Seanad Éireann - Volume 153 - 18 December, 1997

Irish Film Board (Amendment) Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Miss Quill: I pay tribute to the work done by Bord Scannán na hÉireann since it was reconstituted in 1993. I had been a Member of the other House for just a few days when the Irish Film Board was disbanded in 1987. It was one of the not infrequent occasions when I took issue with the judgment of Charles J. Haughey. The success of Bord Scannán na hÉireann since it was reconstituted in 1993 has proven what a retrograde step that disbandment was.

The board has served us well since 1993. Senator Coogan referred to the success of a number of films it supported or grant aided. Three of the four films which received awards at the prestigious San Sebastian film festival were supported by the board; they were “Ailsa”, “Trojan Eddie” and “I Went Down”, Paddy Breathnach's fine film which almost every speaker mentioned. The film “Last Bus Home” which won an award at the Irish and British film festival at Cherbourg was also grant aided by the board. That testifies to the judgment of the board, among the many other facets of expertise it brings to bear on the development of the industry.

The film industry is very important to the future of this country, not alone to our cultural development and understanding of our identity but to our economic development, directly and indirectly. When shown abroad, Irish films invite curiosity about the country. They often project an interesting and appealing image of Ireland and prompt tourists to visit and industrialists to invest here and thereby generate jobs. These are indirect benefits which should not be overlooked. There are direct benefits such as the growing number of people who are gaining interesting and exciting employment in film making. When we invest taxpayers' money in the film industry, we invest wisely.

[443] The development of the film industry is exciting because it is a young people's industry. Living in Cork, I have seen the film festival there evolving dramatically over 42 years. In its early days it brought great glamour to the city and was an event for the elite when one took out one's fur coat to impress the natives, ate in the best restaurants and if a film was thrown in it was a bonus. In recent years the event has become a serious festival of film and the audience consists of serious minded, mainly young people, although codgers of my age also attend. It is very much a young people's festival, both in terms of attendances and the week-long programme. A number of good quality, low-budget Irish short films are screened at the festival, often for the first time. I place much faith in the makers of these films; and although they are not all of equal quality, many are superb. I hope that with better marketing and distribution they will become classics.

Film making is mainly a young person's activity. I pay tribute to the young people who are making Teilifís na Gaeilge such a great success and I salute their expertise, skills and art. It is important the Minister, in conjunction with the Minister for Education, nurtures media studies in our education system so young people grow up with an interest in film and see career options in film making. They can then contribute their judgment and discernment on film making to distinguish between what is worthwhile and what is a waste of time. It is important this critical faculty is fostered in our education system. Making media studies a central part of education will whet people's appetite and build up audiences for the future.

We have arrived at a certain stage in the development of the industry and it is time to take stock and decide what essential steps must be taken to promote and foster it further. One of the weaknesses in the industry is the lack of training in certain areas. This is borne out by a number of reports. The Coopers and Lybrand report stated that the greatest weakness in the film industry is the lack of training for producers. I know the Minister will want to address this as a matter of urgency early in her term of office.

There is a need for specific training at every level. Recently we have had to hire in technical crews. This should not happen and would not if we provided relevant and requisite education in our institutes of technology — as we will soon have more than one. Courses should be designed which exploit the growth in the film industry and give the technical, production and artistic expertise which will make a good workforce and underpin the development of the industry.

I recommend the Minister to talk to the Minister for Education, who last week introduced a Bill to the House which is giving £250 million funding to science and technology. This should not be spent in a vacuum. He should be told the areas where the money can be productively spent.

[444] The lack of specific training in certain areas has been an irritant to many people who want to make films in Ireland. There is also the factor of cost, as Ireland is an expensive place to make films. This should be tackled immediately because it will lead to a further growth in a good industry.

