Seanad Éireann - Volume 164 - 25 October, 2000

Irish Film Board (Amendment) Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed) and Subsequent Stages.

Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Mr. Ryan: One of the ways in which we can reflect on ourselves in film is through the relationship between television companies and film making. All the efforts to persuade RTÉ, and “persuade” is a gentle word, to be more willing to engage independent operators have been overwhelmingly successful. What is even more astonishing is the extraordinary success of the hopelessly underfunded TG4, which has discovered a range of imaginative television programmes with a shoestring budget that would be considered laughable in the rest of the world. It is a fraction, for example, of what the equivalent of TG4 in Wales has at its disposal.

It is an extraordinary achievement and a compliment to the capacity and quality of many indigenous film makers. I am not sure that they would have chosen to make programmes as Gaeilge if they had the choice but that was the only funding available. The station has been a remarkable success. In a time of comparative affluence it is a great pity that TG4 is still running on a shoestring. Its budget has been well spent and it is clear that if further money were available, it would be used with great imagination, flair and a little of the humour and devilment that are often missing from conventional film making output.

I am a fan of TG4, as are most television critics who do not look at it with their prejudices to the forefront. At least one TV critic is incapable of looking at TG4 without seeing only the negatives. Most of the critics and most of the people who bother to watch the station and have sufficient Irish to be able to enjoy it accept that TG4 does a remarkably good job. It only has a small audience but it was never going to attract a huge audience.

[308] There is also the fourth or commercial TV channel. It is time the Minister talked to either the Independent Radio and Television Commission or to TV3. It is unobtainable in a considerable section of the country, including where Senator Tom Fitzgerald lives, although it must be said that the people in those areas are not missing much. However, since the station has a habit of spending its resources on buying sports programmes which otherwise would be available on RTÉ, their enterprise deprives at least 20% of the population of access to those programmes. This debate is about the need to use the audiovisual medium, in particular film, to reflect our identity in a successful way yet this television channel has no virtually no indigenous sport, no indigenous movies because it will not fund them and no indigenous culture. It does not use a word of our language from one end of the day to the other, has no indigenous drama and no indigenous anything except news and a few talk shows.

I am not sure that is what we want in a world where there is a limited number of terrestrial frequencies. It is useful to look at the ratings. Whatever big international movie TV3 shows in a particular week will be number one, with an audience of about 200,000 people which is approximately 8% of the full audience. That is followed by whatever sporting event the station has managed to buy which, in turn, is followed by that wonderful example of high quality culture, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There is enough satellite television available to satisfy that market. It would have been possible, and still is possible, to have a commercial television channel which can do a little more than simply buy in cheap international programming of the intellectual level of Mr. Jerry Springer. Instead, it could do something to reflect ourselves and how we are.

I am not seeking the equivalent of the highest quality produced by BBC2, Channel 4 or RTÉ. However, TV3 could do much better and it is a pity there is no agency to remind it that it has a commitment to quality as well as quantity and depth as well as breadth. There is a problem there and I ask the Minister to talk to the people concerned. It is a dreadful waste of a national resource.

We are attempting to develop an indigenous audiovisual and film industry but if I see another drama or movie about sexual repression by the Catholic Church in Ireland I will scream. It is a worn out topic. I am also tired of comedians who think they are funny because they do the brave deed of pulling the nose of the Catholic Church, as if it had any influence any more. As for the number of people who believe it is daring and an indication of how progressive one is to slip as many four letter words as possible into a programme, I consider it a schoolboy or schoolgirl reflection of the way Ireland was in the 1950s.

There are enough big themes in Ireland in 2000 to stimulate and challenge a creative artist. They run from, if I want to be highly political, the decline of a once great political party for one [309] reason or another through to the dominance of our media by, essentially, one man, to growing inequality and the extraordinary cultural impact of the last seven years. Those years have produced huge change in every area of Irish life in terms of education and our social, religious and cultural values. Any artist of merit could pick a great deal from that. However, we will inevitably have yet another “powerful script” about repression in Ireland. Anybody who knows anybody under 25 years of age in this country will realise that whatever else they are, they are not repressed. The script might be an interesting picture of how Ireland used to be but it is not the stuff of challenging creative art.

We need to be challenged by artists about how we are, not given pictures of how we were. We all know how we were; enough has been said and written about it. I am not referring to serious documentaries on the awful things that were done but about creative script writing and stories. It is time many of our scriptwriters grew up and, like all artists, picked on the real powers in society at present rather than on safe targets which no longer have the power they had previously. They are easy targets and make people feel brave about themselves but they do not add much to either our stimulation or entertainment.

