If You Build It, They Will Come

International interest might not be the dream ticket, but Michael Kelly sees a future for film in NI

Deborah Meaden is before me, her eyebrows arched like vulture's wings, her cold eyes like sniper's, unemotional and sure. Theo Paphitis and Peter Jones stare ahead, preparing to release a volley of barbed observations designed to demolish dreams and shatter all hope. Sweat dripping from my forehead, I gulp nervously. My hand quivers. I grab the remote and change the channel.

Just watching Dragons' Den is enough to reduce me to a babbling wuss, but for film producer Michael Kelly such a trial is an all-too-familiar experience. In September, Kelly was selected by NI Screen to attend a prestigious New Producers Film Finance training course in London.

'I was a nervous wreck,' he admits. 'I had to deliver my pitch before a  panel of 5 or 6 judges and must've lost two stone in sweat.'

Stressful it may have been, but it was also a valuable learning experience for the young producer. 'I learned that investors are just ordinary people - ordinary people with a lot of money,' he jokes. 'I made sure I went in well prepared and that I had a great pitch. Thankfully they responded well.'

As producer for Belfast's Geronimo Pictures, Kelly has a number of features ready to go into production in 2008. Red Mist, a supernatural thriller, will be directed by Peter Hewitt (Sliding Doors) with a cast including Alex Windham and Kerry Condon, who both starred in the powerful HBO drama Rome. For someone who just 4 years ago had virtually no experience in film or television, Kelly has come a long way.

'It's been quite a journey,' he agrees. 'I started out with ambitions of becoming a screenwriter and joined a Belfast writer's group called Screenwriters Ink, so I could hone my skills. We began making short films so that we could get a feel for what was involved. I quickly found my real niche was as a producer.'

With his screenplays abandoned to gather dust, Kelly learned his chosen trade by producing the group's first seven short films. The fledgling producer continued with work on a number of award-winning shorts, and in 2004 teamed up with fellow producer John Cairns (also of Screenwriters Ink), founding Geronimo Pictures.

Funding is at crisis levels across all of NI's arts, and film-makers are no better off. However, after a summer which has seen Hollywood stars like Heather Graham, Tim Robbins and Mischa Barton flock to Belfast to film their latest features - not to mention an injection of some £12m into the NIFTC coffers courtesy of HM government - surely this is the beginning of a golden age for the burgeoning film industry?

Michael Kelly strongly disagrees.

'You get companies coming into Northern Ireland and although they give great opportunities to local crew and cast, they clear off after six months and there's nothing left in their wake.'

Kelly finds it unacceptable that actors, directors and cinematographers are often relegated to minor positions in visiting Hollywood features. To redress the balance, Geronimo Pictures have joined forces with Dark North Productions. Formed by producers Simon Bosanquet (Ripley's Game) and Mark Huffam (Saving Private Ryan, The Hours) Dark North are powerful allies for Geronimo.

'We first met Mark Huffam when we went out to Cannes,' recalls Kelly. 'We're glad to have this chance now to work with him and Simon, and thrilled that they share our desire to build a sustainable film industry here.

'With the features we're producing in 2008 we hope to provide cast and crew with the opportunity to work alongside highly experienced people. For example, our director of photography on Red Mist is Angus Mitchell, who is well established within the local scene. He has done sterling work on adverts and shorts, but Red Mist will be his opportunity to show what he can do on a internationally released feature.'

Mitchell is not an isolated case. Geronimo and Dark North plan to bring those who work in film and television in NI into contact with experienced technicians across the board. It's an important, ambitious project. 'This is the only way we can help to build a sustainable film industry in Northern Ireland,' Kelly insists.

There's no avoiding being caught up by Kelly's passion for local film-makers. Half an hour chatting with Kelly and it's easy to understand how he has come so far in just four years. If hunger for success, commitment to local talent and belief in the power of the medium are enough to guarantee rewards in the film industry, then perhaps the future for NI cinema is bright.