I am glad the Minister, like the previous one, has committed herself to the establishment of a screen commission. This is important, because there are weaknesses in the distribution and marketing of Irish films. The Minister should appoint a chief executive in the new year. The work to be done has been identified. There have been enough reports and the Minister is also establishing a task force. A great deal of information is available which we can act on. There is a joke in my part of the country that we are always one report away from action. I know the Minister will not allow this to happen. Patrick Kavanagh spoke about the information we stole from nature but could not use. We know the initiatives which must be undertaken to underpin this industry. It is important we proceed promptly with the screen commission.

It is remarkable that 14 films supported by the Irish Film Board are being made in the country this year. I remember as a young girl being taken by my father to see Siobhán McKenna who was in “The Playboy of the Western World” which was being filmed at Inch strand in County Kerry. We had a great sense that something very important was happening. Siobhán McKenna stayed in the Great Southern Hotel in Killarney. That is not today or yesterday. It is extremely important to an area if it is chosen as a location in which to make a film. It provides a huge boost to an area, commercially and otherwise. That is something on which we must work.

Senator Mooney spoke passionately on the importance of making indigenous films. Young people in particular have the ability to make films based on our stories, because we have good stories to tell. We also have great scriptwriters. I refer to something Lelia Doolin said when talking about the small film with deep meaning and significance and which has the capacity to stand the test of time like a good wine. Lelia Doolin, whom I salute and admire, said that although it is an imperative of technology that major and commercially driven multinational production and distribution will grow, nevertheless the creativity, surprise and universality of our unique critical vision and individual imagination are equal to their deepest challenge. She has said we can do it. If we are to survive, our strength will be in doing things on small scale projects to a degree of excellence which stuns other people, whether making a piece of good cheese, crafting Irish oak, composing a fine song or making a good film. I have no doubt the Minister will work with might and main to make that happen and I wish her luck in her term in office. I support the Bill.

[445] Mr. Gallagher: Ar son Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre, cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach seo agus cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille freisin. Beimid ag tacú go laidir leis an mBille seo. I concur with many remarks made and will not repeat them at length. I would like to raise a number of issues with the Minister to which I hope she will respond in her reply. I support the extension of the funding limits available to the Irish Film Board as a result of this Bill. It is an indication of the success in this area since 1993 that the current limits have been almost stretched to the limit. It is a great complaint to have and an indication of success. Not only has the Irish Film Board been successful, but so too have other areas of broadcasting and media production.

I agree with previous speakers in that it is not a question of being party political and claiming credit for anything done. Acknowledgement of work done by the Minister's predecessors is due. Senator Mooney mentioned the positive and negative steps taken by Charles Haughey as Taoiseach in this regard. Reference was made to the excellent work done by the Minister's predecessor, who set up the Department over which she has the honour of presiding. The success which her predecessor enjoyed would not have been possible without the support he obtained from two Governments. The Minister will know that without the support of the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach, one cannot do as much as one would like. I acknowledge the fact that the former Taoiseach, Deputy Albert Reynolds, picked up the ball and ran with it very quickly when it was handed to him early in 1993 and ensured that Government support was forthcoming for a number of initiatives.

It is important to briefly enumerate those initiatives. The lifting of the advertising cap on RTÉ was important and tying that to the commissioning of independent productions for RTÉ has resulted in the growth of the independent sector, which has played a dynamic part of the growth in film and media. The establishment of Teilifís na Gaeilge was also important. Chaith mé tréimhse i rith an tsamhraidh sa Spidéal agus ba bhreá liom a fheiceáil an méid oibre a bhí ar fáil do na daoine ann trí Theilifís na Gaeilge, na scannáin agus na rudaí eile atá ar súil ann.

I compliment Teilifís na Gaeilge on pushing independent production and on encouraging the involvement of young people in film and media and on providing a location outside Dublin where this activity is concentrated and developing at a considerable rate. Those of us who live in other parts of the country will look for our share. However, Teilifís na Gaeilge has shown that centres other than Dublin can excel in this area. Those of us who represent other parts of the country should try to emulate that example.

