John Michael McDonagh must be permitting himself a wry smile this week. The director of Calvary and The Guard found himself in trouble last year when he slated the patchy quality of Irish films in a heavily publicised interview. The Irish media landscape huffed and puffed. How dare he criticise Irish films? Didn’t he receive funding from the Irish Film Board? Didn’t the man win an Ifta? How could he bite the hand that feeds?
But now another blow has been dealt to Irish film. In the past few days, it has emerged that the Irish Film Board has withdrawn its funding for the Irish Film and Television Academy Awards (Iftas), the annual televised knees-up for the Irish film and small screen industry, where awards are handed out to the relatively tiny number of films that our country produces each year. The ceremony costs around €500,000 to produce, some of which comes from corporate sponsorship. The Irish Film Board’s chief executive, James Hickey, said that the organisation had not “committed to any particular set of arrangements with anybody” regarding the 2015 Ifta ceremony.
“As far as the Irish Film Board are concerned, award ceremonies are very important at promoting films,” Hickey said. “But award ceremonies have to promote things well. If award ceremonies don’t promote film well, it’s not good for the industry from our point of view.”
Anyone who’s been attuned to the state of film promotion in Ireland knows exactly what Hickey was talking about. When the Iftas were televised on RTE last year, they were widely and deservedly described as a shambles, with the mortified state broadcaster forced to scrap a repeat of the show after the backlash. Blighted by technical glitches and non-stop chatter from the audience, many of the actors delivering awards on stage looked visibly embarrassed, leaving co-host Laura Whitmore anxious to put the whole farrago firmly in the rear view mirror. “So what we’ve learned from tonight,” she tweeted afterwards, “Irish people like to drink and chat.”
The problem wasn’t just the poor broadcast, either: it was the difficult-to-reconcile content. No matter how much we scramble to widen the net through which we deem films or actors ‘Irish’ (sometimes it seems like we’ll claim anyone who’s set foot in the country), we don’t have enough quality Irish films to hand out awards to. Here are some of the movies that were nominated in 2014: Earthbound, The Last Days on Mars, The Missing Scarf. Seen them? Thought not. In international terms, we’re not a big deal, even if we kill ourselves trying to pretend otherwise. Michael Fassbender, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan are exhausted from having to ferry themselves over here just to get our star quotient up.
It’s telling that the Irish Film Board’s decision comes in the wake of RTE’s call not to broadcast the ceremony this year, a turn of events that has been branded as “disgraceful” by Ifta chief executive Áine Moriarty. Although Moriarty has announced that she is – at the time of writing – in discussions with the Irish Film Board about a brand new alternative Iftas format with a new broadcasting partner, it’s clear the entire existence of the awards has been thrown into doubt. And so it should be. Half a million euro is a lot of money. It shouldn’t be taken for granted that a patchy, badly-produced awards ceremony is the right way in which to drain the coffers.
What’s most impressive about last week’s events is the refreshing shot of honesty that’s been provided. As any self-help expert would tell you, the first step in fixing any problem is admitting that you have a problem in the first place. On that note, maybe it’s time for Moriarty to do what the blunt-speaking John Michael McDonagh would doubtless advise: admit that a giant mess has been made in her camp and that it’s time not to frantically go on the defensive, but to understand that better is not just expected, but required.