This has been a fantastic week for Irish cinema. The achievements of directors, scriptwriters, actors and producers in nabbing seven Oscar nominations is the equivalent of the Irish football team getting to the World Cup final.
In fact, the competition in film is tougher than football but, just like in football, you can win at the end only if you are still on the pitch – and the Irish are still very much on the pitch.
Both Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Room’ and John Crowley’s ‘Brooklyn’ have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Abrahamson has been nominated for Best Director – quite the accolade. In the case of ‘Room’ (I haven’t seen ‘Brooklyn’ yet) you will understand what an achievement Abrahamson’s is – if, for nothing else, than to coax and encourage such an extraordinary performance from a child actor.
Both films are nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Saoirse Ronan is nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of an immigrant in 1950s Brooklyn. Michael Fassbender is nominated as Best Actor for ‘Steve Jobs’.
Abrahamson’s film, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own acclaimed novel, got four nominations. Brooklyn took three. ‘Stutterer’ by Benjamin Cleary is in for Best Live Action Short.
It’s a terrible shame that ‘Viva’ by Paddy Breathnach, a beautiful story of a Cuban transvestite belting out Latin classics, just fell short. I saw it last week and urge you to go and see it. Breathnach’s achievement is made all the more impressive when you realise that this was a movie made in Cuba by an Irish crew – in Spanish – with a tiny budget.
I’m no movie buff, so I won’t bore you with my opinions on the intricacies of these films, but what I want to do in this article is to discuss three separate issues.
The first is the economic importance of the Irish cinema industry to the local economy. The second is the inspired decision of the Irish Film Board to finance, with meagre resources, Irish movies that are not necessarily typically ‘Irish’. Being Irish in a cosmopolitan world is a lot more complex than ‘The Quiet Man’. Thirdly, I’d like to discuss the impact of the success of these films on ‘Brand Ireland’.
Brand Ireland is what I call Ireland’s ‘soft power’. Soft power is the power of persuasion, not force. Soft power is all about getting people to do what you want, without forcing them.
So hard power is the heavy traditional powers of, for example, the military. Soft power, however, is the light, novel power of the imagination. It is the hidden economic power of the Arts, and we should never underestimate it. For example, it is now well known that the bosses of Google and Facebook sought out Bono’s opinion before investing a huge amount of money here. Why was this?
It was because of the soft power that U2 created for this country over the years. This is incalculable. Bono’s connections and U2’s soft power was crucial.
So let’s just examine the first of these issues, which is the impact of the film industry on the local economy. I am writing this from Heathrow Airport. I was dropped to Dublin Airport earlier by a local taxi man, Lar Mooney, from Ballybrack. I’ve known Lar a while and we were chatting about football and the elections when I told him I was going to write about the film business. He perked up and told me that the film business is a huge source of income for lots of Dublin taxi drivers. He told me his mate Fran (whom I also know) often drives Saoirse Ronan and that lots of crews use local taxi drivers, whether on big productions like ‘Vikings’ or smaller ones.
This economic impact of the film industry is called the multiplier in economics. It means that if an industry is using local workers – crew, taxi drivers, chefs, security, make-up artists and set designers – the money stays in Ireland and has a much bigger impact on the local economy.
The film industry in Ireland is worth an estimated €557.3 million (0.3pc of GDP). It employs roughly 6,000 people. There are 560 SMEs operating directly in the sector. Obviously, these figures don’t include the benefits to tourism.
The second issue I wanted to highlight is the decision of the Film Board to back Irish writers and directors who are not necessarily making Irish movies. The board doesn’t receive a lot of money – in the context, €11.5m a year isn’t much. And it’s nothing when you think about the huge amounts of money available in much bigger countries.
But the point is that this year we see enormous payback, and that payback comes from seeing Irish films – like Irish writing and Irish art, in general – as being part of the world, not terrorised by the tyranny of geography and history. It is a big deal for an indigenous film board to make this leap – and I believe it should be recognised.
Finally, we have the great intangible, which is the ‘soft power’ aspect of millions of people all around the world seeing films made by Irish directors and producers, written by Irish scriptwriters taken from Irish novels and played by Irish actors.
This is impossible to quantify but it is enormously powerful, economically. Economists, financiers and beancounters should ignore the broader commercial impact of the Irish arts at their peril.
In a world of mobile capital, investors and entrepreneurs want to invest in a country that has a vibrant cultural scene; they want to be in a country that has a distinct cultural footprint; they want to associate with a place that has a voice.
What Irish cinema does, no more than literature and music, is that it offers an Irish accent to the global art world. It is only an accent, an inflection, but it is special – and it is ours.
Crucially, don’t underestimate the impact of success. Success begets success. Seeing Lenny Abrahamson at the Oscars will embolden some kid somewhere in Ireland in his/her dreams to make movies. Seeing these Irish artists at the Oscars will affirm to others what is possible.
But this success didn’t happen overnight.
At the opening of ‘Viva’, Rob Walpole, the producer, revealed that the movie was first conceived 17 years ago. His message was that this is a slog, but keep at it and eventually you get there. Like all great things, the Irish success is a function of talent, but it’s also the culmination of years of hard work – honing the skill, finding the cash, performing the impossible and getting things done.
It’s all a long way from the glitz of the Academy Awards. And that’s all the more reason to celebrate.