Northern Ireland Screen 2020 year in review
Date Posted: December 21, 2020
2020 proved to be a very different year for Northern Ireland Screen. Production got underway at the start of the year as usual and continued to boost the local economy and provide employment and training opportunities for hundreds of local people. However, when the pandemic struck in March we found ourselves in an extremely challenging period. As we now learn to work safely alongside Covid-19 and in line with the new regulations it is a good time to reflect and look back on the successes that we did enjoy over the past twelve months.
Richard Williams, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Screen, commented; “2020 was a year of staggering resilience within the screen industry. As the year draws to a close many projects including New Regency’s The Northman and Jed Mecurio’s Line of Duty have finally wrapped. That all of these projects will reach audiences next year is down to hard work, discipline and determination on the part of the teams behind them. The working environment for screen production is unrecognisable from the pre-Covid-19 era but everyone’s willingness to embrace the difficulties, limitations and challenges of working with Covid-19 has meant that the sector has come through 2020 strongly and is well placed to grow again in 2021 and beyond. We already know next year will get off to a great start with Paramount Pictures having leased Titanic Studios as they prepare to shoot a new feature film, Dungeons and Dragons, here.
“While delivery of content was heavily delayed in 2020, the lockdown has reconfirmed the global appetite for good content and with new content in short supply it was enjoyable to see The Fall reach the top of the ratings on Netflix again and Line of Duty attract a whole new audience to its 5 season boxset on the iPlayer. It was also great to see Artemis Fowl launch to millions of Disney Plus subscribers around the world. Northern Ireland Screen is very grateful for the strong and continuing support that it has received from the Department for the Economy and the Department for Communities during this unprecedented period.”
The year got off to a good start with Bloodlands, a major new crime drama for BBC starring James Nesbitt filming in and around Belfast and Strangford. When a car containing a possible suicide note is pulled out of Strangford Lough, Northern Irish police detective Tom Brannick (Nesbitt) quickly connects it to an infamous cold case with enormous personal significance. Bloodlands follows his hunt for the legendary assassin known as “Goliath”, an explosive cat-and-mouse game where the stakes have never been higher. Bloodlands finished filming just days before lockdown began in March.
Sci-fi movie Zone 414 starring Guy Pearce (Memento) also filmed in Belfast at the beginning of the year. Set in the near future, Zone 414 is a colony of a state-of-the-art humanoid robots created by Marlon Veidt, an obsessive business tycoon (Travis Fimmel). When his rebellious daughter goes missing, he hires the rugged private investigator, David Carmichael (Guy Pearce) to bring her home. David, teams up with Jane (Matilda Lutz), a highly advanced and self-aware A.I., to track down the missing daughter. Moving through the dangerous iron jungle, they rapidly piece together the mystery, but uncover a crime that leads them to question the origins of Zone 414 and the true purpose behind the “City of Robots”.
In February cameras rolled on Stranger with a Camera, the debut feature written and directed by Belfast-born filmmaker and artist Oorlagh George. Oorlagh previously won an Oscar for producing short film The Shore, alongside her father, Terry George. Filming took place over five weeks in the Co. Down coastal village of Killough, framed by the dramatic Mourne Mountains. The story centres around a troubled American teenager stranded in a Northern Ireland village after her father is arrested for a 17-year-old murder tied to the IRA. Compelled by her father’s secrecy, she teams up with a delinquent cousin to pry their family secrets from the cold dead hands of the past.
When the first lockdown of the year was introduced its impact was felt immediately with Robert Eggers’ feature film The Northman, the sixth series of TV hit Line of Duty, Channel 4’s Frank of Ireland, BBC quiz show Mastermind and many other projects having to suspend production. Many screen industry workers turned their hands to making PPE, sewing scrubs and driving supplies for the NHS. Others helped the elderly and worked with charities. Thankfully when production got back up and running all of the aforementioned projects were able to complete their shoots and have now successfully wrapped. Games and animation projects were able to proceed more normally.
Throughout the lockdown period more funds were made available to allow independent production companies to spend this time developing ideas for new content. The local sector rose to the challenge with new shows such as Stellify Media’s Celebrity Snoop Dogs getting commissioned by Channel 4. Holywood-based Paper Owl, creators of Cbeebies pre-school animation Pablo about a little boy with Autism, produced a ‘House Time Special’ episode where Pablo shared his thoughts about the new and difficult things that he has not had to deal with before. Jam Media’s Jessy and Nessy, a new preschool series about a young girl with magical spectacles, arrived on Amazon just as many parents and carers tried to juggle home life and work life. Thanks to funding from our Irish Language Broadcast Fund Newry-based Big Mountain Productions produced Daniel sa Bhaile bringing the nation into the Donegal home of one of our national treasures, Daniel O’Donnell, proving to be the perfect respite for the times we found ourselves in.
