A Chat With The Cork Screen Commissioner

Niall Mahoney Cork Screen Commissioner

A Chat With The Cork Screen Commissioner

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We caught up with Niall Mahoney, the Cork Screen Commissioner for a chat about the work of the Cork Screen Commssion, and Niall’s views on the film making industry in Cork.

Can you give us an idea of the work of the Cork Screen Commission?

Niall with Shaun O'Connor @ Made in Cork screening Cork Film Festival

Niall with Shaun O’Connor at Made in Cork screening Cork Film Festival

The Screen Commission’s remit is basically twofold; to help, support & nurture the indigenous Screen Industries (I say ‘Screen’ rather than Film or TV, as the whole industry is changing & it’s becoming more about on-line platforms), plus establish Cork City & County as a ‘prime filming destination’ to both National and International screen producers.
Simple as that may sound, it’s actually a lot of work for one person, as it involves all sorts of things like meeting Producers, Writers, Directors, Location Managers etc.; giving advice & help; providing free location recces to incoming companies, hooking up Cork producers with funders and other experienced Producers in Dublin & the UK, gaining permissions to film, writing articles and doing PR to help raise awareness of Cork generally, running Seminars and Courses/Workshops that will help the indigenous industry plus running the portal website, www.corkscreencommission.com & keeping that updated with News, information and new locations, production support, facilities and local crew/cast.
I’m also asked to speak at Festival openings and seminars quite a lot, so there’s a high public profile involved, which is new to me!

Of course, as a publicly funded position, there’s a lot of report writing and accountability going on in the background, which people don’t often see, and that’s a time-consuming and laborious task! I’m an Industry animal, so am used to getting on with the actual production rather than writing about what I’m doing, but in a way it’s justified as any public money should be well spent & every penny accountable, so it’s a necessary evil!

I try to spend an increasing amount of time meeting local Producers, writers, DoP’s & Directors to try to help them establish themselves as professional working teams and production companies so they can present a professional front to funders like the Film Board. This is a crucial ‘next step’ I believe for many of the great teams working in Cork on low or no-budget projects. In my mind, it’s one thing to produce things for little or nothing using friends & colleagues, but they must move on & up at some point to become professional entities that can apply for proper funding – otherwise nobody can make a living & stay in the industry full time. If just one team gets together and is successful in getting funding for a project, whether that’s a Short, a Feature or a TV program, through my help I will have considered my time as Commissioner to be well spent.

One of the bits I enjoy best is meeting local Producers at functions & screenings, such as we did during the Cork Film Festival with Southern Screen Professionals, Egomotion & the Cork Media Freelancers Group – that’s when I get a chance to talk with real film makers and connect with the people that I really want to help. I come from a hands-on, production background so this is where I feel most at home, talking about shoots and scripts etc. The Commissioners job can be a bit isolating at times, as it is an ‘official’ position I guess and I work essentially on my own and not part of a production team, so it’s good to connect with the ‘coalface’ if you like & talk about actual productions that are happening.

What’s the best part of the job?

Free Corona at the Cork Film Festival opening!! Seriously, the biggest sense of satisfaction I get is seeing a team of local film makers come into me to ask advice about how to move to the next level and see their confidence grow as we go through their skills and future possibilities. Sometimes people just need a bit of affirmation and a point in the right direction, or maybe a crucial contact with a Producer or Funder, and that’s where I come in. I see my job as someone who ‘joins the dots’ if you like & helps people get on in whichever area they want to. The Commissioner’s position is well needed, in that it allows someone to have an overview of the industry and an official title which outside organizations respect, so I can open doors at the start & give people a chance to sell themselves & their ideas. That’s important in Cork, as there’s no centre of production or commissioning editors down here, so there’s a geographical distance which can make things seem difficult.

Other than that, I come from a Drama background, so there’s nothing like being with a full crew on location surrounded by all the Departments – I love the ‘circus’ atmosphere it brings! For me, there’s nothing quite like Drama.

What is the biggest challenge for the Cork Screen Comission?

