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Northern Ireland Screen looks to set success in Stone as TV chiefs eye up Belfast

By Yvette Shapiro

Published 29/09/2015

Hollywood actress Sharon Stone
Hollywood actress Sharon Stone

Life after Game of Thrones may seem unimaginable for fans of the world's biggest television drama series, but it is a hot topic at Northern Ireland Screen.

The Government-funded agency is focused on creating "the strongest screen industry outside of London within 10 years".

And in the short term, it needs to find the next major production - or several - to fill the void when the show finally wraps.

Season six is currently in production, with filming at the Titanic Quarter's Paint Hall studios and across the province.

New figures estimate that Game of Thrones has benefited the Northern Ireland economy to the tune of almost £111m, on the back of £12.45m in production funding from NI Screen. This includes staff salaries, hotels, services and tourism and more.

The producer, HBO, has indicated that it may have two more series to go. And already, other production companies are eyeing the gap in the market.

The Belfast Telegraph revealed on Saturday that Los Angeles-based TV4 Entertainment hopes to shoot a multi-million pound epic drama series starring Sharon Stone in Northern Ireland.

The actress is currently reading the draft script for the pilot episode of Grouch Macbeth, written by local playwright Gary Mitchell.

Paul Duddridge, head of entertainment at TV4, said: "This is literally one of the best scripts I have ever seen. We'd like to be shooting the pilot next January.

"In the old days, you had to wait for big broadcasters like the BBC or HBO to give you the creative permission to proceed. Now there are new platforms like Amazon and Netflix, and that's a quicker route to the audience.

"You can source the finance from hedge funds, for example, and take the series direct to the audience via a digital platform."

TV4 is developing the project with "modest" initial funding from NI Screen. The agency has a £43m fund for projects including drama and documentaries.

Successful and high-profile productions such as Game of Thrones have put Northern Ireland on the film industry's map, but there is stiff international competition in the race to attract the most lucrative films and programmes.

China is increasing public investment in the creative sector by 27% and Canada has generous tax credits and grants. The UK's tax credit scheme for high-end drama productions is helping to bring projects here, but producers need more than financial incentives - the skills base is key.

Mr Duddridge, a Welsh-born director and producer who is the former agent and comedy writer for Rob Brydon, said his company was "very serious" about setting up a UK base in Belfast.

"We're looking at the situation beyond Game of Thrones, which is likely to end in a couple of years," he added. "We'd be interested in creating an entire new studio in Northern Ireland.

"Thanks to NI Screen, there's a very skilled and extensive studio support system. We would be fools not to exploit it. In fact, Belfast is disproportionately more attractive than London.

"You have a ready-made workforce that's responsible for creating the most successful TV series on Earth. Any producer would want to get in there and grab that opportunity as quickly as possible."

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