Northern Irish producers hate being painted as irritants, but they've had a lot to feel sore about over the past few years. The glaring lack of network commissions continues to prevent local talent from fulfilling its potential, they say, although there's satisfaction about the BBC's intention to raise output as part of its plan to source half of all network programmes from outside the M25 by 2016.
Whatever the BBC's commitments, the reality is that no indigenous producer has a returning series for a network broadcaster. “We need four to five returning series in the region just to be punching our weight,” says Wild Rover managing director Phil Morrow, who produced six series of Just for Laughs for BBC1 and Fiver. “In a situation like that, the landscape here would be dramatically different.”
Acknowledging this, the BBC plans to increase its spend nearly tenfold, from 0.4% to about 3% of the total network budget 2016. Northern Ireland has been earmarked to specialise in factual and drama, but the BBC will also source comedy and factual entertainment from local indies.
Another plus is that the Irish Language Broadcast Fund, which invests in 75 hours of Irish-language programming a year on TG4, BBC NI and RTÉ, has been topped up with £6m until 2011.
All this has come too late for factual producers Straightforward and Hotshot Films, which were forced to close earlier this year. While the gloomy economy is undoubtedly making a bad situation worse, the lack of commissions has squeezed the sector hard.
“It's very difficult for indies to survive in Belfast without regular and returning BBC commissions,” says one managing director. “It is well documented that it has been difficult for local indies to build relationships with, and gain the confidence of, network commissioners.”
Even Waddell Media, the region's largest independent, is finding life tough. “We're cutting our cloth to fit and having to be much more ruthless about the way we do business,” admits managing director Jannine Waddell. “We simply can't keep as many staff on as we'd like. Cashflow at broadcast level has slowed decision-making down, and it's having a real impact.”
At least drama is experiencing something of a renaissance, with the Bafta-winning feature Hunger shooting in Northern Ireland recently along with Kudos' Iraq-focused Occupation, Ruby Films' Small Island and Double-Band's factual drama Best, about the nation's favourite son, George Best. “It's a mixed picture,” says Richard Williams, chief executive of Northern Ireland Screen. “Drama has seen a steady rise, but the non-drama indie community here is a bit stagnant. It's kind of a last-chance saloon in terms of waiting for BBC promises to come good. What's most striking is that the growth we have seen in the sector [doubling from £11m to £22m between 2003 and 2007] came from everywhere but UK PSBs.”
Unlike Scotland or Wales, the BBC is not moving a strand to the region, although additional Panorama shows and segments of The One Show will be locally sourced. A Sunday religious slot will be partly produced in-house at BBC NI, but partly by a non-local indie. A Belfast-based factual commissioner will help kickstart projects, with an appointment expected shortly.
“The factual commissioner will be an active link with London and will focus on getting network commissions, which remains the ultimate goal,” says Ailsa Orr, BBC NI's head of programmes. “We've encouraged local indies to be more ambitious in their programming, especially by delivering films for a local primetime landmark factual slot. That gives us something tangible with which to go to commissioners and say, ‘This is what we can do - now give us a chance'.”
Recognising that the BBC cannot shoulder responsibility alone, indies are calling for Channel 4 to make a similar commitment and fulfil its PSB obligations. “Northern Ireland has a lower ratio of network hours to head of population than any other UK region, and that is hugely detrimental to all UK viewers,” stresses Waddell - who is also NI's representative for producers' alliance Pact.
In defence, Stuart Cosgrove, Channel 4's director of nations and regions, points to the channel's £1m nations pilot fund, its commitment to raising nations production beyond its licence and statutory requirements, and the £50m 4iP partner fund. “While comparisons with the BBC are often made, they are misleading,” says Cosgrove. “Channel 4 is a publisher broadcaster and cannot relocate production with the same ease.”