That’s a tricky one, as there are so many big challenges facing us! I suppose in general terms it has to be securing finance; both for productions, infrastructural projects (like the creation of a decent sized studio for example), training, distribution and of course to keep the Commission growing into the future. I’d love to see a Film Award in Cork and money to help people enter films into Festivals & to go there to network too, but that all takes serious investment and times are very tough as you know. Other challenges include getting established Dublin/Wicklow Producers and Production Companies to see Cork as a realistic alternative to shoot in (and get crew/cast from), and to find a way to financially support Start-Up companies where the individuals concerned don’t have hard cash to invest. Currently, if you can bring hard cash to the table, you can access public funds, but if you don’t, you can’t – that doesn’t seem right to me, as they are the very people we should be trying to help! There’s a huge amount of skill, energy & enthusiasm in Cork, but that’s being stifled by the inability to progress to setting up proper companies which can then apply for Development & Production funding and create some real jobs and stability for people trying to live & work here.

Are there any areas you feel that need to be developed with regards to film-making and the industry in Cork?

Commissioner and Expert Panel at Cork Film Fest Industry Seminar

Commissioner and Expert Panel at Cork Film Fest Industry Seminar

Yes, very much! We need to create the basis of a proper industry here across the Screen Industries, and I am convinced that if we can reach a critical level it will be catalytic; spawning more production companies and freelance work, plus raising awareness of Cork as a serious player & therefore attracting more people in, and so it goes! It’s a bit ‘Chicken & Egg’ of course, which is a problem, but what I’m trying to do, or at least start, is in getting people with complimentary skills together, e.g. Writer, Producer, Director, DoP, to form proper, professional teams and production companies. This is vital in order to go for proper funding and to start working professionally together. Companies need to start working on a slate of development & production ideas; demarcating the work and roles so that they’re focussed and share the load equally. I, in turn, am simultaneously trying to set up key infrastructural projects which these companies can use so that they can establish a rolling slate of projects that will keep them in work full time and grow their experience & profile. These are things like the Studio that I mentioned, plus getting a proper high-end Grading f acility together in Cork and also securing money and/or premises for Start-Up companies who can cross fertilize with each other in the same building.
I am currently working on all of these ideas, plus identifying key growth areas and skilled, Cork based professionals, in the areas of Animation, Finishing, high-end digital camera rental and On-Line Content. Things are growing here – we have proper Post Production Sound mixing here now, plus excellent lighting hire and four or five small production companies, but we need to develop more of these.

The biggest thing missing, in my opinion, is in production – we seriously lack experienced Producers and Production Managers to organize and drive projects from inception through to exhibition; to lead the team, deliver the product and, of course, chase the money! Without these key people things just don’t develop enough. We have one or two production people resident here who have the potential to be really good producers, but in that old ‘chicken & egg’ scenario again they are not getting the right experience on properly funded projects that will enable them to grow projects and companies here.

I am trying to resolve this by identifying key people here & putting them in touch with more established companies in Dublin & seeing if they can ‘shadow’ Producers & PM’s on shoots up there to get that vital experience. The events I ran at the Film Festival worked really well in bringing top industry professionals down here to see what’s happening and to meet the key teams & production people, so I have hopes for that in the long term. I’m also identifying experienced Producers around Ireland who either have some connection to Cork or who are willing to work with people here on ideas and am putting them together to see what comes of it.

What are the benefits film can bring to a county or indeed a country?

As a Regional Screen Commissioner I’m obviously focused on the County benefits rather than the National ones – that’s the job of the Film Board and RTE officially and they are designated as the national organizations to represent Ireland as a whole abroad. The local benefits I see are fundamentally to bring freelance work in to professionals based here, to create freelance & ultimately full time employment in highly skilled, ‘clean’ creative areas, and the subsequent economic spin-off directly to the local economy via location fees, production spend and Tourism on the back end.