With cinemas across the world closed Disney brought the magnificent north coast into the homes of its millions of subscribers when Artemis Fowl launched on Disney Plus in June. In August Lisa McGee’s The Deceived aired on Channel 5 and drew in 2m viewers on its launch night, making it the channel’s highest rating launch for a drama commission ever.
Amidst the uncertainty there was some incredible news for the games sector here with the announcement that Hypixel Studios, the videogame developer behind upcoming title Hytale, will establish its headquarters in Derry~Londonderry as part of its acquisition by US-based developer and publisher Riot Games. Hytale has already received a monumental reception from the gaming community. It has amassed over 2.5 million sign-ups for its beta testing program, and its debut trailer has received millions of views on YouTube.
Films made in Northern Ireland continued to be screened and celebrated at film festivals around the world, albeit virtually. Wildfire, the debut feature from Newry-native Cathy Brady starring the late Nika McGuigan, screened at Toronto International Film Festival and London Film Festival. Cathy also won a prestigious £50,000 bursary at the London Film Festival for her work. Boys From County Hell from Tyrone men Chris Baugh and Brendan Mullin was due to have its world premiere at the Tribeca film festival but when it was cancelled it screened at Sitges Film Festival and subsequently Shudder, AMC Networks’ premium streaming service for horror, thriller and the supernatural, acquired all rights in North America to the film.
Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, shone a spotlight on documentaries made in Northern Ireland with DoubleBand Films’ Lost Lives, Fine Point Films’ The Dakota Entrapment Tapes and Ross McClean’s Hydebank screening virtually for Ontario audiences to enjoy.
Nowhere Special was selected for Venice Film Festival, one of only a handful of festivals to happen psychically this year. Five year old Daniel Lamont from Ballymena joined his co-star James Norton on the red carpet for the premiere in September.
Belfast Film Festival, Docs Ireland, Cinemagic and Foyle Film Festival kept audiences closer to home entertained with a great variety of content streaming online.
At a virtual star-studded ceremony Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros d’Sa’s Ordinary Love won Best Film 2020 at the IFTA Awards, which was awarded by legendary Hollywood director Martin Scorsese. Local talent was also celebrated online at the annual Royal Television Society Northern Ireland Awards, and in the absence of a physical festival this year Belfast Media Festival hosted a special ‘in conversation’ event with Sir Kenneth Branagh. Branagh’s latest project Belfast also filmed partly in Northern Ireland this year.
During lockdown we saw an increase in the number of people engaging with our Digital Film Archive, constantly updated and expanding, the archive contains hundreds of hours of moving image titles, spanning from 1897 to the present day. Traffic to digitalfilmarchive.net was up by 80% when compared to the same period in 2019.
Joe Mahon returned to our screens in September with Lough Foyle, a 10-part beautiful travelogue series featuring the history, natural environment and cultural heritage of the Foyle catchment area, with particular emphasis on Ulster-Scots elements of the hinterland.
During the ongoing Covid-19 situation, the physical ScreenWorks work experience programmes for young people were not possible. To ensure that the programme can continue to engage with young people all over Northern Ireland, Into Film developed ScreenWorks Online which continues to provide an exciting opportunity for young people aged 14-19 to learn about the wide range of careers within Northern Ireland’s screen industries. Each week, participants are invited to watch a video online created by local industry professionals in which they talk about their job role, their career trajectory and answer any questions.
To end the year we have Sol – an inspiring film about a little boy’s journey through grief – premiering in the UK and Republic of Ireland on the darkest night of the year, the Winter Solstice – Monday 21st December. Sol aims to bring light and comfort to families with young children as the darkest year in modern times draws to a close. Recognising the need nationwide for such a topical film, multiple TV broadcasters have come together to premiere Sol across seven platforms on the same day. Sol will air on TG4 (in Irish), S4C (in Welsh) and BBC ALBA (in Scottish Gaelic) at 6:30pm; then on CiTV (with English subtitles) at 7:30pm; and will also be available on iTV Hub, All 4 and My5 (with English subtitles) from 7:30pm. Sol was produced during lockdown by Holywood-based Paper Owl Films and was funded by our Irish Language Broadcast Fund and Screen Fund. Emmy award-winning Irish actor, Fionnuala Flanagan voices Sol’s grandmother alongside Myra Zepf (author and winner of Ireland’s Children’s Book of the Year prize) who voices Sol’s mother. Sol himself is voiced by 12 year old Zana Akkoç. The film’s song has been recorded by Moya Brennan, member of Celtic folk band, Clannad.