Questions about Northern Ireland's capacity to take on major projects don't wash with local producers. “I don't buy the argument that indies here are too small to compete,” says Waddell, whose company recently opened a New York office to channel commissions from US broadcasters. “All of us are capable of making strategic alliances if need be to increase capacity. Like any indie, we bring in production staff and crew as necessary.”
Waddell, like fellow executives at Tern, Wild Rover and Green Inc, has spent considerable time in London overseeing primetime or daytime shows. “Even though we have strong track records and good relationships at network level, it's been hard for any of us to get a network commission,” says Green Inc managing director Stephen Stewart, who produced TFI Friday and has delivered long-running magazine The Afternoon Show for RTÉ since 2004. “Living here doesn't make us any less creative.”
The lack of a regional super-indie has fed concerns that an external powerhouse will parachute in to tap the BBC's new output fund, then leave without materially adding to the local production economy. Ten Alps' £800,000 purchase of factual indie Below the Radar is seen by some as a sign of this.
But the BBC's Orr sees Ten Alps' move as a positive development. “Ultimately, this is about the long-term stability of the area so we can actively discourage, or encourage, people where appropriate. TenAlps' purchase can only help Below the Radar with the support it needs to grow as a company. There's also an opportunity to entice homegrown talent back to the sector from London.”
Given that output from Northern Ireland actually dropped 20% in 2007, in contrast to an overall 13% increase in hours produced in Scotland, according to Pact, producers are cautious of a reversal of fortunes.
“Words, meetings and commitment are great, but we need action,” urges Tern TV producer Alison Millar. “It's all very well sitting on an Irish Film and Television Award and a Prix Italia [Tern won both recently for the documentary At Home With the Clearys], but I'm a film-maker and I want to make films.”
Morrow agrees: “After years of talk and very little delivery we're hopeful of a new start, but we aren't prepared to start opening the champagne until we see the fruits of this.”
Northern Ireland Post the key players
Freshly installed in new East Belfast premises, sister companies The Soundhouse and The Picturehouse offer four Avid editing/finishing suites, three Pro Tools suites and a Unity server.
“Two years ago, we decided we could no longer function solely as a facility house because the market here was narrowing,” says business development manager Grainne McGuinness. “We decided to move into commercials production, and that's been a very successful venture. We've continued to invest in facilities. Nobody has made the same investment in HD that we have.”
Like The Soundhouse, graphics and animation specialist Streetmonkey mainly serves the city's creative advertising agencies, among them Lyle Bailie, AV Browne, Genesis and Elm House Creative.
“We're experiencing our busiest period since launch [in 2002],” claims co-founder Dermot Faloon, citing a contract to produce a series of 60-second promos for the NI Tourist Board. “With the downturn, a lot of agencies that would have gone further afield to post have turned to local companies, giving us a chance to shine.”
Graphics and animation specialist Inferno produces title sequences, programme inserts and supporting graphics, while production wing Sixteensouth makes children's programming such as Sesame Tree for CBeebies.
“If we just focused on posting broadcast work, life would be hard, but we've diversified into commercials and installations, and we're busy,” says creative director Colin Williams.
In terms of long-form television, Yellow Moon is regularly cited as the class act in town. Dramas Best Small Island and Generator Entertainment's feature Ghost Machine are currently being edited or dubbed there. It has 14 edit suites spread across two buildings and a new 5.1 audio theatre. “If the current lack of commissions had happened three years ago we'd be in trouble,” says founder Greg Darby. “By diversifying into drama and features this has compensated when local output is not as strong.”
The Paint Hall, on the Harland and Wolff shipyard, is Belfast's studio facility. Dramas Small Island and Best were shot there, while Kudos has used its sound stage to recreate Basra for Occupation.
From the 5,929 hours produced outside London by the five main broadcasters in 2007, Northern Ireland accounted for 16 (down from 20 hours the previous year)
ITV1 and Five commissioned no network programming from Northern Irish indies in 2007
Northern Ireland has a lower ratio of network hours to population than any other region, with less than one minute of programming per thousand people.
Sources: Pact, NI Screen