to opening up the regions as much as we can. At the moment we are looking at a spend of €9 million outside of Dublin and Wicklow and that will only increase.

I thank Ms McGrane. We welcome Deputy Boyd Barrett who is a visitor to our committee but who is no stranger to the topic of film and he has five minutes to speak.

I thank the Chairman.

In January 2018, a group of film workers who had worked for a long time within the industry came into the committee and said that there was a very significant problem with section 481 as it amounted to, in various years, €80 million a year plus grants or loans from Screen Ireland of €20 million a year, which over ten years is equal to approximately €1 billion. They pointed out, as people who had been working over that ten-year period or longer, that they had absolutely no rights whatsoever as employees and were in a completely precarious position, despite the fact that they worked for production companies that received moneys through section 481 and loans over a ten or 15-year period. Many of those people, since they came in here, have not worked again in the film industry and say that they have been blacklisted out of it. They have taken cases recently to the Labour Court and the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in respect of, among other things, breaches of collective agreements with Screen Producers Ireland, SPI, members. In one case at least, the Labour Court has found in their favour against a SPI member, which is one of the biggest recipients of funds under section 481.

The other key point is that section 481 specifically requires that the recipient, which is the producer company - I have the declaration here that is required and the Designated Activity Company, DAC is mentioned - and the DAC have to comply with all employment law as a condition of section 481 eligibility and have to "be responsible for compliance with all statutory requirements of an employer and without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing shall be solely responsible in law for the employment, remuneration, taxes, immigration and work permits of all personnel retained for the purposes of the production of [insert film name]". That is very clear.

I want to understand why the chief executive officer of Screen Producers Ireland then went to the Labour Court this year and said there was no possible relationship between workers who had worked on section 481 film productions and the producer company. I can quote them for the witnesses if they wish. In other words, these are film productions that are getting money specifically on a legal requirement that they are responsible for the employment of people. Those same recipients - and I will not mention names but two of the biggest production companies in two cases that have happened this year - went to the Labour Court or the Workplace Relations Commission and said they had no employment relationship whatsoever with these individuals, even though in their statements they acknowledge those individuals have worked on successive productions for which they got section 481 relief. I find that shocking and extraordinary. I am a huge fan of film and I want to see more money going into the film industry but I find it unbelievable this is going on. I want an explanation.

I would like to know from Screen Producers Ireland, SPI-----

I remind the Deputy he has a minute remaining and that also includes the witnesses’ answers.

Loans totalling €176 million were given to independent film productions between 2006 and 2018. It has been reported to me that the recoupment rate of those loans in that period is €12 million. Do we, as members of the public and taxpayers, not require some explanation on how loans are being given out by the body in charge of the industry but we are only getting that low level of recoupment? I would like an explanation on that. I genuinely understand that film production is not always about profit and commercial return and I want to see a subsidised film sector, but that requires some explanation. Those are my questions.

Are those questions directed to anybody in particular?

They are for Screen Producers Ireland and Screen Ireland, specifically for Screen Producers Ireland in terms of its position that essentially no employment relationship existing between its members and people engaged on its productions. How can they explain that and how are they going to the courts saying no such relationship could even exist?

I will draw a line under it there as the Deputy has used the five minutes allocated which covers questions and answers. However, I will allow a little latitude. Would any of the witnesses like to respond?

Mr. Stuart Switzer

I will defer to my colleague, Ms Aoife O'Sullivan, who is in the film production business which are the prime users of section 481. Section 481 is used in factual television to a small extent. I know Ms O'Sullivan will confidently answer that question.

The floor is Ms O'Sullivan's.

Ms Aoife O'Sullivan

I do not know about individual cases in the Labour Court but I will reiterate a good news story this week about the collective agreement struck this week on 7 December in which the employers and employees came to an agreement after three years. I was on the negotiating committee and I know how difficult it was. Some 83% of SIPTU workers voted in favour of it and were very happy with it. The guilds were strongly represented at the negotiation table. It includes a transferable pension, which is ground-breaking in the industry. From my experience and that of most of the producers I know, employer and employee relations are extremely important. It is a small industry. We all work together all the time. We work together on a continuing basis but it is a project by project business. That is the way it works. One cannot have continuous employment when one is going from film to film or TV drama to TV drama. Usually the directors of the designated activity companies, DACs, are the same as the directors of the producer company. The reason we have to set up the DACs is because that is required under section 481 legislation. We are compliant with Revenue and with the Departments on that. We have no choice in the matter. Also, other good news is that the WRC did an audit of the industry, which was published in August of this year, and it had very positive findings. It recommended an agreement be reached between employers and employees, which was reached this week. It said we should concentrate on skills development, which we very much are through Screen Skills Ireland, and that we should continue the strong relationship with the guilds, which we are doing. All those boxes are ticked. I do not see any ongoing issue, to be honest. From the industry’s point of view, it is working extremely well.

Thank you. I will take one final contribution from Senator Byrne.

For the record, those were not answers to the questions I put. The ballot referred to was a ballot, and Ms O'Sullivan can correct me on this, of 790 people but there are 2,000 people in the industry.

