In 1910, director Sidney Olcott filmed a silent 12-minute romance in the wheat fields and stone cottages of Ireland's County Cork for the New York-based studio Kalem Co. Olcott's "The Lad From Old Ireland" — which played especially well to the growing number of Irish immigrants in the U.S. at the time — is one of the first known examples of an American studio shooting a movie in a foreign location.
More than a century later, thanks to generous tax breaks, picturesque locations and abundant English-speaking crews, Ireland is still a popular destination for American studios — the country's remote Skellig islands supplied the dramatic location for one of the most memorable scenes in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," and Lucasfilm confirmed recently that the Disney franchise will back filming in counties Kerry, Donegal and Cork for director Rian Johnson's "Episode VIII."
But the tiny country is also enjoying a boom among natively financed productions: Ireland collected more Oscar nominations this year than Paramount and Universal Studios combined and sent a record seven movies to the Sundance Film Festival. Not bad for a nation with a population smaller than the Greater Boston metro area.
"While we love having big films shooting here, it feels much more important to us that we grow an indigenous industry," said Ed Guiney, co-founder of Element Pictures, the Irish production company behind "Room," which received four Oscar nominations this year, including best picture, and won for actress Brie Larson's performance. "Seeing the Skelligs at the end of 'Star Wars' ... sometimes our politicians run to that rather than the local stuff. We can actually do this here ourselves. We don't need to run to the big shiny American things."
The boom in Irish filmmaking has come in large part because of the Irish Film Board, a government-funded entity that provided early backing for "Room" as well as the Oscar-nominated immigrant tale "Brooklyn," the musical "Sing Street," which opens April 15, and the dystopian satire "The Lobster," due in May.
During Ireland's recent economic downturn, the Irish Film Board saw its funding cut 40% from a height of $22.4 million in 2008 to $12.6 million in 2015. The agency has been trying to capitalize on this moment of success for the nation's cinema to have its financing restored to pre-recession levels.
"We're very proud of the fact that Irish film is at the forefront," said Irish Film Board Chief Executive James Hickey. "The Irish creative talent who are enjoying success now are people we have worked with over the years. Our funding has enabled them to proceed."
Hickey and members of the Irish film community are pushing to expand government funding on both cultural and economic grounds. According to the Irish Film Board, the industry, which also includes television and animation, employs more than 6,000 people, and generates more than $600 million, not including the tourism it drives. Ireland already has one of the more generous tax incentives for filming, studios can recoup 32% of their investment.
"We don't manufacture cars," said Dublin-born director Lenny Abrahamson, who earned one of the four Oscar nominations for "Room," an Ireland-Canada co-production. "Ireland's presence globally is through its culture, that's our strongest identifier. With really clever targeted support I think we could have a world-class content creation sector in Ireland."
Historically, the Irish film business has had to overcome financial and cultural challenges — with such a small domestic box office market, most producers have had to look abroad, for financing and for an audience. For generations, the moribund Irish economy forced people to leave to find opportunity. It was, after all, the American son of Irish immigrants, John Ford, who directed the movie still most identified with Ireland, 1952's "The Quiet Man."
In the late '80s and early '90s, "Crying Game" director Neil Jordan and "In the Name of the Father" director Jim Sheridan began to put native Irish cinema on the map and Ireland began to enjoy a period of rapid economic growth. More recently, Abrahamson, "Brooklyn" and "Intermission" director John Crowley, "Once" and "Sing Street" director John Carney, "Viva's" Paddy Breathnach and "The Secret of Kells" and "Song of the Sea" animator Tomm Moore have been part of a growing group of Irish filmmakers receiving international acclaim.
The Irish Film Board has helped finance the early work of many of these filmmakers, quietly propelling their careers for more than a decade, Guiney said. Often the dollar amounts are small relative to the final budgets — in the case of "Room," the board supplied $1.2 million of the movie's $13 million cost; a screenwriter developing a script can get a $13,000 loan. The funding enables writers, directors and producers to move projects forward as they find other financial partners.
"This is the fruit of that investment," Guiney said. "It's been very well spent over nearly 20 years now. They've helped to nurture filmmakers, and it takes a while for people to come through that with mature work."
Crowley received early production financing for "Intermission" from the Irish Film Board and came back to them for "Brooklyn," parts of which he shot in the tiny town of Inniscorthy, where the novel it's based on is set. So little had changed there since the 1950s, when the film takes place, that Crowley's crew just had to move a few satellite dishes out of their shots.
"We've all been making films for quite a while because it is possible to get the cornerstone for a budget from the film board," Crowley said. "What it seems to have encouraged is a number of younger filmmakers to find their own voice. It begat a kind of confidence. These aren't younger directors auditioning for studio films. These are people making their own films."
The next crop of movies coming with Irish government financing include "A Storm in the Stars," a Mary Shelley biopic starring Elle Fanning; "The Breadwinner," an animated film coming out of Moore's Carton Saloon with Angelina Jolie as an executive producer; Sheridan's latest "Secret Scripture," starring Rooney Mara; and Whit Stillman's "Love & Friendship," due in May.
In the last two years the Irish economy has begun a recovery from a deep recession that started in 2008. Though the film board saw a slight uptick in financing in 2016, it continues well below the country's pre-recession levels.
"The Irish government has treated the arts as an afterthought," Abrahamson said. "They love when we do well, but they haven't really taken it seriously. It's such an enormous opportunity for a country like Ireland. What has to happen is, we don't just need to return to pre-recession levels of funding, we need to have a much bigger vision than we've ever had."