Ireland is a country enlightened by the arts. Its president, Michael D. Higgins, is a former arts minister and a noted poet who is married to a former actress. Despite its current economic challenges, the creative industries in Ireland are going through "a special age" and the country is fast becoming a favorite destination for international co-productions. Fueling this momentum is an award-winning talent pool, scenic locations and a competitive tax incentive for film and television called Section 481. As a result, Ireland has played host to a number of very successful international film productions over the years from Saving Private Ryan and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince to Albert Nobbs.
In the last five years alone, the island of Ireland has become a key destination for TV production. Due in part to an international credit crunch, players in the U.S. television market (HBO, Showtime and Starz) see the value of foreign tax incentives and locating major productions offshore. For example, Game of Thrones, the HBO hit, is shot on location primarily in Northern Ireland at the enormous Paint Hall Studios where the Titanic was painted. The areas' castles and dense woods double for various locations within Thrones' deep fantasy world. Meanwhile, Ripper Street, The Tudors and the new Vikings on the History Channel have been shot in the Irish Republic, while other TV drama series like The Borgias are co-productions with companies based in the south. TV and film agencies in both countries do compete for major projects but can also team up when a project spends a certain percentage of money in each territory.
Hollywood is taking notice as quoted in Variety magazine recently " .. The [Irish Film and TV] industry is now achieving critical mass of filmmaking talent to match the kind of influence, disproportionate to its small size that it has always enjoyed in the fields of literature and theatre. Following in the footsteps of Sheridan and Jordan comes a generation that includes such directors as Lenny Abrahamson, Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh, Kirsten Sheridan, and writers such as Mark O'Rowe, Enda Walsh and Mark O'Halloran."
One international co-production in particular, Vikings made a big impact in Ireland in 2012. Vikings created and written by Michael Hirst (Elizabeth) starring Travis Fimmel and Gabriel Byrne, is a co-production between Ireland's World 2000 and Canadian based Take 5 Productions, in collaboration with the History Channel and MGM.
I recently moderated a panel with Sheila Hockin, executive producer (Vikings, The Tudors and The Borgias) at NYU and she explained why Ireland was the natural choice for Vikings.
"First off, Ireland is very co-production friendly. Take 5 Prods. and Morgan O'Sullivan's company, World 2000 have a strong working relationship," said Hockin. "We worked together on The Tudors, and Camelot, so there is a trust that the co-producing partners can produce terrific quality television." She explained that through the Irish Canada co-production agreement treaty about a third of the budget was raised through tax incentives and soft money from the two countries. The History Channel and MGM came in with the rest of the financing. "However, just as important as the tax incentives, Ireland was right for the overall creative needs of the series," said Hockin. "Ireland has the right terrain -- it's full of ancient trees, rich lakelands and architecture that works well for historical dramas. There is excellent creative talent and crew to draw from like production designer, Tom Conroy and costume designer, Joan Bergin who created authentic period costumes and Viking jewelry. It's an amazing team in Ireland," said Hockin.
"The Vikings left their DNA all over the world. It would have been amazing but dangerous to have met them" says writer Michael Hirst in this behind the scenes clip about the real Vikings.
The Vikings series had a big impact on the local industry with a local spend of $32.7 million, employment for over 400 cast and crew members. The nine part series was shot on location in the new Ashford Studios (south of Dublin) on a 30,000-square-foot main stage and exterior scenes shot on the sprawling Guinness estate and Powerscourt, amongst others.
James Hickey, CEO of the Irish Film Board noticed too and recently said: "The audio-visual industry is delivering significant return on investment in terms of direct contribution to the economy and employment... 2012 has been a very positive year for film, television drama and animation production activity in Ireland and we look forward to building on this success by continuing to invest in Irish talent throughout 2013 to 2020."
Recent improvements announced this year to Section 481 could insure that Ireland becomes the "go to" destination for international co-productions for the next few years. At the same time, Northern Ireland is likely to become more competitive when the U.K.'s TV filming tax credit is launched in the spring. Luckily for us, a new season of The Borgias premiered on April 14, 2013 and the History Channel recently announced that it has picked up Vikings for a 10-episode second season. In the interim, check out the current season airing Sundays at 10 p.m. with the season finale slated for Sunday, April 28th. Just remember, if you are a fan of historical TV drama and fantasy, there is a good chance you are watching television that was created on the island of Ireland.