2019 proved to be another prosperous year for Northern Ireland Screen with many successes across film, TV drama, animation, games and factual-entertainment. Throughout 2019 production continued to boost the local economy and provide employment and training opportunities for hundreds of local people. Audiences at home and abroad enjoyed locally made content in their millions.
Reflecting on the past year Richard Williams, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Screen, said; “We look back on 2019 with a great sense of pride. In spring we had three of the biggest, most talked about TV dramas of the year broadcast; Derry Girls, Line of Duty and Game of Thrones. A variety of content we supported across film, animation and games has been selected for some of the most prestigious festivals and conferences across the world, picked up much coveted industry awards and set social media alight. We continued to invest in the next generation of screen industry talent by creating exciting opportunities for new entrants and giving young people practical hands-on work experience to help them make informed career choices. We already have much to look forward to in 2020 with new BBC drama Bloodlands starring James Nesbitt, a third series of Derry Girls and a sixth series of Line of Duty all shooting here. We couldn’t do all of this without the continued support given to the sector here by the Department for the Economy, Department for Communities and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and for that we are incredibly grateful.”
Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls set the year off to a great start by picking up the Best Comedy Programme Award at the Broadcast Awards, the Scripted Comedy Award at the Royal Television Society Awards and a nomination for Best Scripted Comedy at the BAFTAs. We hosted the premiere of the eagerly awaited second series in Derry in February before it returned to our screens in March. Series 2 launched with a consolidated 3.2m viewers for episode 1, making it Channel 4’s biggest UK comedy launch for 15 years. The Hollywood Reporter named Lisa as one of 2019’s ‘TV’s Global Elites’. Filming began in November on Lisa’s latest project, The Deceived a contemporary psychological thriller co-written with her husband Tobias Beer for Channel 5.
Innovative and gripping ITV crime drama Marcella filmed entirely on location in Belfast during spring and summer. Starring Emmy award winning Anna Friel in the title role, the series sees Marcella in Belfast as an undercover detective. Northern Ireland doubled for the Lake District for filming of The Windermere Children, a powerful drama based on an extraordinary true story, when in 1945 hundreds of child survivors of the concentration camps were taken to this idyllic region to recuperate. The film airs on BBC Two and ZDF in Germany in 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust.
The first project from Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney, My Left Nut, was commissioned by BBC Three and filmed in Belfast. Based on the award-winning stage play, My Left Nut is a coming of age comedy drama based on real life events after Michael found a swelling on his testicle when he was fifteen.
Line of Duty returned to BBC One in March for a fifth series. The first episode was, at the time, the year’s most watched programme in the UK with 13.2m viewers tuning in for the first episode. Much of murder mystery drama Dublin Murders also filmed in Northern Ireland, it hit our screens in October with the first episode watched by an average of 3.8m viewers in the UK.
Ahead of the final season of Game of Thrones we hosted a star-studded line up of cast and crew at the European premiere in ICC Belfast in April. Over its eight seasons, production here injected a staggering £251m into the local economy. The third episode, Battle of Winterfell, officially became the most tweeted-about TV episode of all time. The final episode, The Iron Throne, became the biggest series finale ever for Sky with a cumulative audience of 5.8m viewers and broke all HBO viewership records with 19.3m watching in the states. The series went on to secure 32 Emmy nominations, the most for any programme in a single season, beating a 25-year standing record set by NYPD Blue. In September the show picked up an impressive 12 Emmys; locals Ronan Hill (sound), Simon Kerr (sound), Carla Stronge (casting) and Pamela Smyth (make-up) were among the list of winners.
Three Children’s drama series filmed in Northern Ireland throughout 2019; new comedy Flatmates follows the lives of five teens as they take their first uncertain steps into adulthood whilst trying to fulfil the millennial dream; Almost Never returned for a second series and Secret Life of Boys returned for a fourth series. All three shows are now streaming on iPlayer.
