Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

By Holly Aylett


An email interview with Rod Stoneman, Chief Executive of the Irish Film Board

Holly Aylett: Before you joined the Irish Film Board in 1993 you were a commissioning editor at Channel Four in the Department for Independent Film and Video. What were the perspectives you brought with you to your work at the Irish Film Board?

Rod Stoneman: Perspectives? Clarity about the demarcation lines between funder and funded is fundamental. Respect for independent film-makers and the balance of power is also significant. The relation between the inside and the outside, openness and accountability... Channel Four was inventing itself as the first publisher broadcaster and trying to work through the implications of that new structure in a proper and ethical way. There’s been some confusion and blurring in British television since – commissioners who want to ‘produce’ their programmes, people working partially inside and outside.

HA: How did this develop?

RS: The new channel had to think through the implications of these relations of production in relation to the aspiration for diversity and new voices etc. Gradually there were subtle changes as the Channel established itself and the configuration of the independent sector consolidated into a smaller number of bigger companies at the forefront of the Channel’s commissioning. Whilst there was actually more continuity between the Isaacs era and the Grade years than people think, there was also a process of corporate formation. Initially nearly all departments, not just Independent Film and Video, began by working with a range of smaller companies including a high proportion of ‘headed notepaper out of the front room’, individual operators. By the late eighties this was no longer the case.

The development of our Department’s project must be seen in the context of the institutional evolution of Channel 4 as a whole; an organisation, soon calling itself The Company, and eventually taking on the corporate approach to executive directors receiving bonuses, and even thinking of privatisation, developing by its own logic and in relation to the changing ecology of British broadcasting. All institutions must guard against the subtle dangers of becoming complacent, introverted and arrogant. Fortress Television is not predisposed towards maintaining an outward-looking, receptive and open demeanour. Judicious compromise was signalled from the start with Isaacs’ founding phrase in Edinburgh in 1982: the new channel would be “different but not that different”.

HA: How different is the Irish Film Board?

RS: In another place and at another time, it was possible to draw up a new, more modern plan for a national film agency on a clean sheet of paper. Clearly this is not the same as a television station but there are some things that fed through to our declared policy and practice which aims to sustain a radical pluralism, to create a friction between fictions, supporting different scales of film made for different audiences, a variegated film culture. “Let a thousand flowers bloom and a thousand schools of thought contend…”

HA: Did you have the resources for all those blooms?

RS: Bord Scannán na hÉireann/The Irish Film Board kicked off with £1m a year and that has risen steadily to nearly £7m. We have been involved in 8-10 features a year throughout that period, putting between 10 and 50% into each film. But that number constitutes something of a critical mass for variations and debate.

We worked to establish a business-like approach; taking the best practices from the private industry to achieve public service aims. Focused and proficiently organised working methods are not just the province of business folk – it is not only the suit wearers with conservative views who must be serious and proficient.

We opened out from the confines of the rural/historical genre pretty quickly. I remember with delight the French critic who emerged from a Cannes market screening of I Went Down (Paddy Breathnach) saying “I like it – but it’s not an Irish Film”. There’s the international desire for a Bord Failte (tourist board) school of Irish filmmaking, it’s certainly good for export! Actually the rural genre still has much to say (Kevin Liddy’s Country last year for instance) but at least it doesn’t define the field. No pun intended.

HA: In developing a thriving film sector, Ireland shares the same problem as many other European countries – how to sustain it with so small an indigenous market?

RS: This problem can also be an opportunity. As the national film agency the Irish Film Board only provides – some level of input from with the market also strengthens films. The independent sector here has become adept at raising co-finance over the last few years.

However, building an autonomous basis for shorts and microbudget feature production has been achieved on this island without reference to outside finances. There has been a steady trickle of features, and a stream of shorts, shot with people’s own resources (say November Afternoon, directed by John Carney, Flick by Fintan Connolly, The Follower by Maeve Murphy) and completed with monies from the Film Board.

HA: Assuming a film can rarely recoup its production cost in Ireland, how are Irish films distributed and with what success?

