Artistic Licence column: Battle of the budgets

Artistic Licence: Battle of the film budgets
02:53, 5 May 2013 by Nadine O’Regan

Some months back, I had a rather doleful conversation with a young Irish film-maker who really should have been jubilant. His new film Earthbound had just been released. A sci-fi comedy, Earthbound was the product of several years’ hard work and had received a number of strong reviews. But still, Alan Brennan was despondent. The problem, he said, was that few of his mortgage-strapped, 30-something friends would go to see the film, and he didn’t feel it was something he could reasonably expect of them either.
“They get to see one film every three months,” he said. “That’s their big night out for them, when they hire a babysitter. They want to see something big-budget, something Hollywood – not a micro-budget film. And how could I ask that of them?”
In the current Irish cinematic climate, his concerns are valid. Several fine Irish films have been released in the last few months – Good Vibrations, Pilgrim Hill and Earthbound among them – but when we’re talking about home-produced fare, there’s always a silent caveat: even with the more lavish productions, there is little chance of big-budget-style glamour: Scarlett Johansson is not going to walk through the door in a catsuit. Robert Downey Jr will not be on hand to crack a joke. There will be no David Bowie cameo.
So, how much do good reviews even matter for Irish film-makers, when Irish audiences are horrified by the prospect of spending an hour or two watching cows in a field (Pilgrim Hill) or observing a shop owner complain about Belfast (Good Vibrations)? “Sure, if I wanted that I could have stayed at home,” goes the patter as you leave the cinema.
The problem isn’t limited to Irish cinema. Last week, renowned US director Steven Soderbergh took the opportunity of a speech at the San Francisco Film Festival to complain about the industry machine. He explained the juggernaut effect; the phenomenon whereby the likes of Iron Man 3 would command huge audiences, while, say, a small film like Earthbound would snatch just €374 during its second weekend on release.
“Unfortunately the most profitable movies for the studios are going to be the big movies, the home runs,” Soderbergh said. “How many $10 million movies make $140 million? Not many. How many $100 million movies make $320 million? A pretty good number. There’s this domino effect that happens. Bigger home video sales, bigger TV sales. You can see the forces that are draining in one direction in the business.”
It comes back to the idea of those two struggling parents in suburban Dublin, who have a mortgage, young children and who haven’t been to the cinema in months. No matter how good the reviews are, no matter how much they want to support their friends, the fact is: they shelled out 60 quid for a babysitter and they need to have a good night out guaranteed.
What can be done about this? In the parallel world of Irish theatre, interesting initiatives have been taken to encourage bums on seats. At the Abbey Theatre, Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly has opened itself up to wider audiences – selling tickets for a tenner a head from Mondays to Wednesdays. At the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, if you’re under 30, you can buy tickets to Digging For Fire for just ten quid.
Irish cinema may never win those mortgage-riddled parents. But Irish film distributors might attract students if they play their cards right – and for the sake of our Irish film-makers they have to try. Imagination, after all, shouldn’t be limited to simply what’s on the screen.
Nadine O’Regan is The Sunday Business Post’s Books and Arts editor.

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