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Gary Lightbody: 'We might make a quick buck now if we press ahead with these cuts, but in five years time we'll rue the day'

Maureen Coleman talks to Snow Patrol’s singer about his concerns over the future of our movie industry

Music might be Gary Lightbody’s first love, but the Snow Patrol frontman also has huge respect for the medium of film and the developing role it’s playing in the fabric of Northern Ireland life.

His interest in cinema has seen him compose several scores and, more recently, executive produce two indigenous movies, the Terri Hooley biopic Good Vibrations and Made in Belfast, the debut feature of local writer/director Paul Kennedy.

Last year saw Lightbody indulge his passion further when, along with fellow Snow Patrol rocker Johnny McDaid, he provided the soundtrack for the hard-hitting Amy Berg documentary An Open Secret, about child sex abuse in Hollywood. He also contributed music to the Jennifer Aniston film Cake, sci-fi blockbuster Star Trek Into Darkness, and action adventure film Divergent.

Despite his glamorous Tinseltown connections, though, Lightbody’s roots remain firmly planted at home, and he is fiercely proud of Northern Ireland’s creative sectors, particularly the expanding film and television industry. He believes the industry is not only boosting the economy, but is opening doors and creating career opportunities for the young people of Northern Ireland.

And for these reasons, he is angry at the proposed 50% funding cuts by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) to Northern Ireland Screen's budget. While the proposed cuts won't affect film and television production, they could devastate a number of education and exhibition organisations, should they go ahead. The various organisations - including the Belfast Film Festival, Queen's Film Theatre (QFT), the Nerve Centre, Foyle Film Festival and Cinemagic - united under a campaign called #SaveNIFilm to oppose DCAL's cuts. The campaign has been supported by many high profile names such as film directors Paul Greengrass, Danny Boyle and Belfast's own Terry George. Lightbody is the latest to voice his concerns, taking to Twitter to describe the proposals as "lunacy".

Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph about the SaveNIFilm campaign, the Bangor-born musician says that Northern Ireland's film industry is hugely respected on a global stage and that now is the time to be investing more money, instead of slashing funding.

And he adds that if the cuts did go ahead, he feared a "brain drain" of potential young talent, which he says would be a "terrible loss" for Northern Ireland's future.

"We've got ourselves in a situation now that we are emerging as a real young force in film and television," he says. "We have a lot of talented people making short films and feature films in and from Northern Ireland, and obviously we have fantastic resources and infrastructures that Game of Thrones has set up. The show is using a lot of local technicians, sound departments, lighting departments, post production departments and many people from here have gained invaluable skills from working on Game of Thrones.

"But that show won't be around forever and we need to plan for the future. So the most important thing now is to hold onto these great institutions which are supporting the young people making films, the young people getting excited about films, even going to see independent cinema.

"We need these young film-makers to feel like Northern Ireland is a place where they can flourish. The worst thing we will see if these cuts are made is a brain drain out of Northern Ireland, where people go across to England to make movies or across to America because they can't afford to make them here.That would be a terrible loss."

A self-confessed film buff, Lightbody believes the burgeoning film and television industry has helped connect Northern Ireland to the wider world, something he felt was missing when he was a teenager.

"When I was growing up I didn't think about the world," he explains. "Northern Ireland was this tiny place that wasn't connected to Europe or the wider world. It's very much connected to the world now and it is important that our artistic flagships show what a great, creative, artistic nation we are. We've produced some great actors, great musicians, great directors, and we punch well above our weight.

"It is really, really not the time to cut significant money from the film industry and all these institutions which are helping young people make movies. This is the time to pour more money into the industry, for crying out loud, not to take money out."

Lightbody, who says he is also backing the Arts Council's "13p for the arts" campaign, has ties with several of the organisations under threat from the planned cuts. Both the movies he executive produced were shown at consecutive Belfast Film Festivals, while last year he attended an event in LA organised by the charity Cinemagic. Johnny McDaid and his famous fiancee, former Friends star Courtney Cox, also attended the star-studded event.

"I gave a speech at the Cinemagic do and spoke to the kids involved earlier that day," he says. "I've known Joan Burney Keatings (Cinemagic's chief executive) for some time now. She's a force to be reckoned with.

"The thing is, you can watch car crashes and explosions in big box office movies, but if you want to learn about the nuances of film-making, you have to be able to go to the QFT or the Belfast Film Festival, or Cinemagic, where they are teaching children a whole array of disciplines in the film industry. They learn every facet, they start from scratch, learning about art direction, sound, special effects, writing, acting and directing.

"These are the most important things to hold onto right now. Cutting the budget by 50% really does neutralise a lot of these developing institutions that are trying to maintain a foothold as we progress as a film-making generation.