RS: The robust position taken by the Film Board on recouping a proportion of its production loans is integral to the development and consolidation of the industry. It has varied between 12 and 22% over the years which compares well with other national funding agencies for film in Europe and beyond. It indicates that the films and television series have audiences and can sell abroad. It provides some financial return to the Board which can be ploughed back into development and production.

borstal-boy-peter-sheridan.jpgBorstal Boy, Peter Sheridan

HA: Could this be taken further as in the French system of Avance Sur Recettes?

RS: Well, the production company should be getting some money back at the same time, but the Board has always stayed away from automatic or semi-automatic funding. That’s what the tax incentive is there for.

HA: And how does the Irish Film Board assist with distribution?

RS: When an Irish distributor wants to take one of our films out theatrically, has a good plan of campaign and the right level of prints for the particular film we would normally match their P & A spend 50/50 and get it back together from the front. This is a pump priming mechanism which softens their financial risk and gives the film more advertising punch in the market place – against the large P & A spend on American movies. It’s a fierce place the multiplex! The global exchange rate is desperate: 90% of the films shown on Irish screens are American, less than 3% of the films shown in the US come from outside that country. However it is crucial that the distributors put their money where their mouth is – our policy is formulated precisely to stop short of subsidising ‘service releases’ which is almost vanity press. Why stop there? Send a taxi round to pick the spectators up?

I think the Darwinian aspect of letting the market play a central role in which films get theatrical releases is right. About two thirds have gotten a cinema release. Some critics say “It’s a failure that many of your films go straight to television.” But I think that’s just fine.

We are also pushing an initiative to strengthen a small circuit of entrepreneurial art house venues in Ireland, the cultural exhibition sector is ready to expand.

HA: What is the role of television in all this?

RS: Unlike the crucial partnership between Channel 4, the BBC and even occasionally the regional television companies with film in Britain, we have faced a much more blocked situation here. We need a more sustained and consistent involvement from television in larger and smaller budget single films in Ireland.

HA: Do you think that the problems faced in sustaining a pluralistic, indigenous film base in Ireland can be resolved nationally?

RS: The Irish political will exists to sustain policies which are not simply or solely based on straight market principles. Some of the excesses and severe zigzags of British politics over the last 15 years have never had any resonance here. And I don’t only mean Thatcher – I’m also thinking of Blair and his tendency to “take moderation to extremes”. We can go a long way internally, nationally – some things are easier without external interactions, pressures and compromises. These are inevitably often around casting and script issues; the contradictions involved in making a film with authenticity and integrity which is credible and effective in its own culture and yet can work well internationally. I remember exactly the same dialectic when working with African filmmakers financed by Channel Four and other European broadcasters. But to get any real sense of the issues you have to look at the detail of these processes in particular cases, each film has its specificity. There are two many broad brushstrokes used to speculate about this area. However the economics of the small scale of Irish film activity overall and the lack of equity finance available add to that desire to have films shown around the world and predicate external, international engagements for most projects.

HA: Do we need a pan-European agreement? What would it achieve?

RS: The European Co-Production Convention is beginning to work well. We’ve put a lot of effort into Eurimages to try and make it work better over the years. It’s a pan-European fund with 26 countries as part of the Council of Europe (not the EU). We put in about £150,000 a year and have had over £5 million into our films in 7 years, plus the building of co-production relationships and strengthening distribution in other countries. However the reform process stopped short and it’s still too bureaucratic and unwieldy…

British Screen engaged well in this area with its European Co-production Fund although the continentals got a confused, mixed message when Britain made an irrational and ridiculous decision to withdraw from Eurimages in 1995.

flick-fintan-connolly.jpgFlick, Fintan Connolly

HA: How do you see the recent changes in the structures for film funding in Britain?

RS: Every situation has its specificities. But looking from outside, one can’t but be concerned at the seeming convergence of the BBC, Channel 4 and the British Film Council moving towards ‘let’s make fewer films but bigger ones’ positions, focusing on films made to address the transatlantic market. For three major players to move in this same direction at the same time is claustrophobic. I only hope they can make it work.