I wish An Bord Scannáin well. I hope the money is used creatively. I also hope the board will not fall into an Irish equivalent of the narrow view of what represents good film making. The relationship between our television service and film producing is far from complete. TG4 is underfunded so it cannot work there, TV3 is clearly determined not to spend money on those indigenous matters so we are left with RTÉ. There is an issue there with regard to RTÉ's part in the development of film and assistance in the development of film. If we are going to develop film commercially, that is one issue but if we want to be both commercial and different, a quality of scriptwriting and imagination will be required which, so far, I have not seen much of. I hope that through more imagination, challenge and stimulation, and perhaps a willingness to examine different ways of looking at things, we can make some progress.

I wish the Bill and the Minister well.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: I fully support the Bill and commend the Minister on what she is doing in increasing the amount of money from £30 million to £80 million. As a person who has benefited or at least who comes from a part of Ireland which has benefited in a big way from the film industry, I understand what the industry means to those involved, including directors, actors and stand-ins. In 1968, when “Ryan's Daughter” was being filmed in Dingle, I stood in for the great man, Bob Mitchum, for two weeks. I spent nine months working on the film. Only two weeks ago I spent four hours under the cameras with Sarah Miles in my living room, reliving the making of Ryan's [310]Daughter for a programme which will be shown on BBC Northern Ireland.

I see the benefit of the film industry throughout Ireland, be it in Dublin city or in the west. My wife provides bed and breakfast and at least half the people who stay in it during the summer ask where Ryan's Daughter was made. Quite a number of people have seen The Playboy of the Western World which was made in Inch, and the film which starred Tom Cruise. These films have brought a huge number of people to the Dingle peninsula because of the scenery which was portrayed and the ambience of the area, the most beautiful part of Ireland.

The Minister should provide an additional carrot to those in the film industry to make films which would be successful and which we would love. I have in mind films based on the book An tOileánach, The Islandman. A couple of years ago I dreamt of pushing this if possible, and I had Gregory Peck as an t-oileánach, the tall gaunt man with the jet black hat.

Miss de Valera: The Senator could have starred in it.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: I would have to wait for another few years as I am too young.

Mr. Manning: The Senator is not gaunt enough.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: That film could be made. It is a beautiful story and could be distributed in any part of the world. I also have in mind the story of a man who went to the Klondyke, Mickey McGowan, based on the book Rothar Mór an tSaol. I read the story years ago and saw a documentary on it about five years ago on RTÉ. I would like the Minister to make recommendations, if possible, to those in the film industry to look at projects with particular emphasis on an Irish background and Irish or Irish-American actors.

Gregory Peck's mother was born in my parish in Lispole. Gregory Peck and Scott of the South Pole expedition were cousins. I also mention the Creans in the context of another subject for a film. The Creans were always known as the Scotts, simply because Tom Crean went with Scott to the South Pole. Gregory Peck and Tom Crean were related. Tom Crean and Gregory Peck's mother were born within a mile of each other. It would be great if it was possible to provide a carrot to bring the books I have mentioned – there are hundreds others I have not mentioned – to film.

Senator Ryan spoke about the underfunding of TG4. In the early days I was very dubious about TG4, but it has turned out to be my favourite television station at night. It is absolutely fabulous and great credit is due to everybody involved in it. Commentary in Irish is given for English programmes and it is very simple to follow. We should not expect TG4 to be profitable. We are a small country with a population of four million, [311] and to think these stations can stand on their own feet and be profitable is too much to ask.

In addition, there should be a link between the television licence and what people want to watch. People pay up to £300 to watch programmes on Sky, but if there is special viewing, such as a boxing or football match, extra must be paid. I am not saying that should be the way, but the television licence should reflect the reason for which it was introduced. The legislation links the licence to transmitting or receiving apparatus and those in possession of such an apparatus must pay a licence fee. The licence is now expected to be a payment for all programmes on television, something with which I do not agree. If people want to see programmes they could pay separately. I know the Bill is only slightly concerned with television, but quite a number of productions, including feature films, are being shown on television.

I do not agree with the siting of masts and aerials all over the country. We should make a break for it and join the satellite community. That is where the future lies whether or not we like it. Ten years from now people will ask why we did not join the satellite community when it was cheap to do so. Tara television is broadcast via satellite. Most of the programmes on RTÉ are being retransmitted via satellite on Tara.