I compliment the Minister, her Department and her predecessor on the initiatives taken and on putting much effort, thought and funding into training and education. It would be relatively [446] easy to attract people to make films here on the basis of section 35 incentives. It has been the clear objective of the Department to ensure that films attracted are here, in part to encourage the development of indigenous skills, such as those mentioned by Senator Quill. We must maintain a strong focus on that. I commend the work of the national training committee for film and television. Now that funding has come on stream, I hope great efforts will be made to ensure that training in this area is available on a regional basis. A young man from my area has achieved distinction in film production and it is important to foster that talent in every area.

What are the Minister's views on competition from Britain? For the past two or three years, Barry Norman preached that the British Government should follow the example of our Government. Now that the British Government has done so, what strategies are in place to cope with that competition, which I am sure will be sizeable? I welcome the setting up of a Northern Ireland film commission. I do not see it as a threat but as an opportunity for co-operation. It has a budget of £4 million. We have seen growth in co-operation in areas such as tourism and other aspects of economic development. I would like the Minister to liaise with her opposite number in Northern Ireland and the agencies under her aegis to do likewise. We can use the establishment of the Northern Ireland film commission to promote Ireland in its totality as a venue for making films. We can seek to improve the skills base in the film and media areas for young people north and south of the Border.

I commend the Minister for her response to the amendment tabled by my colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, on the title being recognised legally as Bord Scannán na hÉireann. I recognise that in practice the Irish Film Board has used the Irish and English titles, but it is important that is included in our law. I tried to research the proceedings on Committee Stage in the Dáil but, unfortunately, they have not yet been published. When Bills are taken in one House shortly after they have been completed in the other, it is a disservice to us in terms of contributing in a constructive fashion if proceedings are not available. I appeal to the Leas-Chathaoirleah to use his good offices to ensure proceedings on Committee Stage in the other House are produced as quickly as possible.

An amendment was tabled on Committee Stage in the Dáil changing the definition of film by adding the words “video recording” after the words “motion picture”, which was not tabled on Report Stage. I was unable to find out if this matter was dealt with on Committee Stage. I would like the Minister to give an assurance that the incentives being put in place will apply to productions targeted at the large and growing video market. Every corner shop has a video section with many people deciding to watch films in the comfort of their own homes. Support should be [447] available for productions aimed at the video market.

It is an exciting time for video and film in Ireland and it is marvellous to see the growth in the popularity of cinema. A short number of years ago people were sounding the death knell of cinema in Ireland. There were two cinemas in the town where I live, one of which closed ten years ago while the other was in danger of closing. Thanks to an urban renewal development there is a six screen omniplex in the town which does excellent work in showing major blockbusters but also in organising film seasons and short runs of special interest films. Such developments in towns throughout the country encourage people to return to cinemas and to take an interest in films.

We are lucky that, through the various incentives and supports, people are seeing Ireland on screen. This is very important. In discussing the revamped urban renewal scheme I will be raising with the Minister for the Environment and Local Government the importance of encouraging the provision of cinemas and locations for screening films in as many towns as possible as part of the area action plans.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I am glad to support the Minister and look forward to future visits by her to this House and to encouraging her in her work.

Labhrás Ó Murchú: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus treaslaím léi de bharr na tacaíochtaí atá léirithe don tionscal scannán. Ceapaim go bhfuil an tionscal tar éis é féin a chruthú in ana chuid slite. Tá an phoiblíocht dearfa idirnáisiúnta tuilte ag an tír seo de bharr cuid de na scannáin a dhéanamh. Níl aon amhras ná go bhfuil tacaíocht tuilte ag an tionscal agus táim lán sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille seo.

I compliment the Minister on her prompt and effective response to the growing and ongoing needs of the Irish film industry. That industry has greatly helped us in many different ways.

An atmosphere of reminiscence has prevailed and I beg the indulgence of the House to reminisce. I was always partial to a good film and look back with affection to the time when I graduated from the fourpenny, hard timber seats in our local cinema to the eightpenny, soft and more prestigious seats, which were divided by a low timber partition. Many of the more enterprising young men, excluding myself, at times succeeded in making a saving by jumping over the partition. The cinema played an important part in our education. It was a window on the outside world.