It’s a dangerous policy in its own terms and from a strategic and cultural perspective it’s fundamentally incorrect. Even Hollywood, at the moment of Easy Rider in the Sixties and Seventies understood the benefit of doing a larger number of smaller films, most of which will certainly fail commercially, but those that succeed make enough to cover the rest. This is the only basis for European cinema to play to its strengths, maintain authenticity, integrity etc.

HA: Does the fact that Ireland is considered an English-speaking territory help in promoting Irish Cinema?

RS: As Michael D. Higgins, then Minister of Culture, quipped – “The Irish people thank the British for the unsolicited gift of the English language.” There are the advantages of access to the world market and the disadvantages of penetration by American product. But, although Ireland, like Australia and America speak something like the same language as England that’s just the surface of things – it’s a superficial illusion because everything really is different. The culture, the politics, the relationship people have with one another, the culture of food and drink, the way they deal with death for instance, all this is all so different.

We moved from central London to outside Galway, more than city to city because we live in a small village on the edge of the sea some way south of Galway. And there are other more subtle sub-divisions and differences. Everyone knows of the north and the south and what’s at stake there, but until you get to Ireland you probably don’t see the differences between the west and the east of the island. People in the west sometimes refer pejoratively to Dubliners as ‘West Brits’ from their perspective of a much wilder, tougher, less assimilated version of Irish culture. All these nuances are what matters.

Personally, I can’t make the imaginative leap to even begin to understand a perspective where the notion of an integrated, globalised culture is acceptable. The urgency of the threat to cultural diversity around the world was recently described by Alpha Oumar Konare, the President of Mali – “It’s like standing in a burning library”.

country-kevin-liddy.jpgCountry, Kevin Liddy

HA: In the Irish Film Board’s Review 2000, you say that the further a film is pushed artistically, the more genuinely commercial you can be? What exactly do you mean by this?

RS: Paradoxically the films which succeed with an audience have strikingly original visions, authentic voices, formal originality. And when they do succeed they make more money, faster because they have lower production costs. To use the industry jargon: the gearing of The Crying Game is better than that of Jurassic Park. Neil Jordan’s film made $68m in the US on a production budget of less than £3m. Would it have been a better film if it had cost £10m? I think not. Individuals would have been paid better, and fair play to them, but it wouldn’t necessarily have strengthened the image on screen. It’s necessary to defend the commerciality of low and medium budget filmmaking without losing sight of the artistic base of its success.

Pushing films artistically means not being complacent and not trying to produce formulaic replications of what someone thinks the market might like. In fact there is nothing but risk – ‘safe’ choices mostly fall short, “the middle of the road is a very dead end” as Alexander Kluge said with the title of one of his more obscure films.

HA:?Are you denying that genre movies are successful?

RS: Clearly not, American cinema does them very well, so too Bombay and Hong Kong; but less so here. In my view imitating genre movie making is not the right strategy for European films to play to their strengths.

Clearly we need to ‘think of the audience’ and take marketing much more seriously in Europe. But the last stage of fitting the product to the market is fitting the market to the product! It’s a question of advertising, preparing the audience to receive a film which is moving into new territories, challenging in terms of its narrative form - for one reason or another it is not instantly recognisable by genre or lead actors…

HA: If you were to name some of the qualities which have identified the best of Irish cinema in the past ten years, what would they be?

RS: The modern, the unexpected, the uncompromising – challenging social norms, complacencies of taste, extending the boundaries of the possible…

The next ten years should involve building on the success that there has been with many of the films at home and hopefully making some which are more successful abroad – there hasn’t really been an international hit from here for a while. It’s never been easy and some aspects of the television and distribution situation are probably getting worse – O tempora! O mores!

That statement in the Review played the role of a kind of mission statement, or missionary position maybe: in times of pervasive timidity, in the increasingly risk averse television and film industries, it is good to set criteria to encourage bravery and creative risk taking.

Rod Stoneman was a commissioning editor at Channel 4 before joining the Irish Film Board in 1993.