I am not taking from the Deputy's question but our guests were specifically asked to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on the industry. Perhaps that is the reason he is not getting the detail he wants on this occasion. Senator Byrne has another question.

Apologies for having to step out briefly. I will return to some issues I did not get a chance to discuss in the earlier round. I welcome the support for Tara Studios in north Wexford. It will be a major addition to the studio landscape if planning is granted. There will be a review of section 481 in the next period. What are the witnesses' recommendations on helping the sector to recover? The regional tax credit is very welcome, the benefits of which we discussed. The Minister has just announced we are ready to proceed with the online safety and media regulation Bill and, if time permits, the witnesses might outline what they would like to see in that, particularly with regard to the detail of the content levy. We did not get a chance to discuss that in the earlier round.

Which of the witnesses would like to respond to that question?

Mr. Stuart Switzer

I will deal with the content levy first. It is interesting and it is part of the directive. It could be really good news for the industry. What we are concerned about from what seems to be indicated in the announcement today is that it could be as late as 2025 before the statutory instrument is put in place to make the levy a possibility. There is a question about the media commission and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, morphing into that organisation. This is really important. The people who would pay this levy, and some of the major streamers, present an opportunity for our members but they are also a threat to our industry. To balance the opportunity with the threat, it would be good to introduce that levy sooner, which would fund our industry to compete and make content for those streamers. That is vitally important. This could be the touch paper that would help our producers in film, drama and across factual television become significant contributors.

How does Mr. Switzer see it practically working?

Mr. Stuart Switzer

That needs a lot of discussion. It is very early days. It works in different ways across Europe, different percentages of levy, who pays the levy etc. That needs a discussion between the members, namely, the legislators, and those of us in the industry to talk through how that could best benefit Ireland Inc. There are many models for that. We are running up against the time but I might defer to Ms Teresa McGrane who might want to take this up. There are many models of it across Europe. It is a really interesting opportunity. It needs discussion about who pays and who benefits.

Does Ms McGrane want to come in on that point?

Ms Teresa McGrane

I am happy to come in on it. Is that okay?

The floor is Ms McGrane's

Ms Teresa McGrane

This is probably one of the most significant pieces of legislation that will affect this industry in terms of the potential for a levy, who it will apply to and the promotion of European works online in Europe.

As Mr. Switzer said, we do not have a position on that. What we want at the moment is for the levy to be implemented. We believe Ireland should be on a level playing field with the rest of Europe, which is taking the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, AVMSD, very seriously. They are implementing it in all of the European territories. France has it already implemented, as has Germany and Denmark. Everybody else is actively engaged with the legislation. We do not want to see Irish content creators in anyway disadvantaged in terms of the levy. We really see it as a way of levelling the playing field considering the power and dominance of the subscription video-on-demand, SVOD, players.

Ms Désirée Finnegan

It warrants a lot of discussion. A very detailed report has been generated. It looks at the financial modelling of how it could work. It is a complex issue and the range of what the levy could look like or the financial obligation is done in a number of different ways across other member states.

This is going to be useful for us. As was said, as part of the recovery of the industry, this is going to be crucial and it is right that we get the model right. I am not saying that the Italian model is more interesting, but it will be useful for us to hear from the industry on it. In terms of section 481 and when we will review it, what do the witnesses hope we might do with it?

Ms Désirée Finnegan

I have been living overseas for a long time and it is absolutely clear that section 481 underpins the industry. It is incredibly important in terms of the competitiveness of it. There are almost 100 in place around the globe. It is incredibly important it operates, is streamlined and works very well. As Ms O'Sullivan mentioned, the transition to the self-assessment model seems to have gone very well. In terms of the four-year extension, I think it is called the sunsetting clause, it is very important as the film industry is very long-term and long-lead in nature so one needs a lot of time to plan for productions. Ensuring that it continues and remains competitive is incredibly important.

I thank all witnesses for being with us both physically and virtually-----

Can we ask additional questions?

We have a rota in place and if other members of the committee thought we were going to have a second round they probably would have remained. I am trying to be as fair as possible. Is that okay? Deputy Boyd Barrett got well over his allocated time.

I thought because there was 15 minutes left.

I thank all our guests for being with us today both virtually and physically. We very much appreciate it. Some of the queries today were around insurance and other aspects that we can recommend to Government. Witnesses are welcome to submit them in more detail to the committee clerk. I am sure she will circulate them and we will be able to put them into any reports we may submit.

Before we adjourn, I remind members and witnesses to vacate the room immediately in order to allow for the sanitisation of the room. The meeting is adjourned until 1 p.m. Wednesday, 16 December 2020 for a private meeting on Teams, followed by a meeting of the joint committee in public session at 2 p.m. at which representatives from Virgin Media Ireland and TG4 will discuss challenges facing the broadcasting media sector as a result of Covid-19. This will be followed by a session with representatives from Local Ireland and Newsbrands Ireland on the challenges facing national and regional newspapers also as a result of context of Covid-19.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.43 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 16 December 2020.