I had two illustrious exposures on film. On one occasion I was featured for ten seconds in a Gael Linn newsreel of a Tóstal cultural parade as a young acolyte in a black soutane. I thought I was important, and as much of a heart throb as Marlon Brando in “Mutiny on the Bounty” or Robert [448] Mitchum in “Ryan's Daughter”. I never proved that assumption.

We did not cast a jaundiced eye on what was presented to us in those days. In later years we realised that the film industry was used in an outrageous manner for propaganda purposes. We were fed a diet of propaganda — one need only look at the cowboy films where the cowboys were always the goodies while the Red Indians were always the baddies. Efforts are now being made to redress the racist injustices perpetrated against the Indians at that time and even still.

In subsequent years when I cast a more jaundiced eye on the industry I remember seeing a feature film based on the independence movement in Cyprus in which the British forces of occupation were depicted as the goodies and General Grivas and the EOKA movement were presented as the baddies. We know how incorrect that portrayal was. This is why I am glad the Minister referred to the opportunity presented to us to put a distinctive stamp on films made in Ireland. We should do this, not in propagandist fashion, but to reflect reality.

I compliment producers and directors who, particularly in recent years, demonstrated great courage, initiative and ambition in putting their money and talents where previously there was lip service. I also compliment the investors who demonstrated confidence in the Irish film industry and without whom we would not have had such successes.

Irish people feel a sense of pride at the international success of films which have emanated from this country. In the same way films such as “The Quiet Man” or “Ryan's Daughter” introduced many people to Ireland. I saw “Ryan's Daughter” when it was released in a cinema in London. While there is good and bad in it, it brought home to one the importance attached by Irish people living abroad of having their country depicted on the big screen in front of such audiences. In many ways I am sorry that many small cinemas have closed because, like the creamery, the local school and the church, they were part of community life. One reason they closed is that for a while people felt the advent of television would nullify the impact of film and cinema, something we have found to be incorrect. I hope local communities will have the opportunity to reopen these cinemas, a move which would have a definite impact on the industry.

We have discovered our inherent talent and expertise for this industry, which requires artistry and commercial sense and we have wed both through Government funding. The fact that the £15 million cap on the expenditure or investment of Bord Scannán na hÉireann has been raised to £30 million is an indication of the manner in which the industry is developing.

The Minister was correct to include a reference to Teilifís na Gaeilge in her speech. I feel that if one succeeds in Ireland in the first 12 months or two years, one has a good chance of surviving. [449] Nothing has come in for more scrutiny and examination than Teilifís na Gaeilge, and rightly so. In many ways it has come through that scrutiny with flying colours. It may not necessarily have had large viewing audiences in the early stages but it has proved — in the same way Raidio na Gaeltachta did — that it has a vision for the standard it wishes to achieve.

When I watch Teilifís na Gaeilge I am always excited to see how many young people are involved in it. I would compare that to the manner in which many Irish people were depicted in feature films in the past. The Irish always held lesser positions in films, in terms of character. It was as if they possessed an inadequate IQ. They were portrayed in the same manner as black people were always portrayed, as a servant. One would not get away with that today because it would be regarded as outrageously racist. Yet, through education, our young people in Teilifís na Gaeilge are ensuring there will be a repository of people with training and talent who have the potential to break into the bigger industry.

I was delighted the Minister made reference to training; it did not surprise me given her own background. I would not like to see the film industry becoming an elitist one solely for those who reside in areas of high population or who have immediate access to technological and other resources. Many people have an artistic bent and would be interested in testing the commercial viability of their talents. The only opportunity they would have to do that would be to avail of training. That training should be of the highest standard and I have no doubt it will be. I have always had great admiration for FÁS as I have seen the mark its schemes have left in Irish towns and villages. I would welcome FÁS involvement in training in this area.