Creatively, the Screen Industries offer a way for us to communicate our ideas, messages and creativity to a worldwide audience from our unique perspective, and that is important for any Region in the World. The set of social, economic and cultural values that we have here in Cork allows us to comment and add to the international discourse in an increasingly connected and converging World where we share common issues and concerns about the future and the way we see ‘society’ going for better or worse. Cork has as valid an input into this as any other place in my opinion, including the big cities of the World, and with the New Technologies we can overcome the geographical obstacles that have kept us on the perimeter of this discussion in the past.

What are the unique things Cork city and county can offer film and TV producers?

Niall with Dark Secrets of the Lusitania Doc crew

Niall with Dark Secrets of the Lusitania Doc crew

OK – here comes ‘The Sell’!! As the largest County in Ireland, Cork is unique in the range of photogenic, underused location in the Country; comprising 4 distinct geographical areas plus the second biggest City, which has it’s own wealth of preserved period as well as modern architectural features. Add to this newly improved motorway links to Dublin and a brand new International airport that can get you to & from central London in less than an hour & you have a very attractive destination! And there’s more….. Cork is blessed with a range of Towns, all within easy reach of the City, that are both beautiful and big enough to support a full sized crew, with enough beds, restaurants & support services nearby to make filming cost effective. They also possess a range of great natural & historical/architectural locations within a very small radius, meaning you don’t waste time & money moving the crew around. You always have the infrastructural back-up of the City behind you as well, so you can get most anything you need. Finally, having a dedicated Screen Commission in place to help with official permissions, location recces and sourcing all manner of facilities & production support locally makes life a lot easier and cheaper for Producers. A Producer can access these remotely via the portal website and then speak directly to an experienced production person (me!) anytime, which is really important in this fast-moving industry.

In fairness, thanks to the stated aims of both Councils, we can honestly say that we are a film friendly Region, and having that official goodwill on our side is invaluable, as all good Producers know how difficult & expensive it can be to film in a place where they are either not very welcome or people are fed up with film crews!
I could go on, but you get the idea!

What is your impression of the film industry in munster, and in particular in cork at present?

Niall with Paddy O'Shea & Declan Recks, Director at Studio 5108 Canon Masterclass

Niall with Paddy O’Shea & Declan Recks, Director at Studio 5108 Canon Masterclass

I think the industry is still very fragmented across Munster, and in many ways embryonic, but things are improving slowly. I honestly feel that Cork is taking the lead, however, and the evidence for that can be seen in both the amount & quality of work being produced here last year and this year, and the reaction of Industry leaders from Dublin who came down to the Film Festival and expressed their interest and surprise at how much was going on! The word is coming back that people are starting to talk about what’s going on in Cork on sets around Dublin, and that’s got to be a good thing!

I noticed a definite and immediate upturn in confidence and determination in the indigenous industry after the Film Festival and in the New Year – the phone started ringing on the 2nd January with people looking for meetings re developing projects and Dublin-based Location managers wanting to come down on recces. I’ve put a lot of work into the latter, and am glad to see that it’s starting to pay dividends. Creating an whole industry is always going to be a ‘slow burn’ as you build trust, awareness and confidence, and the last year’s work was all about doing just that to get to this point. Some people expect immediate, tangible results, but I’m afraid our industry is just not like that!

I have a real confidence that we are on the road to creating a viable industry here – what we need now is to create some proper Production Companies and get Producers on board to secure decent funding for productions. Once that happens, they can develop their slate of productions, raising their skill level, experience and reputation to get further work & expand the industry here.

Strangely, I think we’re fortunate in a way here, as opposed to traditional production centers like Dublin. The industry is changing massively, and budgets/advertising and production revenue is plummeting. That’s bad news for the big players and established companies, who have the weight of expensive Rents, rates, employees and ways of working which are becoming just too expensive in the face of fierce international competition.

As we don’t have all that, we are free to grasp the opportunities that the New Technologies and platforms offer us and can start producing material that is both creative, cost-effective and audience-centred, which is what the market wants these days. If I could say one thing to the industry here it would be ‘Go out & do it – you have nothing to lose!’

For further information or advice you can contact Niall at: info@corkscreencommission.com

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