Northern Ireland Screen

CEO Richard Williams and chairman Richard Hill. Click Play Audio for a podcast interview

Formerly known as the Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission, Northern Ireland Screen is the primary funding source for filmmakers and film educators of all types working in Northern Ireland today.

At a time when the film industry in Northern Ireland is experiencing the most productive and internationally successful period in its history, with films like Hunger and City of Ember garnering acclaim on a global stage, Northern Ireland Screen chief executive officer Richard Williams and chairman Richard Hill are in a unique position to examine the reasons for this success – and the role that Northern Ireland Screen might play in the years to come.

Closing The RingDuring a two week period in November 2008, the media spotlight shone directly on Belfast as both above films premiered in local cinemas. In the months previous, cinema legend Richard Attenborough filmed the Second World War feature drama Closing The Ring around Cave Hill, whilst Hollywood hotshot Heather Graham strutted her stuff on Botanic Avenue for Beg, Borrow, Steal.

New Northern Irish filmmaking talent also rose to the top. Production companies like Generator and Yellow Fever punched above their weight with horror flicks Freakdog and Battle of the Bone. Production crews and actors honed their skills on big budget Hollywood features as well as more modest local productions. And all the while the next generation of homegrown writers and directors continue to showcase their talents with the Digital Shorts season at Queen's Film Theatre.

The success stories have come thick and fast. But can we expect them to continue?

'I'm sitting here in the office looking at [a poster for] Middletown, from a script by Darragh Carville, directed by Brian Kurk and produced by Michael Casey,' explains Williams. 'A real important local project. And on the other wall I can see Hunger. Different proposition obviously. London-based director in Steve McQueen, but a project that's very important to Northern Ireland, and of great relevance. We need those projects...

‘Northern Ireland is a small place, but we still need a very mixed ecology, because film is transient. At the moment we’re in a really strong position, because sterling is cheap. But if that changes, we’re blown out of the water. If the exchange rate is not with us, we can’t have projects like City of Ember. So we need to have a mixed ecology. We need television drama projects, we need to build up our local producers, we need to build up digital content.’ 

Northern Ireland Screen's mission 'to promote Northern Ireland as a major production location, to celebrate Northern Ireland product, talent and culture... and to ensure that a range of learning opportunities are delivered' ensures that NIS has its corporate finger in a variety of flimmaking and new media pies.

With audiences flocking in their droves to more immediate Richard Williamsentertainment platforms that provide genre specific content and user-friendly functions, performing in the Web 2.0 environment is a new priority for NIS. The rebrand from NIFTC was more than just a name change. According to Hill, Northern Ireland Screen understand the need to evolve with the interests of their clients. 

'In a radically shifting broadcast environment, in five years time what is public broadcasting going to look like? Market shifting, digital switch over in Northern Ireland. All of that is moving very rapidly.

'How do we continue to support broadcasting and the delivery of that content? Those are the things that we have to be aware of and start thinking strategically about… so that we can position ourselves to assist those creative people who make [content] for the audiences who want to consume it.’

'To give you an example,' continues Williams. 'From the moment that the Irish Language Broadcast Fund was set up it was our ambition to have digital content projects within that. There’s a core 16 to 20-year old, fluent Irish speaking audience in Northern Ireland that, as far as I’m concerned, would be much better served with content that they get on their phone or is compatible with Bebo, and they haven’t got it yet.

'We’ve been asking for it for three years, and we’re really going to have to go out and seek it. I’m absolutely convinced that I’m right. But it’s new models, it’s new territory, and people aren’t automatically presenting ideas in the way they would for film or television.'

There is no doubt that Northern Ireland Screen provides much needed financial assistance to filmmakers of all types in Northern Ireland. In the years ahead, it will aid new media practitioners seeking to develop creative online content - whatever that may be. Yet there are still those who would criticise Northern Ireland Screen. It's all red tape and bureaucracy, many a filmmaker has groaned in the past. It's conservative. It's elitist.

Richard Hill‘We’re not a fortress,' states Hill. 'We’re open to conversation with people about ideas and opportunities. The education strand that we’re involved in is about helping the next generation of people who are going [to succeed] in the creative sector. We want to see the whole thing grow. Perhaps one of the frustrations is the fact that we’re limited in our resources. Invest NI give us a chunk of money, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.’ 

‘I think there a mix of issues at play,' adds Williams. 'I think one of the things that is deep in the DNA of Northern Ireland is that we’re not always very good at partnership. You really can’t develop anything in screen content without going into partnership. Certainly over the years we've had a number of talented people who we would have effectively turned away because they just wouldn’t engage in partnerships. 

'That’s an interesting challenge for us. If we’re really going to blossom, we’re going to have to get more of a comfortable interaction between people who are more market focused, more accepting of the realities of television, digital content and film and creative voices. We can’t green light anything. I think the biggest challenge for the arts and the creative industries here is how to build stronger linkages between all of them. We need to harness all the talent we’ve got.’

Northern Ireland Screen is funded by Invest Northern Ireland, the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure and the UK Film Council and are delegated by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to administer Lottery funding in Northern Ireland.

Click here to listen to the full podcast interview with Richard Williams and Richard Hill.

The next Digital Shorts short film showcase takes place at the QFT on Saturday, December 7 at 4.30pm.

Lee Henry