2019 saw the first animated feature film to be made in Northern Ireland go into production. The Puffin Rock movie is being made by Derry-based Dog Ears along with its partners Cartoon Saloon and Penguin. This news came hot on the heels of Dog Ears’ Saturday Club launching on Hopster, the BAFTA-nominated preschool platform. Paper Owl’s Pablo, the animated series which tells the story of a five-year-old non-verbal autistic boy, picked up the Best Pre-School Programme Award at the Broadcast Awards. Series two of Pablo launched on CBeebies and RTEjr in October.
Northern Ireland’s games sector continues to grow and develop. In March we supported 8 companies to attend Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, the game industry’s premiere professional event. Microsoft invited Belfast-based studio Blackstaff Games to showcase its project Buildings Have Feelings Too! on its stand at GDC and Level 91 Entertainment’s game Inertial Drift was selected to be profiled by Dolby on its stand. Ahead of the conference, The Infinite Hotel from Holywood-based Italic Pig was selected as a winner of GDC Best in Play; a prestigious accolade presented to only eight companies who are in attendance. The Infinite Hotel was nominated for Best Immersive Game at the Raindance Film Festival in September. In November Italic Pig along with UK publishers The Irregular Corporation, and Northern Ireland Screen announced the production of Paleo Pines marking the largest video game production deal in Northern Ireland history. BillyGoat Entertainment’s Supermarket Shriek was a launch title for Microsoft’s new Game Pass. Microsoft showcased the game at numerous events across the globe throughout the year including a press launch event at E3 in Los Angeles with Keanu Reeves.
Local filmmakers continue to make their mark on the global industry with premieres at A-list film festivals, picking up awards and receiving critical and audience acclaim. The tenth film to come through our New Talent Focus Scheme, A Bump Along the Way, written by Tess McGowan, directed by Shelly Love and produced by Louise Gallagher won the Best First Irish Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh and had its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The comedy drama had a home premiere in Derry before being released in cinemas across Ireland by Element Distribution. The film was nominated for the Raindance Discovery Award at this year’s British Independent Film Awards. The latest New Talent Focus film, Black Medicine, written and directed by Colum Eastwood and produced by Janine Cobain recently wrapped after a three week shoot in Belfast.
Ordinary Love, the third feature from Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros d’Sa wowed audiences and critics following its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival. The Hollywood Reporter praising it as ‘as quiet and thoughtfully composed as a Dutch master’s painting’. The film stars Oscar nominees Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville and was written by celebrated Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty. Produced by Brian J. Falconer, it had its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival before being released in cinemas at the start of December with a US release planned for early 2020.
Chris Baugh and Brendan Mullin (Bad Day for the Cut) shot their second feature film Boys from County Hell, a darkly comic horror film about a trio of cash strapped workmen, led by a conflicted father and son team, who undertake a job in a forbidding and isolated location. Production got underway in November on Here Before, the feature debut of acclaimed Belfast writer and director Stacey Gregg. The film stars BAFTA-nominated actor Andrea Riseborough (Birdman, Battle of the Sexes) alongside Jonjo O’Neill (The Fall, Fortitude), Martin McCann (Calibre, 71) and Eileen O’Higgins (Brooklyn).
Other independent films that shot this year include Pixie starring Alec Baldwin, Olivia Cooke and Ben Hardy; and Nowhere Special from Uberto Pasolini (Still Life, The Full Monty) starring James Norton. The Last Right which filmed partly on location on Rathlin Island opened in cinemas in December.
Our documentary makers continue to produce gripping films telling important stories of not just local, but global interest. Chris Kelly was nominated in the Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer category at the BAFTAS for his feature documentary, A Cambodian Spring. Fine Point Films’ Gaza had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival and has recently been announced as Ireland’s entry to the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category. The inaugural Docs Ireland, a new, industry-focused All-Ireland Documentary Film Festival took place in June.
