The sound stages at Ardmore Studios are about to be transformed for a second time into Alfea, the “Otherworld” boarding school of teen-led Netflix fantasy series Fate: The Winx Saga. Its swift recommissioning will see Elaine Geraghty’s year become even more “full-on and fantastic”.
The return of the show is the kind of happy development the newly-installed chief executive of Ardmore and Troy Studios envisaged when, feeling like she had “bags of energy”, she leapt at the job offer after a four-year spell leading Screen Producers Ireland (SPI).
“There’s excitement about it. I think the cast and crew had a great time here, and it’s really joyous to know they’re coming back,” says Geraghty, a former breakfast radio presenter turned media boss.
The world, never mind the Otherworld, has changed since principal photography for Winx’s first season began back in 2019. With almost all screen production on pause for six months of 2020 as the first wave raged and Covid-safe filming protocols were devised, there was a time when the magic of the industry seemed a distant prospect.
“If I think back to what I was doing this time last year with my Screen Producers Ireland hat on, there was so much uncertainty and nervousness. It was hard to picture how it would be done,” she says.
“Now we are a year and a bit into it, we know how to do it. Masks aren’t even something we talk about anymore, we’re so used to them. We have one-way systems and hand sanitisation and, of course, the productions have a tight regime of testing.”
After her own pandemic retreat to a tiny home office in Malahide, a sense of “I’m out of the house, it’s brilliant” hit when she started her new role in November. A trip down the motorway to Limerick’s mega-studio Troy brought her to “what felt like a city within a city” – a crew of almost 500 people working in the former Dell factory on the production of Apple’s forthcoming Isaac Asimov adaptation Foundation.
I’ve been coming out to this place for more years than I care to remember
She has spent most of her time at Ardmore, outside Bray in Co Wicklow, “getting to know the M50 intimately”, though she expects eventually to base herself two days a week in Limerick, where Troy was established in 2016 by then Ardmore chief Siún Ní Raghallaigh and former investor Ossie Kilkenny. In 2018, Olcott Entertainment, led by Troy chairman Joe Devine, acquired Ardmore.
Geraghty hadn’t been looking to leave SPI – she loved working with its spectrum of entrepreneurs and “it was the middle of a pandemic” – but Ní Raghallaigh was moving on to become executive director, and when she got a call, the opportunity was too good to shun. “I wanted to be a part of it,” she says.
It wasn’t the reason she said yes, but Ardmore – first established in 1958 – also had a cameo in her childhood. “My dad was a production manager, a location manager, and we were all sent out to work as extras, so I’ve been coming out to this place for more years than I care to remember.”
The timing felt right, too. Temporary disruptions aside, it will take more than a pandemic to alter the frenzied trajectory of the global content creation race, which is being propelled by subscriber-chasing international streaming operations. With vast swathes of UK studio space booked up for the foreseeable, investors here have been keen either to extend existing facilities or build new ones.
Disney’s use of the RDS in Dublin as production space for Disenchanted, the Enchanted sequel shooting on location in Enniskerry, “tells a story in its own right”, Geraghty says. “I think that gives you the answer in relation to space.”
Such is the volume of content being commissioned, that the perception of disaster striking a studio if an axe falls on a series is no longer quite so acute. A replacement project, or a string of them, will likely come along.
Still, a long-term arrangement with one of the big spenders, such as that enjoyed by Pinewood (Disney) or Shepperton (Netflix), remains highly covetable.
“That’s the plan, and there will be no surprise about that. To get that long-term, secure number of projects, maybe under the one umbrella, whether it’s a Netflix or an Apple or anybody else, any other studio, ideally, that’s the model,” she says.
Much hard work goes into building relationships and the business is “never just about opening a sales book and taking a cheque”, Geraghty notes, but when you have space to rent, any security helps.
Troy completed an expansion in 2019, becoming the biggest studio facility in the State, while additional space is expected to come on stream at Ardmore by the end of 2021. “We would like to keep as much business contained within the studio as we can.”
She says the State sometimes loses out on production activity, and its associated job creation, because projects run up against the €70 million expenditure cap on which they can claim the section 481 tax credit.
“They might do the principal filming here, but then they go and do post-production or VFX [visual effects] elsewhere. They get to a ceiling on a budget and something’s got to give.”
Ardmore and Troy are not the only ones highlighting the limitations of section 481 as it is currently configured: four years ago, an independent report commissioned by the previous government recommended the cap be increased to €100 million.