"The thing I keep coming back to and what makes me so mad is that this is the future of our industry we're talking about. It's not difficult to see where it will go from here if the cuts are made. It would be too difficult for these places to continue and if they had to close, that would be an absolute tragedy."

Lightbody says he was saddened to read an article about the QFT, which claimed any cuts would result in the cinema showing a limited amount of independent movies.

"We can all go to the cinema and see Transformers, God forbid, but what about French films or European films or smaller Northern Irish films, cinema that is challenging and not mainstream?" he says.

"We need to maintain the educational value of all these things, otherwise it's the kids who will suffer, those kids who don't even know that they want to be in the film industry until they happen upon a Cinemagic event and it changes their lives forever.

"It won't change their lives forever if organisations like Cinemagic don't exist."

Prior to the critically-acclaimed Good Vibrations, the 38-year-old musician had only dabbled with soundtracks. But when the subject of that movie, the inimitable Terri Hooley, asked him to expand his involvement, Lightbody agreed. Acting as executive producer on the film, alongside Snow Patrol's Jonny Quinn and Nathan Connolly, whetted his appetite and opened up a whole new side of the industry to him.

So, when local writer Paul Kennedy approached him about his film Made in Belfast, Lightbody was only too happy to help out. He came on board as one of several executive producers, but also appeared in the film, playing a barman (Lightbody previously made a "blink and you'll miss it" appearance in an episode of Game of Thrones).

Describing cinema as his "second artistic love", he hopes to develop his interest by writing a screenplay. But while ideas are plentiful, finding the time is harder.

"I've been a songwriter for 25 years, professional for 20," he says. "My attention span runs to the length of a song so it's very tricky for me to write a screenplay for a movie. I'm trying my best, though. I have good ideas but need to get them more established. I'm not short of ideas, it's just having the discipline to sit down and write. (Singer) Nick Cave works nine to five in an office every day. That's discipline I don't have."

While last year saw him indulge his passion for movies, he hopes 2015 throws up more opportunities. He's already been asked to "do some film stuff", but it will be sporadic this year as he has other things to work on, such as Snow Patrol's next album.

The deadline for public consultation on DCAL's draft budget passed on December 29 and a decision on the cuts is expected to be made at the end of this month. Lightbody remains hopeful that the department will see sense.

"With the weight of public attention and with a lot of big names like Paul Greengrass, Terry George and (Northern Ireland-born film critic) Mark Cousins, speaking out, hopefully they will see sense and we will not have to suffer the consequences of those proposed cuts.

"The most important sign of civilisation is art," he says. "It's what makes us human, what connects us to humanity, what makes us understand joy and love and sadness and all these things on a grander scale, not just in our own lives, but we see it around the world as well. Art and cinema can connect us to ourselves and to the wider world.

"The people of Northern Ireland have a legacy to be proud of and a future to be excited about. To the politicians I would say, focus purely on the future.

"It's a really bad time to be thinking about taking money from these fine institutions that are helping to get kids excited about film-making, helping young and established film-makers make movies. There's a whole gamut of the film industry that we need to protect. We might make a quick buck now if we press ahead with these cuts, but in five years time we'll rue the day."

Why cuts are a reel worry...

  • Northern Ireland Screen, which receives funding from various government departments, is facing the possibility that its budget for the year 2015-16 from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, will be £1m. If confirmed, this would show a 50% cut on last year's funding of £1.9m
  • The funding received from DCAL by Northern Ireland Screen is used to fund the following organisations: Belfast Film Festival; Cinemagic International Film and Television Festival for Young People; Foyle Film Festival and Cinema Initiative; QFT; CultureTECH; The Creative Learning Centres (CLCs) and Into Film Clubs (delivered by The Nerve Centre and Cinemagic)
  • The proposed cuts will affect all the above supported bodies and, if confirmed at this level, could possibly mean that some organisations may cease to exist
  • News of the proposed cuts prompted the various organisations under threat to unite under the banner #SaveNiFilm. The campaign won the backing of high profile names including film directors Paul Greengrass, (The Bourne Supremacy, Bloody Sunday, Captain Phillips), Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), Terry George (Hotel Rwanda, In the Name of the Father), actor Ray Winstone and film critic Mark Cousins
  • The proposed cuts come at a time when Northern Ireland's film industry is being celebrated on a world stage. Tomorrow, local filmmakers Michael Lennox and Stephen Fingleton will find out if their shorts, Boogaloo and Graham, and SLR, have been nominated for an Oscar. The two shorts are among 10 that have been shortlisted from a list of 140 from all over the world. That shortlist of 10 will be whittled down further to reveal the Oscar nominees. Meanwhile, Boogaloo and Graham, starring local actors Martin McCann, Charlene McKenna and Jonathan Harden, has also been nominated for a Bafta

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