Hollywood is in town
NI Screen is bringing the bright lights of Hollywood to Northern Ireland under the direction of its chief executive Richard Williams. Jenny Burnside reports
Sweeping landscapes, rough seas, legends such as Finn McCool and the Children of Lir, not to mention the oft dodgy weather, make Northern Ireland the perfect setting for an atmospheric film or television programme. Fortunately the bright lights of Hollywood have recognised this too, and our film, television and digital content industry is now thriving in an otherwise struggling economy.
Richard Williams, chief executive of NI Screen, the government-backed agency responsible for driving investment in this area, has overseen the rapid growth in the business since taking on the post more than six years ago.
“From a Northern Ireland perspective the film and television industry here has changed beyond all recognition and we are conscious we are in a lucky position in the midst of a very exciting growth curve while other parts of the economy certainly aren’t,” says Mr Williams.
In the last financial year, 2010-2011, Northern Ireland Screen estimates its main production investment fund has returned £28.283m to the local economy on the back of an investment of £4.4 million.
This exciting growth took off mainly in the last year. “Ten years ago there wouldn’t have been a single film or TV drama, large or small, shooting here, but in the last 12 months we have had Game of Thrones, which is the biggest production in Europe, three independent films produced, Good Vibrations, Jump and Whole Lotta Sole, and though it didn't involve Northern Ireland Screen, much of the BBC drama, Hidden, starring Philip Glenister, was shot here too.”
This radical transformation has been firmly felt by NI Screen. “We are an international business and we are acknowledged within those circles. Our studio in the Titanic Quarter is known to production people in Los Angeles and the buying world is familiar with Northern Ireland and the content that comes from here.”
In the face of stiff worldwide competition, I asked Mr Williams what it is that has helped him to market Northern Ireland as a viable film location for some of the world’s leading producers.
“We are aggressive in pitching and selling and it is a relationships game — it is all about developing close relationships. A key strength for us is that we have built these relationships up over time. Our big breakthrough was Lord Attenborough’s film Closing the Ring. This went extremely well from a production point of view, generating good word of mouth for Northern Ireland, and leading to a snowball effect for other productions to shoot here.”
2008’s City of Ember, a fantasy adventure starring Bill Murray and Tim Robbins, was also a significant springboard for NI Screen, as it provided the platform for Williams and his team to develop the Paint Hall — the film studio in the Titanic Quarter he refers to.
Mr Williams recalls: “This was the most exciting time as it was previously a glass recycling company and by the time we got to the end of City of Ember, the Paint Hall was on its way to being a leading film studio.” It is now the UK’s largest and leading film studio.
Northern Ireland is also a winner in terms of cost and the value proposition on offer. Mr Williams explains: “We are relatively cheaper than the traditional studios in the south-east of England and the south of Ireland. What is so great about HBO’s Game of Thrones, is that it enabled us to really develop our infrastructure and crew base with local people.”
Although Game of Thrones is an American show, very few of its workers come from the States, other than the show runners and a few managers. The show is predominantly employed out of the UK and Ireland, with around 70% of the staff working on it from the local area. “The perception that it is not local jobs is entirely wrong,” points out Mr Williams.
Game of Thrones employees have been hard at work building stages and sets all over the province. For those fans unfamiliar with the glossy fantasy drama, season one starred Sean Bean, Michelle Fairley and Iain Glen and aired on Sky Atlantic earlier this year.
Mr Williams urges people not to fall for the modern perception that most of what you see on screen is a digital creation. “Game of Thrones have built sets in Clandeboye, Castleward, Toome, and we took over the Ulster Weavers factory in Banbridge. The wall you see in the show is actually based in Maghermorne quarry in Larne. It would be hard to overstate how much construction takes place.”
Mr Williams also emphasised that it would be a mistake for any representation of NI Screen’s work to be based purely around Game of Thrones, though that is obviously the jewel in the crown for now. Next year will see three big projects across comedy and drama being shot from our shores, though Mr Williams is tight-lipped about any big names involved.
“What is most challenging about the screen industry is that from a business point of view you deal with planning and every form of regulation, so it is quite a complex set up. What I find most difficult is that if you drop your focus for a second you can lose all the ground you made,” Mr Williams warns. But his focus is reassuringly relentless, which bodes well for the future, particularly in an uncertain and turbulent global economic environment and the international rivals he is competing with.
Mr Williams wants to focus on development and continued support from the Executive. “We need to keep investing in development and increasing infrastructure, and we want to grow our own production companies alongside inward investment, which you only get by focusing on development, but I am optimistic that is happening.
“The challenge for the screen agency is to ensure that the Government sustains its appetite and support for us. Thankfully both the Assembly and the ministerial team are presently enormously supportive... but we need to make sure it is sustained.”
Finally, for the rest of us, an area of the economy where there is much to be positive about — and a glamorous one too. “The outlook is excellent and we are having two massive new stages being built down at the Titanic Quarter — we are having to extend capacity to keep up with the demand, but this is an exciting period.”
While Hollywood would have you believe that any screen-work is a cut-throat business, Mr Williams is a thoroughly nice guy, and obviously doing a great job bringing world-leading productions to our small and atmospheric shores. Now and again, a sense of the inner steel that has surely contributed to that success becomes evident, as he explains that you can never waver, even for a few seconds. “Rest on your laurels and you can forget about it,” he warns.