The issue of the commercial impact the film industry could have on this country in terms of tourism has been touched on and I am sure the Minister has given a lot of consideration to this. I have noticed particular brands receiving a greater degree of exposure in feature films recently, although I am sure the companies involved pay for that. However, there is a danger that one might compromise oneself in such sponsorship. That would run counter to the Minister's hope of ensuring that Ireland would demonstrate a distinctive approach to film making. I am not saying it is possible to exist without money, but I would not like sponsors to dominate the industry or make its compromise too great.

The development of the Irish film industry is one of the bright spots on the arts industry landscape in Ireland. It is vital that Bord Scannán na hÉireann would have the necessary resources to carry out its work as it certainly possesses the talent and experience to do so. We will all be beneficiaries of the industry. Ten or 20 years ago nobody could honestly have envisaged Ireland enjoying the international status it does in the areas of film, music, sport and so on. The film [450] industry will be an important prop and support in that regard.

Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Miss de Valera): I thank the many Senators who contributed to the debate. Their contributions will help in great part to formulate my own views in the short term on what immediate action must be taken in regard to the film industry. They will also help to formulate my long-term views on the industry.

I thank Senator Coogan and others for their welcoming words of encouragement to me this morning. Senator Coogan outlined the importance of section 35 and the screen commission. He also referred to the debate which took place in Dáil Éireann on the commission and the fact that there was some concern it had not been established. I have explained that the reason for the delay was that funding for this was not put in place by the previous Administration. I gave a commitment in Opposition and also in our policy documents and the Programme for Government - with the agreement of the Progressive Democrats — that a screen commission would be put in place. To that end, I have had discussions with interested people in the industry. I assure Senators the commission will be up and running at the earliest possible time as I am aware of its extreme importance.

Senator Coogan referred to the fact that changes made to section 35 by the previous Administration caused a great deal of concern abroad, particularly in America. At that time, former Minister, Deputy Higgins, had to travel to the US to ensure those changes had no negative knock-on effects. I believe that if a screen commission had been in situ at that time, its operation would have done a great deal to ease anxiety without the Minister having to take the action he did.

Senator Coogan also referred to the importance of building up the indigenous industry. With Teilifís na Gaeilge, the onset of TV3 and RTÉ, the independent film making sector now has greater opportunities to develop.

The think tank will obviously provide an opportunity for us to look at the educational aspects of the film industry. This is an issue which has been raised by many Senators, particularly in relation to the Minister for Education and Science's proposals on technology in education. Those proposals have received a great deal of support within the educational sector. I will be very happy to continue discussions with my colleague, Minister Martin, on the film industry to see what can be done.

Senator Coogan referred to the 1992 working group on the film production industry and the fact that the IDA might succeed in attracting outside investment to Ireland. Development agencies such as the IDA, Shannon Development, Údarás na Gaeltachta and so on are committed to attracting any foreign film related business to [451] Ireland. This would obviously be very much within their remit. We continue to encourage that particular approach. Shannon Development has attracted at least two companies in recent times and there is no reason to doubt that the considerable attractions of the IFSC should also be used in this regard. It is a question of pulling all those threads together so that continuing pressure is brought to bear to ensure the delivery of investment from abroad. That ethos is strong.

Senator Mooney raised a number of points to which I wish to refer. He was particularly interested in what statistics are available to show how the film industry has had a positive effect on the general economy. Statistics available to my Department relate to projects certified under section 35. This role was assigned to my Department in July 1994. Some 118 film and television projects have been certified to date involving a total spend of £440 million and a total Irish spend of £246 million. This is an important and significant figure. There are also valuable costs relating to revenues from hotels, car hire, catering and the hire of locations. These generate a good deal of income in local areas.

My Department's database indicates that a total of 2,650 full time job equivalents were employed in these certified projects. Moreover, opportunities were given to 787 trainees to gain access to the film making industry. Not only does it have a positive knock on effect in terms of generating revenue in local areas, but it has also provided an opportunity for further training in a practical sense for those involved.

Senator Henry raised a number of points, and I agree with her reference to the importance of music to film. We have every element of talent within the film industry and it is a question of providing an opportunity to promote such talent further. The National Training Committee for Film and Television has set up a training course for film score composition in conjunction with UCLA. There is not only a recognition of the need for, and the importance of, music in films, but specific and practical steps are being taken to promote it.

