Ireland invests in its artists

SUN JOURNAL

Movies: Despite budget woes that are raising taxes and cutting into programs, the finance minister says breaks for the nation's growing film industry will continue.

December 04, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUBLIN, Ireland - Cigarette tax, up 30 cents starting today, pushing the price above $6 a pack. Ireland's wealthiest people will pay about $2,000 more a year for welfare programs for the country's worst-off. Gasoline tax? That's increasing 7 cents per liter immediately. And to save the government money, no more retiring for public workers until they turn 65.

Ireland's finance minister, Charlie McGreevy, ticked off the tax increases and spending cuts one by one yesterday as he stood before lawmakers to outline the country's 2004 budget. The Parliament did not so much as gasp or groan at the financial measures, which were read aloud for nearly an hour in a dry, black-and-white recitation of programs and numbers.

But when it came time to talk about government support for the Irish film industry and its artists, McGreevy's words suddenly lighted the chamber like a burst of Technicolor and the soundtrack went from almost eerie silence to cheers and applause.

Despite tough budget times, McGreevy decided, Ireland will continue to provide its film industry with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks. The decision, which was not expected, not only is a boon to the movie producers who have made Ireland one of the top six film locations in the world - Saving Private Ryan was filmed here - but comes as welcome relief to the country's screenwriters, who had feared they would be forced abroad in the way of its famous scribes of past.

Somewhere, James Joyce must be smiling.

"I don't know why Ireland treated its writers and artists the way it did - like philistines," said Irish actor Stephen Rea, who came to the attention of American filmgoers in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game. "I think supporting the film industry in a way is realizing how to get the most out of our artists now and - maybe it's a stretch - but maybe it can be a way of making up for some past sins."

Font of culture

Ireland has long been a center of cultural power disproportionate to its size. Its reverence for the written word has produced more Nobel laureates than any other country, but people such as Joyce - not to mention Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw - were driven away from their homeland by intolerance and a general lack of appreciation, and they were embraced by Ireland only long after they fled.

So it looked, up until yesterday, for those involved in Ireland's newest and now largest creative industry. McGreevy had said only months ago that he would be ending the subsidy for the film industry. And in Ireland, the finance minister calls the shots on the budget, with no vote from Parliament.

But the film industry's neediness also became a sign of its strength. Actors such as Rea joined writers such as Roddy Doyle, whose film The Commitments became one of Ireland's biggest cultural exports of the 1990s, and directors such as Jordan and Jim Sheridan in warning they would have to go elsewhere for future films.

Doyle threatened that a film of his book, A Star Called Henry, set in revolutionary Dublin, would have to be shot in Prague, the Czech Republic, another of Europe's cinematic hot spots.

That did not sit well with the Irish, who have taken a great deal of pride in seeing their country on the big screen in a number of international films.

Among the movies that feature Ireland as a location, besides Saving Private Ryan, are Braveheart, Angela's Ashes, In the Name of the Father, In America and the forthcoming King Arthur.

"I think the applause was because we're still a very young industry, but once again creative Ireland has produced over its weight, and I think the Irish people recognize and appreciate that," said Tristan Lynch, a member of Screen Producers Ireland. "On a psychological level - I hate to be too hippie-ish - but for a country that has had such a troubled past, I think it's kind of healing for the people to see their stories told in the way that they are beginning to be told."

The number of feature films and television dramas made here per year has gone from an average of six in 1989-1992 to 21 in 2000 and 2001, thanks in no small part to a change in tax law in 1987 that allowed movie producers and a limited number of associated industries to write off their investments in film. Last year, that cost about $35 million in tax breaks, not an enormous amount of money but significant in a country of only 4 million people.

"Anytime one group is given a break, the money has to be found someplace else or programs have to be cut," said Veronica O'Shea, a spokeswoman for Ireland's Ministry of Finance. "The decision was made that the investment in the film industry is worth the outlay."

The exemption was a long time coming, compared with those given to other artists. Ireland has granted tax breaks to artists, composers and writers for about 30 years, which last year meant subsidies of about $45 million. They would not have been affected by the cuts to the film industry, but fears among artists were that they would be next.

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