That is the assessment of Richard Williams, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Screen, the man in charge of an organisation responsible for much of the increase in production that has characterised the region over the last decade. Backed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment through Invest NI, along with significant support from the European Regional Development Fund, NI Screen is the leading agency with a remit to develop, produce and fund television and feature films within Northern Ireland. Business is booming and the organisation is currently experiencing a significant level of success. ‘There are more aspects to the industry than there have ever been’ says Williams.
‘That doesn’t mean it’s an easy vocation or easy job area to inhabit. It’s not. It’s a very tough place to be’ he points out. ‘But with the large scale productions happening fairly steadily and there being a reasonable stream of television drama and features, along with money available through NI Screen for the development of scripts,’ he suggests that things are very much pointed in the right direction.
The continuing goal of course is to maximise Northern Ireland’s potential as a hub for a wide variety of output and it is significant that American companies are now opting for this corner of the UK — whose generous tax credits draw them across the Atlantic in the first place — over Eastern Europe and beyond. Universal Studios enjoyed first-hand experience of Northern Ireland, when it produced Your Highness there during 2009. These major players were sufficiently impressed to return, recently wrapping the upcoming epic Dracula Untold. Beyond location shoots, the filmmakers moved into the former C&C factory in Castlereagh. Now a huge soundstage, its industrial function has been converted from lemonade to popcorn.
According to Williams, however, the ongoing presence of HBO’s Game of Thrones has been truly instrumental in marking us out in the international arena. ‘Game of Thrones is the big thing… It’s the big economic driver’ he says. That the fantasy behemoth should base itself in Northern Ireland is a significant triumph. ‘It is perhaps the most talked-about show that exists. The fact that it is here gives us a tremendous bounce. We get that with every genre too. Even if you’re talking to an animation distributor, saying that Game of Thrones is made in Northern Ireland will make some kind of positive contribution to your credibility. We have momentum here.’
Likely to run for a few seasons yet, the HBO flagship forms one half of a two-pronged approach by NI Screen to establish large projects in the north. The hope is that another Hollywood studio-sized picture will be turned out alongside it with increasing regularity. Allied with this, the ‘stream of television’ referred to by Williams includes three acclaimed BBC series, Blandings, The Fall and Line of Duty. In a tribute to the efforts of all involved in securing such programming, the latter — which is partly funded by NI Screen — actually re-located the filming of its second series to Belfast. ‘We are very happy that the BBC is getting into the habit of basing two dramas per year, here.’ In Williams’s view these returning shows are ‘really driving the stability of the sector.’
To punctuate the calendar more regularly with the kind of content NI Screen appears determined to attract, there is an acknowledge requirement to upscale soundstages. ‘We need to grow the infrastructure a bit in order to aggressively chase other large scale stuff,’ Williams asserts. ‘I’m optimistic that, in the next couple of months, we’ll have that concluded.’
The eagerness to bring in these sizeable projects goes beyond simple prestige or the promotion of tourism. The professional disciplines essential to any production are honed each time a studio or network runs its latest release out of Northern Ireland. Those who have availed of these opportunities are already gaining a reputation as a highly skilled workforce.
As far as the interested government bodies are concerned, the boost to the economy is not inconsiderable but Williams is keen to stress that NI Screen has a commitment to fostering smaller grassroots initiatives. Blockbuster budgets are central to this intention. ‘They allow us the flexibility and the latitude to do other things. To support the development of indigenous stuff, which we really hope will come to fruition in the future. When you’ve got a bit of stability you can focus a bit more on independent films, which we’re very anxious to see.’
Shooting for Socrates, written by Marie Jones, a movie made in Belfast and based around the exploits of the Northern Ireland football team at the 1986 World Cup, is set for release in time for this summer’s sporting bonanza in Brazil. It represents the kind of relatively inexpensive feel good family entertainment into which NI Screen is willing to put its money. ‘You can see a logic in it’ says Williams of that investment. He would apply the same rationale to something as ‘deeply, deeply local’ as the Terri Hooley-themed Good Vibrations.
What makes Northern Ireland so attractive to those with the resources to set up shop in any place they so please? Fiscal considerations and incentives notwithstanding, Williams reckons it is our geography that sets us apart. The cost of shifting equipment, actors and crews from place to place can be a dauntingly expensive enterprise even for those with deep pockets. The variety of the northern landscape and the country’s compact size makes for a good mix. ‘If films have huge build demands and considerable rural location demands — and a lot of films require them — we will be very hard to beat. We’re not aware of anywhere that can come close to us on that. That is our unique selling point.’
An edited version of this article was first published here.