Is It Time Dublin Had a Proper Film Studio?

Conor O’Carroll had two go-to sites that he would rent as film studios: the old Cuisine de France factory in Tallaght, and O’Brien Frozen Foods in Ballyfermot. But not anymore.

At his firm, O’Carroll Mulhern Services, they might get a call from an overseas producer or an Irish producer who would say they needed, perhaps, 100,000 square feet of studio space.

“So we’ll see if there’s anything lying idle,” says O’Carroll, a location manager and provider of production facilities based in Dublin.

But as construction has picked up, options for vacant and derelict sites for filming have fallen – and it’s made the shortage of film-studio space in Dublin even more acute.

Making Do

Ireland has three major movie studios outside of the city, but Dublin has little in the way of purpose-built spaces.

In Wicklow, Ashford Studios is currently occupied by the Vikings television series while Ardmore Studios is for sale, its future uncertain. (The other biggie is Troy Studios in Limerick.)

“The bottom-line is that there isn’t enough,” says Elaine Geraghty, CEO of Screen Producers Ireland.

“It’s fantastic that the big studio spaces we have are busy. I mean that is a great complaint. You wouldn’t be able to make Vikings in this country if it wasn’t for Ashford,” says Geraghty.

But the filming in Dublin tends to be more ad-hoc, with a lack of appropriate space available to both foreign and indigenous production companies, she says.

“I mean our sector, being the audio-visual sector, would have been a growth area laid out by the government in the action plan for jobs,” she says.

It also forms part of the Creative Ireland Programme 2017-2022, which is meant to put a spotlight on the audio-visual sector, she says. That includes film production, TV dramas, documentaries and animations. “It’s a no-brainer. There’s space needed,” says Geraghty.

As Geraghty sees it, there are two ways forward to deal with this: the industry must look at how it services the productions made in Ireland, and it needs to examine how it’s going to attract foreign production and investment.

Other Needs

For now, O’Carroll has turned the city’s deficit to his advantage, tracking down receivers for vacant or derelict sites and working out the details of leases from there.

But studios and production companies are quite strict about the kind of space they need, says O’Carroll. “What they’re looking for is disused, refrigerated cold space.”

Other vacant spaces aren’t that useful. “If it’s not a refrigerated cold store, it’s not insulated, it’s not light-proof,” he says.

Once you’ve met those requirements, you’re halfway there. “After that all you do is make sure it has electricity and power, phone and broadband,” he says.

It’s not studio space alone that big production companies are after, says O’Carroll. They also need office space and workshops and 3 or 4 acres of back lot in which to build the exterior set.

Chair of the Irish Film Board, Annie Doona, says that many production companies are going elsewhere at the moment.

“They go to Romania, they go abroad,” says Doona. “We know that Ireland and the UK, and the North of Ireland, is short of studio space.”

The future of Ardmore Studios is unclear as the site has been for sale since October 2016. Because Ashford is currently in use, and looks set to be until Vikings comes to a close, alternatives are needed, she says.

The Ringsend Proposal

A few months ago, Windmill Lane Studios founder James Morris came out with a proposal for a new film studio on the Poolbeg SDZ site in Ringsend.

But Dublin City Council officials, who are drawing up plans for the site, appear understandably wary of taking space away from housing.

At a council meeting in late December, City Planner John O’Hara told councillors that if the mooted Dublin Bay Studios were to go ahead, then fewer homes would be built on the site.

“It would reduce the housing,” said O’Hara. That’s because film-industry feedback has suggested that a film studio would need to be about 8 hectares, which is roughly half the area.

He suggested that a better place for a film studio might be the Pigeon House power-station site.

In his report to councillors following the public consultation, which ended on 18 March, Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan said that it was “permissible” that a purpose-built film studio be built on site but that it was not a priority.

Geraghty of Screen Producers Ireland still backs the film studio idea, though. “We’d be completely supportive,” she says.

Brexit is on the way and Ireland needs to be giving itself as many advantages as it can, she says. “Our members will talk about trying to make high-end TV in vacant spaces around the country. They’ve used ex-army barracks, pubs, hotels, concert halls, theatres.”

Doona, who also is the current president of Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), says it would be helpful for students, too.

In Nottingham, Doona was involved in the creation of hub in what she describes as “a pretty derelict area” that within three or four years had sprouted cafés, restaurants, shops and dozens of jobs.

“It’s not an either/or for me,” she says. “There are plenty of things that could be done around housing, around working to build little industries and retail in the city centre, but we could not have the size of [the Poolbeg site] in the middle of Dublin.”

O’Carroll says that he is sceptical about that grand plan, though. The cost of a purpose-built studio sits between €40 and €50 million, he says, so he questions whether it is the wisest investment for Ringsend.

But as appropriate vacant or derelict sites come off the market in Dublin, alternatives are needed, says O’Carroll.

“We are always going to be out-punched by developers,” he says. “Most producers are smart enough to know that these derelict sites aren’t going to be there forever, so they adapt.”

UPDATE: This article was corrected on Tuesday 9 May at 10.57. The proposal for a film studio is on the Poolbeg SDZ site, not specifically the Irish Glass Bottle Site. 

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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