DoubleBand Films’ Lost Lives had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. A major cinematic and timely film inspired by the book of the same name, which records every single death and its circumstances since the beginning of the Troubles. The film was released in cinemas across the entire UK and Ireland in October for one night only. Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Matters, also from DoubleBand, aired on BBC Two in December to much critical acclaim.
The factual entertainment sector continued to grow in 2019. Stellify Media’s all action comedy game show, Flinch launched on Netflix. A joint bid from independent producers Hat Trick and Hindsight won the competitive tender to produce Mastermind and Celebrity Mastermind. The bid was supported by Northern Ireland Screen and meant the programme was based, filmed and edited here in Northern Ireland. Rare TV’s Mountain Vets aired on BBC Two, the 6-part series followed vets in the Mourne Mountains where animals outnumber people ten to one!
As part of Docs Ireland our Digital Film Archive team presented Broadcasting History: An Evening with the Archives, an event in which audience members could experience Northern Ireland as it was 50 years ago, through recently unearthed TV footage and in conversation with some of the key players in broadcasting at the time. In October UTV turned 60 and, to mark this milestone birthday, interviews with a group of former and current staff members were released on the Digital Film Archive. Staff shared their memories of working at the station, provided insights into the programmes that UTV produced, and reminisced about what made the station so special.
In February Northern Ireland Screen’s Irish Language Broadcast Fund (ILBF) brought TG4’s Gradam Ceoil back to Belfast for a second consecutive year. Known as the Oscars of traditional music, the crème de la crème of Irish music took to the stage at the ICC Belfast for a live broadcast on TG4. Paddy Barnes went 12 rounds with the Irish language when he took up the challenge of learning Irish in Fir Fáinne. In Croí Uladh le John Toal John travelled the highways and byways of Ulster, getting better acquainted with the people and uncovering their stories that make them true Ulster natives. Documentary Lomax in Éirinn won the Spirit of the Festival award at this year’s Celtic Media Festival and picked up the Television Programme of the Year Award at the Oireachtas Communication Awards.
Northern Ireland Screen’s Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund (USBF) continued to support a range of content including Burns by the Lagan, a musical celebration of the genius of Robert Burns set against the backdrop of the world-famous staircase in Titanic Belfast. Lifelong golf fan Gerry Kelly explored the history of golf in Ulster, visiting clubs like Royal Belfast, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush as well as the town of St Andrews in Scotland in Links to the Past: Pioneers of Ulster Golf. The Band delved into the world of marching bands – a strong part of the Ulster-Scots tradition – as never seen before. The first programme to be funded by both the Irish Language and Ulster-Scots Broadcast Funds, Sam Henry – Saol’s Saothar / Songs of the People, aired on both TG4 and BBC NI.
At the beginning of the year, with support from the Department for Communities and in partnership with Into Film, we launched ScreenWorks. ScreenWorks helps young people aged 16-19 learn more about careers in the screen industries through hands-on work experience with some of the leading experts working across film, TV, animation and games. The initial pilot aimed to provide 150 young people with placements but by September demand was so high that the scheme was extended to give 450 young people vital work experience in 30 different disciplines. Belfast Harbour supported the establishment of a Production Design and Film Construction Academy which is being delivered by Nerve Belfast. The Academy offers training programmes on the key craft and design and technical skills required in the art and construction departments of film and TV production.
Skills development and training remains key to the growth of the screen industries in Northern Ireland. Throughout 2019 we supported 205 individuals through various initiatives. We enabled 86 local crew members to step up to a higher grade across their work on film, TV, animation, games and factual content. We employed 45 trainees in craft and technical, production, post-production, animation and gaming roles. We placed 6 undergraduates in gaming roles and 18 graduates in animation and gaming companies. Twelve trainees who took part in various Irish Language Broadcast Fund training schemes graduated in September and 2 trainees are currently on the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund Trainee Scheme. In addition to this, 51 bursaries were awarded to local people working in the industry for continuous professional development.