On one occasion the Minister said she did not feel it was right that people should have to pay to see special and sporting programmes, such as having to pay £15 to see the All-Ireland Final. I cannot get TV3—

Mr. Ryan: The Senator is not missing much.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: —unless I pay Horizon Television. That is wrong. The entire Dingle peninsula cannot get TV3 because Horizon has it on. Horizon hold the people of the Gaeltacht to ransom because there are certain pockets in the Gaeltacht that cannot get TG4 through the normal aerial but can get it though Horizon if they pay a large sum of money. This is not just for Tom Fitzgerald in Dingle but for hundreds of Tom Fitzgeralds all over Ireland who are in the same boat. I can look across the harbour and see that the mast which transmits it is about half a mile away as the crow flies. Yet I cannot get TV3 simply because a big company demands so many hundreds of pounds per year. That is wrong. TV3, though I suppose it is independent of the Government, should be told straight that it should provide television service to all the people. My understanding is that all that is required to transmit it is to put a dish on top of the mast. Everything is in place.

I welcome the Bill simply because I have been a great admirer of films and have gone to films all my life. If somebody asked what was the best film I had seen I would have to say “I do not know”. I love films and take a deep interest in them. I see a great future in Ireland for the film [312] industry. What has been done up to now is magnificent.

In the early days Gael Linn did great work in collecting the archives and storing all the old films. The reason BBC contacted me about making this film was that I actually had a half an hour of old super 8 millimetre film which I took while working on the set. They could not believe it and said it was magic. I hope to hand it into the archives some day.

Mr. Manning: Follow that.

Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Miss de Valera): I thank all the Senators who contributed to the debate. I found it interesting and helpful. A number of issues have arisen more than once and I will do my best to address them. In regard to the points raised by Senator Manning, when I came to office in 1997 there was great potential for the film industry and there was a good deal on which to work. However, there was no Screen Commission and the only talk about the film industry was the need for a section 481. Section 481 had been recognised by me and everybody else as an important element in progressing the film industry for a number of reasons. I was happy to ensure, through Government support, that section 481 would be given a further five years. That agreement was made with the Department of Finance and announced at the time. I thought we needed a more strategic approach to the film industry. It was not sufficient to speak about one particular element of the tax code and hope that an industry could hang on that. That was the reason I established the Screen Commission. I went further and decided a strategy was needed for the next ten years. That is the reason for setting up the Film Industry Strategic Review Group. Under the chairmanship of Mr. Ossie Kilkenny some great work was done.

The Government's commitment to the film industry, certainly since 1997, is evident given the moneys being provided to support the Irish Film Board. In 1997 the current moneys amounted to £0.419 million and the capital was £3.7 million. In 2000 the amount of current moneys has increased from £0.4 million to £0.7 million and the capital has increased from £3.7 million to £6.2 million. This substantial increase mirrors the possibilities within the industry. We need to recognise this not only in debate but to bolster it in terms of funding and financial commitment which we have done and which I hope to continue.

Direct employment in the industry is 2,000 full-time equivalents and indirect employment generated by the industry in the services sector adds another 3,000 to the figure. The first figure understates the number of people earning their living from the industry as employment is project based and, therefore, discontinuous. A substantial number of people have an opportunity to work within this industry and certainly there is scope for further growth. From the research carried out it [313] is difficult for a number of reasons to elicit not only the numbers working in the industry but the economic knock-on effects. The point was made by Senator Quill and others that sometimes it is difficult to quantify the amount of money that can be generated in other sectors of the economy, particularly in the area of tourism where it has a positive knock-on effect, not least in County Kerry.

Senator Fitzgerald and others will be aware that a number of counties, of which Kerry is one, have taken the opportunity to set up their own screen commissions. They have recognised the economic benefits that can accrue from such an industry. The review by Alan Gray in 1998 is interesting because it recommended the continuance of State aids. IBEC maintains a statistical database on the numbers involved and the knock-on effect of the industry on the general economy. We have an opportunity to become aware of the internal workings of the board through the annual reports.

Senator Manning asked for an explanation on the recoupment factor. When a film receives a production loan from the Irish Film Board that loan is made conditional upon the payment but only if the film is successful. It takes a long time to build up the skills and capabilities to produce commercially successful films, hence the actual recoupment is low. The Irish Film Board rate of recoupment compares favourably with other national film funding agencies. As our emphasis becomes more commercial it will be expected that the films produced will be more commercial and, therefore, the board should get a better recoupment. I hope that explains the approach to recoupment.

Senator Manning and many others referred to the role of RTÉ and our broadcasters with regard to the film industry. The independent producers have had a number of discussions with me which are ongoing, particularly in regard to the Broadcasting Bill. Committee Stage is about to be taken in the Dáil and the Bill will be before the Seanad in due course. Because of my concern regarding independent producers and knowing the difficulties that existed between them and RTÉ in regard to the understanding and interpretation of the existing legislation, I felt the best way of approaching the issue was to ensure it would be set down in new legislation and that is why there is reference to independent producers in the Bill which will be discussed on Committee Stage.

