Declan Gibbons

Manager, Galway Film Centre

Declan Gibbons – Manager, Galway Film Centre

Declan is Manager of Galway Film Centre, having previously worked with the Galway Arts Festival, Macnas and Druid. The Galway Film Centre led Galway's successful bid for the Unesco City of Film designation in 2014.

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Tell us about your background

I grew up on a farm in North Donegal, and I came to Galway in 1980. All I ever wanted to do was play the guitar, so I came to Galway to do a degree because I reckoned that would give me time to play music. I ended up doing English and Philosophy, then I decided to do a Masters in Philosophy, for no other reason than I loved being in Galway and wanted to stay here. At the time, Mary Coughlan was just starting off in Galway and she needed a guitar player. A mutual friend, Gerard Coffey, also a guitar player, asked me if I’d come and play with Mary, so the three of us started playing gigs around Galway. We were on the Late Late Show and various other programmes, and we toured and we played gigs all over. Then Mary moved to Dublin and I stayed in Galway, finished my thesis, went to Dublin for a couple of years; I was teaching guitar up there, and then I decided in 1988 to move back to Galway. I'm very good friends with John Crumlish; he and I wanted to be in a band, so we decided we'd spend the summer in Galway playing music and set up a band, the Sleepwalkers - a pop rock band influenced by the Smiths. It was good fun; we didn't make a penny, but we were big in Galway. The Stunning were just starting up, Macnas was coming on, The Arts Festival was beginning to buzz, the Druid was was building its reputation, so there was a strong arts scene in Galway. It was a good time to be young, a good time to be in Galway.

Then Pearse Doherty, who is the bass player with the Saw Doctors, invited us down to Macnas for rehearsal. I saw this girl across the rehearsal room and said, 'Well, that was a good reason to join Macnas', so I got talking to her and we're married now 25 years. Her name is Francis Burke and she was the box office manager for the Arts Festival at the time. She got me a job there for the summer and it was terrific, being right in the heart of the festival. It was the era when you could buy a festival ticket and you could binge on shows for two weeks, night and day, they party all night. A couple of years later, Macnas needed a financial controller. I had no experience, but I had worked in the box office and had some capacity for numbers, so I did that for two years and then Pádraig Breathnach left and I took over as general manager. I ran Macnas for the next nine years. It harnessed a lot of energy and creativity of people of a certain moment in time. The enjoyable thing for me is that I was the manager, but I also played music in it. We toured Ireland and internationally; that was probably one of the best times of my life. You really felt you were part of something.

I left in 2003 and took some time out; I wanted to play guitar and write songs. So I spent a year doing that. It was great, but I wasn't making any money off it. Now I have a little recording studio at home and that's my sanctuary, that's where I go for peace of mind.

Around then, a job came up in Druid. Fergal McGrath had just left and they were looking for a managing director, so I took over. I spent spent two years there and that was a fairly intense working experience, to say the least. Druid were very busy; we went to Japan, and on a North American tour. There was an awful lot happening and they were also involved in developing the refurbishment of the theatre. That was the year the job came up for a manager for the Film Centre. I was always a huge fan of film, along with music, and I'm very passionate about films, so I've been there since 2008.

What exactly does the Film Centre do?

Essentially, we're a training and support organisation. The audio-visual sector in Galway is the second biggest outside of Dublin; there's about 600 people working in the industry here. We have a pool of equipment and resources for our members, so if you're interested in making a film, you can hire equipment from us at non-commercial rates and you can make your film. We do training at two levels - one is for people who have no experience and if you want to learn to use a camera or to edit, we run courses to help you do that. We also do high-end professional training. Essentially, we do a needs analysis of what the sector needs and fill that need. We'll identify training needs in certain areas, we'll then work with Screen Training Ireland to get the best training possible, bringing in people nationally and internationally to Galway to run seminars, events, training sessions and workshops around specific areas. Training is at the core of what we do. We've been able to attract quite a few people from high end television, like Vince Gilligan from Breaking Bad, we had Hans Rosenfeldt, who wrote The Bridge, and Bryan Cogman from the Game of Thrones. With Vince Gilligan, he broke down certain episodes of Breaking Bad and showed how it was constructed. With some of the writers that we bring in, we offer one-to-one-sessions, where an experienced writer will read work you have in development and give you feedback on it.

One of the other things we do is give technical support to the course at GMIT. We designed the course for GMIT back in the late 90s. It started off as a one-year course and it's now a three year level 8 honours degree course.

How has the Galway film industry benefitted from such a resource?

When the Film Centre was founded in 1989, there was no TG4, there was no Irish Film Board. Telegael was just starting and it had two, maybe three employees. So there was no infrastructure - there was no industry here at all. If you look back between 1989 and 2016, you can see the key programmes and training initiatives that happened, some of which were initiated by the Film Centre and some by Údarás na Gaeltachta, who have invested quite a lot in the sector and you can see the fruits of those training initiatives; you can see the people who came through the class of '96. The industry has very much grown from the ground up. One of the other key things was Roger Corman came here in 1995 and set up Concorde. He needed people to work in his films, so a lot of people who are now running production companies in Galway got their start there. As part of that, there were training initiatives that helped those people upskill, people like Pierce Boyce from Abu Media; their show Klondike was in the Fleadh last year and it's coming back for a second season. He would have gone through Roger Corman. John Brady, who's now setting up a new film studio in Galway and Celine Curtin, who's the head of the Film and Documentary course in GMIT - they came through Corman.