A number of Senators also referred to the importance of Irish input and the content of our films. I have discussed this and other issues with IBEC because it is a particular interest of mine. Those involved in the industry have to balance the fact that there will be an important cultural input, but there must also be a commercial return. I share the views expressed by Senators that Irish stories should be told in a way that will encourage people from abroad to learn more about us, perhaps in a different way than they might have heretofore. In that way we will do ourselves a power of good as a nation in promoting a positive and accurate image and it will also have a positive effect on cultural tourism.

Senator Henry referred to the importance of mobile cinemas. Senator Mooney said he was [452] delighted when such a mobile unit came to the Border counties. I compliment the Irish Film Board, which in 1996 hired a mobile cinema unit from France which visited villages on both sides of the Border for ten days. It was an innovative approach which recognised the importance of regionalism. I do not believe that the arts, film industry or anything else pertaining to my Department should be based in the capital city or any city. They should be capable of being appreciated by all and I am sure that approach will be taken up again. While it is within the Film Board's remit to decide on the matter, I know it is sympathetically disposed towards this approach and I would encourage it have a further look at this matter.

Senator Ridge was concerned about the taste and quality of some of the stories in receipt of funding. It is important for the Film Board to be entirely autonomous in deciding what films should be supported. It would not be appropriate for politicians or Ministers to become involved in the direct content of a film. That is one of the major remits of the Film Board, which is in a position to understand and appreciate the sensitivities of the viewing audience. That is taken into account with regard to funding films.

Senator Quill made some points on education which I have already referred to. When Senator Quill and I were in Opposition in the Lower House some six months ago, we spent a great deal of time discussing the importance of education, not just with regard to film but to the arts generally and with particular regard to music, drama and film. The Senator can be assured that I will continue to work with the Minister for Education and Children, Deputy Martin.

One of the first things I did on assuming office was to set up a unit between both Departments to see what we could do to promote the question of education. Some excellent media courses are available, including film studies. I praise those who have been involved in such work. In the long-term, however, there is an opportunity for the think tank to examine the education issue and to see where we will go over the next ten years.

In 1992, when the Coopers and Lybrand report was published, concern was expressed about the lack of film industry training in a number of areas, but that has begun to improve. The STATCOM report is the basis for further discussion for the think tank on a number of issues, but specifically on the question of education.

A number of points were made by Senator Gallagher, including whether or not we have to look over our shoulder with regard to competition from Britain. As Members will appreciate, we were rather farsighted in our view of the film industry and particularly in what we could do with regard to section 35. We now find that Britain has a number of positive policies for the film industry. However, it is important to see these as complementary. They should not be seen in any way as something that would necessarily [453] cause competition difficulties. Irish and British producers have traditionally been strong partners and just because there are new regulations within the British system it should not necessarily change that co-operation. I wish to see further co-operation evolving between British and Irish producers. It is eminently logical that there would be co-operation with the film commission in Northern Ireland, and I have every intention of contacting my counterpart there to see what can be done to further a general approach to the film industry.

Senator Ó Murchú pointed out the importance of having an Irish stamp on our films and their content. I agree with his view that Telefís na Gaeilge has been a tremendous success in many ways and facets. We should compliment all those young people involved with it who have been so dedicated, committed and talented. It augurs well for the future.

As regards Senator Coogan's comments, the independent sector will be given a further opportunity by the existence of Telefís na Gaeilge. It should be recognised and accepted as an important element.

Senator Ó Murchú referred to the importance of cultural tourism and what the film industry could do in that regard. I wholeheartedly support that view.

I hope I have gone some way in the short time I had to addressing the points raised by the Senators. I thank all those involved in the discussion which I have found very useful.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: If the House agrees, perhaps we could continue for another 15 minutes to complete the Bill. If there is any problem, we can resume after the sos.

Acting Chairman (Mr. R. Kiely): Is that agreed? Agreed.

Agreed to take Committee Stage now.