RTÉ has an important role to play, as do our other indigenous stations, TV3 and TG4. All of us wish to re-emphasise and underline the important role TG4 has played. It has tremendous broadcasters who generally are young, but they are highly technical, effective and imaginative in their approach. The TG4 model could be followed by existing channels and others which may come on stream.

I am glad Senator Manning agrees with the location and name of the film board. I am committed to locating the film board in Galway. [314] There is an office in Dublin but it is up to the board to decide on the day to day workings of the Dublin office. However, the board's headquarters must remain in Galway.

Senator O Murchú referred to the importance of indigenous projects and I agree with this approach. We would all welcome a scenario where blockbusters are imported because, as Senator Ryan said, that helps to build an infrastructure and skills base, but indigenous industry can also develop. That is why the film board plays such an important role in this area and I have supported it in terms of funding. I agree with Senator O Murchú that small companies need to consider partnerships and associations to strengthen their own position and it is most important that every company should have a business plan and a strategic approach.

The importance of marketing and distribution has been recognised by all in the film industry. There will be a division within the strengthened film board which will have specific responsibility for marketing.

Senator Henry referred to the Olsberg report but there is a little confusion in this area. The Senator is well aware of the Ossie Kilkenny strategic review report. That review has been completed and the report has made 20 recommendations. I support all the recommendations except one which proposes a levy on cinema seats. Olsberg SPI was engaged to review the organisation and management of the board. The board is finalising its own plan on foot of that report and I hope it will take into account the comments I and others made in the House. I look forward to the board's final deliberations on this matter.

Senator Henry also referred to RTÉ reception in the North. I have read the departmental files and attempts to improve reception have been ongoing for 20 years. Senators will understand there are political considerations in this issue. I would like an improvement in RTÉ reception throughout the North and I hope such an improvement will take place through digitalisation and the Broadcasting Bill, 2000, because the Bill provides for a reciprocal arrangement. That issue can be discussed when the Bill is debated in the Seanad.

Senator Henry also mentioned tax relief, budgets below £4 million and the 80% debate. I have discussed both issues with the Minister for Finance. They are financial matters first and foremost, but the Minister and the Department are aware that I am pursuing them.

A number of Senators highlighted the need for an emphasis on development, but such emphasis was recommended in the Kilkenny report, not the Olsberg report.

Senator Quill referred to “Adam”, a film which was shown during the Cork Film Festival. I envy the fact that she spent so much time in Cork during the festival. She will be glad to know the film was supported by the Film Board and section 481. Practical help and support is available for such films. I would welcome a debate on [315] film in the House. The Whips can discuss it, but if I was invited to the House for such a debate I would be delighted to take up the invitation.

Senator Quill also raised the 40 mile rule. It is a SIPTU rule which relates to paying per diem outside a 40 mile radius. As it is a union matter, I would be happy following the debate to contact the unions to make them aware of the views expressed in the House on the issue.

Senator Ryan raised a number of issues. I agree Ireland has wonderful film locations and actors of great ability for which it is known internationally. We are also known for our literary prowess, but film script writing involves a specific skill and expertise and the development of scripts is of extreme importance because, as the Senator said, we are referring to quality driven indigenous projects. The money must be available for such development and the film board feels strongly about that.

Senator Ryan raised the issue of the independent producers in RTÉ. I hope I referred in some way to the importance of the independent producers and our indigenous television stations. In addition, TG4 has been a tremendous success. The Senator will be interested to know that the film board, television broadcasters, Údarás na Gaeltachta and Enterprise Ireland are to establish a focused policy framework for developing commercially viable television productions in the Irish language. This is one of the recommendations in the Ossie Kilkenny report and it is a matter dear to the Senator's heart.

TV3 is in a very different situation from RTÉ in the sense that it is a commercial station and, therefore, has a number of different criteria. Giving and monitoring a licence is a matter for the Independent Radio and Television Commission, not me as Minister. Certain criteria have been set down by the Independent Radio and Television Commission for obtaining a licence and it monitors such situations.

Senator Tom Fitzgerald referred to An tOileánach and I was most impressed that the Senator stood in for Gregory Peck.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: I stood in for Bob Mitchum.

Miss de Valera: He was just as eloquent a character.

Mr. Manning: John Wayne would have been more appropriate.

Miss de Valera: I was most impressed.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: I have modesty.

Miss de Valera: The Senator's reference to Rotha Mór an tSaol brought me back to my school days because that was one of the books on the curriculum at that time and I particularly enjoyed it.

TG4 and TV3 were mentioned and we discussed the universality of TV3. These issues can [316] be raised at a later stage during the debate on the Broadcasting Bill. I hope I referred to all the major issues raised and I thank the Senators for their co-operation and interesting contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill put through Committee, reported without amendment and passed.