“We’ve all lobbied for it and it hasn’t been given too much attention, I would say – but not no attention. I do understand, last year we had a pandemic going on,” says Geraghty. “It is a huge decision to lift a cap on any kind of incentive, and we appreciate that, we genuinely do… we’re realistic, we’re reasonable. We’re not banging the table.”
Given Minister for Culture Catherine Martin recently participated in a “virtual trade mission” to Los Angeles, while then taoiseach Leo Varadkar (now tanaiste) dropped into Hollywood for an actual trade mission in late 2019, it would seem appropriate for the State to at least review its sales pitch.
“If my job is sales, and selling Ireland, I want to sell the best package that I can,” says Geraghty.
Although the industry is thoroughly interconnected, laments occasionally surface about aspects that are less or not at all about creating Irish stories and more akin to “servicing” foreign direct investment. She hasn’t heard much of this attitude of late, though “it may still be going on in the corners”, and she certainly believes there is no call for it, citing the benefits that have accrued to Northern Ireland from Game of Thrones.
“I think if people are sniffy, they need to just sort of stop being sniffy and think this is a business opportunity like any other, and we can really make the most of it.”
It was fun, it was difficult, it was mad
The day before we speak, Geraghty went on Newstalk to discuss section 481. It felt “so strange”, she says. She was Newstalk’s chief executive from 2005 until 2009, a time when “a lot happened”, and the recent sale of its parent company, Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp, was on her mind. With new owner Bauer not known for speech radio, the station’s destiny is unclear.
“I hope that Newstalk is part of the repertoire, not from any sentimental memory of having worked for Communicorp, but I still feel an attachment of a kind and, as a listener, I think it’s really important that we have that choice.”
The trend in commercial radio, especially outside Ireland, has been toward fewer programmes, more automation and lower costs, with perhaps as few as three presenters covering 7am to 7pm. “When I did breakfast back in 1803, it was a four-hour shift from 6am until 10am and that was long enough,” says Geraghty.
The year “1803” is actually 1989, which was when “by accident”, having been hired as the operations manager of Classic Hits 98FM, she began a six-year stint co-presenting the Morning Crew breakfast show during the early days of licensed independent radio. Amid a blaze of market research, 98FM went on air the night the Berlin Wall came down.
“It’s one of those ‘you know where you were’ moments.”
But her first media employer was the Sunday Tribune, where she began as the receptionist in the early 1980s. “I was a kid,” she says. “I fluked my way through the interview, saying I knew how to manage a switchboard. I hadn’t a clue.”
Under the editorship of Vincent Browne, the Tribune was a “fabulously exciting” place, with the commercial side for which she worked on the same floor as the journalists. Four decades on, she is part of an ex-Tribune WhatsApp group, while she also met her husband of 33 years at the newspaper.
“We never knew if we were going to get paid, never mind anything else,” she says. “It was fun, it was difficult, it was mad.”
Geraghty credits the start-up vibe of the Tribune with setting her along a path of career risk-taking. “What happened to me was I didn’t really have any fear. If the place shut, I always felt I’d do something else,” she says. “I’ve never really been in places where it has been a smooth ride.”
She carried on working for Communicorp in executive roles when the breakfast gig came to an end after a ratings rollercoaster and did an MBA at Dublin Institute of Technology (now TU Dublin), before stepping up to become Newstalk CEO as it was seeking a national licence. Leaving behind the “cramped conditions” of its original studio to invade the “gorgeous space” of sister station Today FM was a high point.
After Newstalk, she had “half-baked ideas about doing a PhD”, but then became chief executive of ReachOut Ireland, an online youth mental health service from which she learned a lot about wellbeing.
“We’re all going to go through some kind of crap all through our lives, little speed bumps along the way, and they don’t need to be called anything. They are just things that happen that knock you off-kilter, particularly when you’re young,” she says.
“I was a real worrier as a kid, I just was, and things worked out for me when I went to a new school. I really blossomed as a person then,” she says. “I had to go on a school bus from Raheny to Clontarf and walk into a classroom knowing nobody, which would have been just anathema for the shy individual that, believe it or not, I was.”
As they create an entirely different sort of school, Fate: The Winx Saga’s cast of teen fairies and other supernatural beings will shortly be back in Bray, masks in pocket. In their own way, entertainments like these offer their young target audience an escape from reality – and if anything, the strains of the pandemic and mundanities of lockdown-living have proven their value all over again.
A self-described news junkie, Geraghty found herself needing relief from the cycle of headline grimness last year, so she gravitated to frothier or more exotic content – watching Netflix’s Emily in Paris “just to see Paris” – and tried not to catastrophise.
“We need escapism,” she says. “As human beings it’s what we need, and that’s not going to change.”