What is it you enjoy about working in the film industry

Being involved in training is very satisfying. If you bring in good trainers, you give people an opportunity and you see them grow and blossom and get something made and get something done - that's a great thing. We're involved in a network of organisations like ourselves called Screen Talent Europe, there's 16 organisations from around Europe that are helping young producers to get a foothold in the industry, because it's a really hard industry to get into. Everyone wants to be an actor or director or whatever and there aren't enough people that want to be producers. It's the hardest job in the industry. A lot of producers find the project - they find the writer, they find the idea, they'll hire the director, hire the creative people, and develop it. There aren't enough people like that. Producers are also risk takers - it's a very precarious business; you have to convince people to give you money to do something that you don't know is going to work. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't work. So there's no such thing as a safe bet. You need people who are risk-takers and entrepreneurial, but are also creative. It's our job to go off and get money to help people develop their idea or to realise their idea and that's very satisfying and that keeps me going.

With President Michael D. Higgins,
With President Michael D. Higgins, at Galway Film Centre, 2015 Photo: Andrew Downes

Where do you see the film scene in Galway right now?

I think it's at a good level, but it needs to now take a jump. What you're hoping for is a number of things to fall together and land, and for something significant to happen. In 2014, we became UNESCO City of Film, and the Galway Film Centre led the bid. We're now part of a network of 116 cities internationally that are all interested in the same thing, which is taking creativity and using it as the driving force behind the economy, to see how it can grow the economy and benefit the city. We have shown over the last 30 years or so that the industry has grown; it grew very quickly, but it's reached a point now and there's an opportunity for it to go to the next level. In the industry, there's more work in television than there is in film. There's lots of work in high-end television like Game of Thrones that come back for multiple seasons - the advantage of that being is that you've got continuity of work. The hardest thing to do is to retain people here in Galway, because while there's a certain amount of work here, there's quite a lot of very skilled people in the industry from Galway who are now working in Dublin and elsewhere. There's a danger that we're going to lose our best people. At the moment, there are three big productions in Dublin - Penny Dreadful, which is in Ardmore Studios, there's Vikings, which is in Ashford Studios, and Ripper Street has just finished in another studio. Dublin is at capacity - they're turning away work. There are other big productions that are looking to come to Europe. The main reason that Game of Thrones is in Northern Ireland is because there's a very good tax break. They get funding from Northern Ireland Screen. They shoot in Malta, they shoot in Iceland, they shoot in different parts of Europe, but they base themselves in Northern Ireland. They're now in Season Six - that's terrific for the industry there, and that’s what needs to happen here. We need to be able to attract high-end work to the West of Ireland and if we could land a project of that scale, then I think it would be a game changer for Galway. We have a really good tax break and that has now been extended to 2020, we have a facility in the airport that with a modest enough investment, could become a terrific studio because it's got everything you need for a film studio - it’s large, it's a great location, it's the right side of Galway, it’s near Knock, it's near Shannon, it's near the motorway for Dublin, it's got pretty much unlimited parking space, it's got room for similar industries to be housed out there. So if that could be developed, you could attract large scale productions here. You attract the first one - they come, have a good experience, and more will come. You get a local crew to work on it and then you want to attract another and another and keep on doing it. There's talk of James Bond coming to Northern Ireland because they now have the studio capacity to do that. If you start working at that level, then you're able to attract very large productions and you're able to start planning in advance of what you're doing in the coming year or two.

But we need a couple of things - I think we need to grow the talent base here. If you look at productions that have happened here like An Bronntanas for TG4 and Klondike. Klondike was shot in the Glenlo Mines out in Oughterard and the set for that is still in-situ, so they built a wild west town out there. When I visited the set, there were people that I knew who grew up with Macnas and the skillset they have in terms of set design, costume is amazing. There's a skill base of technicians and crew that we have - some of them have a lot of experience but others need to develop their skills more. What happened when Roger Corman started Concorde was that the heads of each department were Americans, they brought in people who were experienced and they trained people up and then they after a year, they left and people locally were able to take over, so a bit of that would have to happen.

Also, at Galway Film Centre, we can get the expertise to upskill. At the moment, we’re looking at the possibility of having a regional film fund for the West of Ireland. If we can get a regional fund here and if we can get our airport studio up and running and we already have the tax incentive, we could not just grow the industry gradually, but we could take a leap. If we don't do it, the big studios in Dublin are just going to get bigger, the Ardmore studios are developing in the Dell factory down in Limerick so they're going to bring large scale production into Limerick. That puts us under pressure. If we could get a studio here, we could get the other things to happen that need to happen, and then Galway could be a really great place to earn a living working in the industry. I think that would be the ultimate goal.

With GMIT, there's 30 or 40 graduates every year. The courses are very practical so a lot of graduates come out looking for, and ready for work. They'd love to work as production assistants or basically get the experience of working on set - Galway should be able to provide that training on set. There needs to be a continuity of income so people realise you can actually work in this industry and you can pay a mortgage; you don't have to go to Dublin, you don't have to go to London. There are 600 people working in the industry - for a city and county the size of Galway, that's good, but it would be great to double that. At the moment there's real potential for it to grow significantly over the next couple of years.

What would you ultimately like to see for Galway, for the film industry.

Ultimately, that Galway would be a good place to live, I have three kids - who are now not kids anymore. It's been a good place to bring them up, it's a good place for people to live. It's been great that they were able to go to university here. What I always liked about Galway is that it's small - it has a feeling of a big town. It's intimate and relatively safe, it has a certain magic and charm. I’d like that the next generation would be able to live and work here and not have to leave.

Updated: 14th June, 2016 with minor edits for clarity.

This interview was originally published on A Tribal Vision - read the original interview at All text is copyright A Tribal Vision. Images are copyright of their original owners.

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