Is the Game over for Northern Ireland’s film industry?

For millions of fans the Game is almost up – the Game of Thrones that is.  HBO has announced that the programme will end after Series Eight in 2018 – Series Seven is currently being filmed in Northern Ireland and will air next year.

Northern Ireland has hit the screens for all the right reasons with Game of Thrones.  It has shown our little country’s beauty worldwide, from the Dark Hedges, to Ballintoy Harbour, to Binevanagh mountain.  One result has been a flood of tourists keen to visit the sites of the filming.

The Northern Ireland economy has benefited from Game of Thrones to the tune of £146m according to Northern Ireland Screen.  That financial boost is just the direct spend by the film production company and does not include the significant indirect spending boost to our economy.  Some 900 full time and 5,700 part time jobs have been created from Game of Thrones, reports NI Screen.

But can our nascent film industry survive the loss of Game of Thrones?  Well despite the statement from HBO last weekend that Game of Thrones will end in two years, that may not be the end of the story.  There is widespread speculation that there will be at least one spin-off series, which is also likely to be filmed in Northern Ireland, possibly based on the Dunk & Egg novels by Game of Thrones’ author George R R Martin.

“There is no doubt we will all miss Game of Thrones filming in Northern Ireland,” concedes Richard Williams, CEO of Northern Ireland Screen.  “Many of us for many different reasons.  But Northern Ireland Screen has always taken a pragmatic point of view and we were always aware that this day would come.

“We have to come at this from the standpoint that the impact from Game of Thrones has been nothing but positive for Northern Ireland.  The economic return alone is astounding with the show bringing around £146m to the Northern Ireland economy in the last six seasons, with another two seasons still to come.

“This show is of such vast size and scale that it has fostered an unprecedented development of local skills, with crew members advancing up the career ladder and trainees being taken on as permanent crew on the production. The show has also encouraged further investment in local production infrastructure where we have seen the start of construction of the new Belfast Harbour Studios.  And moreover, Game of Thrones filming in Northern Ireland has fuelled the confidence of the global industry of Northern Ireland’s capabilities as a world-class production hub.

“In terms of world domination of one show and its language and composition becoming part of the Zeitgeist, it will probably never be matched.  But I am confident that the legacy from Game of Thrones will be felt in Northern Ireland for a long time to come.”

Northern Ireland’s film industry is already about much more than Game of Thrones and The Fall.  Dracula Untold and High-Rise are recent cinema releases shot here, while Line of Duty became an unexpected hit for BBC NI.

Plans to further expand Northern Ireland’s film sector are well advanced.  As well as location shooting across much of the north coast region of Northern Ireland, Game of Thrones was filmed in Belfast’s Titanic Studios.  These are substantial, well-equipped and in high demand. The Belfast Harbour Studios will add substantial capacity to the sector and are scheduled to open before the end of this year.  They are being constructed at the Giant’s Park on the North Foreshore – as part of what is being called a ‘Cleantech Hub’ for high technology businesses.  A spokeswoman for the studios indicates it is confident about its future, saying it has “had significant interest and numerous visits in recent months”.  There are other studio and filming facilities in Northern Ireland, including the Linen Mill Studios in the Bann valley in Co Down.

The Republic has for many years been a major centre for international film production.  Dublin’s Ardmore Studios has just filed its latest accounts, showing strong profits and high demand for its services.   A report three years ago from consultancy firm PwC suggested the need for more studios across Britain and Ireland, with existing capacity unable to meet demand.

One major question now, though, is what impact Brexit will have on that demand, particularly in Northern Ireland.  The lower cost of sterling following the Brexit vote should make Northern Ireland more competitive, but film production schedules often have long lead times and fears of exchange rate volatility around the value of sterling could be a risk too far for some production companies.

PwC’s chief economist in Northern Ireland Esmond Birnie says it is unclear whether the Brexit effect will be positive or negative for studios here.  One of his fears is that economic damage from Brexit could lead to a fall in various types of consumer demand, including for cinema going.

The fall in sterling’s value against the dollar and the euro does certainly make film production in the UK more competitive than it was before the referendum, agrees Birnie.  But he is not convinced that a fall of 10% or so in sterling’s value will be enough to change film production company’s location decisions.  It is also unclear whether the fall in value is long term.

“So we will be more cost competitive, which has been one of the big selling points for Northern Ireland, because of labour costs and other production costs, on which we offer a very good package,” says Birnie.  “Exchange rate movement will help that, but I don’t know if that is big enough or will be sustained long enough to have much effect.”

The big impact, Birnie suggests, could be from the easing of rules on the promotion of the sector.  Once the UK leaves the EU, Northern Ireland will be free to offer larger financial incentives – grants and tax reliefs – to encourage international film production companies to make films here.  But as yet we have simply no idea whether there will be money free to do this in the post-Brexit financial environment.

Northern Ireland Screen says that its funding comes from the Executive, not from the EU, so it is “business as usual” after the referendum result.  In reality, though, nothing will be business as usual post-Brexit.  But it is much too early to say which impacts from Brexit will be positive and which negative.  The signs, though, are that our film industry is well placed to expand – even after exiting both the EU and Game of Thrones.


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