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Cork’s creative economy needs political support

Wednesday, 7th August, 2019 4:45pm

Last month the European Commission approved a measure from this Government which excludes Cork from a five per cent increase in the film, television and animation tax incentive scheme, known in the industry as Section 481.

This increase, called the Regional Uplift measure, is designed to offset the costs for large film and television projects of training up a pool of experienced crew in the relevant geographic area to service their productions. It is a tapered support, over four years, the purported length of time it takes to build up a sufficient pool of experienced crew.

Historically in Ireland, production has been concentrated around Dublin and Wicklow (where Ardmore Studios is located and which, until recent times, was either fully or part owned by the State).

After Ardmore expanded by taking beneficial ownership of the former Dell factory in Limerick, and opening it as Troy Studios in 2016, there has been a push, keenly supported by the national film agency, Screen Ireland (until 2018 the Irish Film Board and headquartered in Galway), to expand production in the ‘regions’. What exactly counts as a ‘region’ though is moot.

Cork, it seems, does not qualify.

It is Ireland’s largest county geographically with a population of approximately 600,000. And since 31 May 2019, and the quadrupling of the city’s boundaries, Cork city has a population of more than 200,000. That’s more than Galway, Limerick and Waterford cities combined.

Oh but it’s not as simple as that, economists cry! Nuanced analysis means that we have to allow for the fact that the Department of Finance selected a mechanism which increases the chance of getting approval from the EU for enhanced State Aid, which this scheme constitutes. This mechanism is known as the Regional Aid Guidelines (aka RAGS.)

This is a complex, statistical and bureaucratic formula involving figures such as the attraction and retention rates of foreign direct investment (FDI), unemployment density rates, etc.

The argument is that Cork is a “victim of its own success”: it has a high level of FDI attraction and retention – Pfizer, Apple, et al, and so should not benefit from any further enhanced State aid.

Obviously this is debatable. For example, Medtronic located to Galway for the same reason Apple came to Cork – tax breaks!

There may even be an argument to exclude Cork Harbour, home to the pharma companies that appear to tip Cork over the FDI ledge. But all of Cork county?

The reason Mary Robinson famously launched her presidential bid in Allihies back in 1990 was that it was so far off the beaten track (obviously part of its charm but definitely confirming it is not the centre of any FDI activity.)

And there are parts of both the city and county with levels of disadvantage, unemployment, underemployment, etc., that sadly match anywhere in the country, including Dublin.

So the RAGS mechanism is a very blunt, crude instrument but its net effect for film and television production in Cork means that we are going to be thoroughly uneconomic for either inward or local productions.

Just to give one example from television, we recently met with the UK series producer of the hit Cork show for the BBC, ‘The Young Offenders’, to discuss the issue. Despite the show being set and shot in Cork, created by Cork writer/director Peter Foott, and employing many Cork cast and crew, they will have to seriously examine the possibility of shooting elsewhere going forward. This year’s shoot alone is worth over €2.1m to the local economy in direct spend.

In the realm of film, the lifeblood of the Irish industry is Irish-European co-productions, of which approximately 20-25 shoot every year. Film In Cork has direct experience of successfully enticing these projects to shoot in Cork by offering a one per cent incentive, but that’s the limit of where the local authorities’ budgets will stretch. Central government effectively offering five per cent means we cannot compete.

Besides being clearly unequitable, the egregious exclusion means that all the success and hard work of recent years risks being squandered. Cork has a growing number of filmmakers breaking through with significant success, none of whom under the new regime would be able to shoot here.

Cork filmmakers like Carmel Winters, whose recent hit feature ‘Float Like A Butterfly’ - shot entirely in West Cork - are going to be forced to find alternative locations within qualifying ‘regions’.

And coming up behind her are numerous other very talented Cork filmmakers emerging to what? With this mechanism in place, as is, their only viable option will be to leave.

However there is a solution, and it is a simple, quick and effective one. The Government puts a Cork Regional Support Fund in place that can be used to offset the incentive and advertise to producers that Cork is still very much open for business and keen to support the work of these industrious filmmakers, both local and incoming. Based on 2019 figures, Cork productions will lose out on approximately €500k per annum under the new ruling. Given that it is to run for four years, simple arithmetic says that a one-off fund of approximately €2m will allow Cork to remain a thriving, competitive production hub and continue to grow its creative economy.

This also means boosting destination tourism by displaying the beauty and diversity of the region on screens across the country, the UK and the US as well as all the emerging tourist markets such as China, all whilst supporting the Cork artists and various talents of all hues and stripes that work in this diverse creative sector.

Does the Tánaiste, Mr Simon Coveney, want Cork to continue to shine on screen?

If yes then a Cork Regional Support Fund is urgently needed in this October’s budget.

Film In Cork has submitted this proposal to his office.

We are still awaiting a reply.

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