As a region, Northern Ireland has become an important intersection on the various highways of digital entertainment, financial services and technology development and is well placed to capitalise on the convergence of these routes, as senior figures in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street can attest.
I was well into being truly hooked on the HBO blockbuster fantasy series Game of Thrones – like millions of others around the world – before I realised or was aware that much of the iconic show which is entering its third season was filmed in Northern Ireland.
As the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) prepares to publish its ITLG Hollywood 50 listing as part of the annual Innovation in Entertainment event in Hollywood, the fact that the region punches well above its weight in entertainment, software and financial services is becoming apparent.
Northern Ireland claims not only the availability of talent, a coterie of global technology brand names and the local support needed to grow new ventures, it is also one of the most fibre-dense regions in Europe, with more than 80pc of premises receiving high-speed broadband.
The filming of Game of Thrones is an important metaphor for this achievement.
I spoke to Jay Roewe, senior vice-president of production (West Coast) for HBO about the region and its starring role in Game of Thrones. “We chose Northern Ireland because it provided an opportunity for us with Game of Thrones to go to a place where there were organic reasons to be filming there in terms of scenery, topography, culture and people, that even though we have a fiction story the elements in the surrounding area would work in the story."
Lights, camera, action!
“We also found the right infrastructure and a government that wanted to help and which reached out in an open and positive way to encourage us to come there," Roewe said.
"The proximity to the UK, its location in Europe, the fact that there had been some filming done before - there was an opportunity to bring a large production there and do something fairly new and fresh.”
HBO is one of North America’s leading pay cable networks and to facilitate filming an elaborate set was built in Belfast’s Paint Hall studios. Eagle-eyed viewers will also note the abundance of local scenery, such as coastlines, countryside and ancient ruins employed to good effect in the show.
Roewe confirmed the third season of Game of Thrones is being shot in Northern Ireland this year. “It’s gotten better every year and I think we actually have a finely tuned machine; it’s very impressive to go to set and see the level of quality and efficiency the production is doing."
Silicon Valley’s Irish conquer the heart of Hollywood. Rt Hon Peter Robinson, MLA, First Minister Northern Ireland; John Hartnett, president and founder, ITLG; and Martin McGuinness, MP MLA, Deputy First Minister, Northern Ireland, on the throne from the HBO series Game of Thrones. Photo by Chris Ryan, Views of the World
“It’s been an ongoing process of working with a team and that has great for our shooting. The local government stepped up and helped with building additional stages close to Paint Hall. It has also provided good opportunities for local people to become part of the crew, educating them to the production process we’re involved with and Belfast has embraced us and we’ve embraced them and it’s been a very positive experience for them," said Roewe.
“That’s part of what the reality of shooting in Belfast was all about – it's a small enough city that you can get across, around and through it very quickly, which is great for us to be efficient in our production but at the same time you have the support of the city and opportunities the city has to offer. And then very quickly you’re out in the very beautiful scenery of Northern Ireland and the coastline which gives us a wonderful variety of locations to continue to do variations on from a visual standpoint.”
As well as being a seminal TV production experience, Roewe said Game of Thrones is at the heart of changing shifts in TV consumption and the impact of social and digital media on promotion and community-building.
“I think what the internet allows is a 12-month conversation about Game of Thrones. It airs and then people still watch when off-air, and then talk about it online. It is quite common for me every week to receive a parody, an article or movie that is a take on it and this is almost all internet-related so you have this continual conversation about the Game of Thrones culture that is going on 12 months a year.
“In fact, what has changed with any franchise now is the opportunity to get out to the social consciousness; the internet allows that in a way that wasn’t possible before, certainly not at the speed and breadth of coverage you see today. I think what the internet now allows people to do is talk to each other and find people of like mind and subjects and in your own way can participate in that conversation, blog about it, do your own little shorts and be in a sense part of the creative process.”
Silicon Valley meets Northern Ireland
Up California's coastline from Los Angeles and Hollywood and outside San Francisco, Silicon Valley is home to the world’s biggest technology companies and many of them, including HP, Seagate and SAP, have opted to locate in Northern Ireland.
Another such company is CyberSource Corporation, one of the world’s first e-commerce payment companies, which William McKiernan founded in 1994 in California. In 2010, Visa Inc acquired CyberSource in a transaction worth US$2bn.
Founded in 2008, the Belfast operation is one of the primary development centres for Visa and is integral to many of the future technologies that make e-commerce possible today.
McKiernan retired from CyberSource in July and today runs a small private equity firm in Silicon Valley called WSM Capital. He recalls the decision to locate in Belfast as a very conscious one.
“We were growing very fast and we were trying to staff up our engineering group and were having trouble doing that in Silicon Valley in terms of finding the right talent and so we started to look at offshore operation. And we looked at some of the obvious choices at the time, like China, India, Eastern Europe. What we wanted to do was leading-edge development in this offshore lab as opposed to just having maintenance done so we wanted to hire good people and send our engineering managers over to the lab to help them develop this cutting-edge technology.
“We looked at various locations and we began talking to Invest NI and they pitched us Northern Ireland as a location for the lab and when we started talking to the development managers about well, would you consider going to Northern Ireland, the response was almost unanimous; everyone was excited.
“We were originally concerned about cost, whether it would be as cost effective as the other locations, but what we found was the combination of financial assistance from Invest NI and then the cultural similarities between Ireland and California, as well as the the quality of the workforce and the willingness of development managers to locate in Belfast. All of that made it a relatively easy decision and so we started with a plan to hire 35 people, now we’ve over 60 people in Belfast,” McKiernan said.
Northern Ireland is also becoming a cutting-edge location for financial services and as seen with CyberSource/Visa, the ability of local technology talent to contribute to the merging of financial services with technology is second to none.
Wall Street meets Belfast
One person who was obviously impressed with his experiences in Northern Ireland from a financial services/technology perspective was Galway native Conor Allen, who studied computer science and aeronautical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast.
As No 4 employee at Wombat Financial Software, he witnessed the rapid growth of a financial technology company from a Northern Ireland base to employing hundreds of people worldwide. In 2008, NYSE Euronext acquired Wombat, which saw an opportunity to integrate Wombat’s technology. As VP and global head of R&D for NYSE Technologies, the commercial technology arm of NYSE Euronext, Allen was instrumental in the creation, development and launching of Data Fabric; a multi-transport shared memory middleware originally developed at Wombat.
Today, Allen is a director at New York-based Cowen & Company, a leading diversified financial services company which decided in October 2011 to locate technology services and R&D operations in Belfast, employing 12 people locally.
Cowen & Company is a diversified financial institution that counts an investment bank, hedge fund and other financial services, including specialist research and analysis, among its line-up.
“We chose Belfast for a variety or reasons, including the time zones between Belfast and North America and the talent pool available. Particularly from a talent perspective there are great engineers coming out of Northern Ireland and the region has a fantastic legacy in terms of financial technology development.
“I saw this firsthand when I was at Wombat. From being employee No 4 we grew quickly in the space of four years to have offices in Tokyo, London, Belfast, Chicago and San Francisco. This pace of growth was only possible due to the fantastic ability of the talented people we had in Northern Ireland. They had the technological savvy and know-how to solve issues quickly. NYSE Euronext bought Wombat and continued to increase its investment in terms of R&D in Belfast.
“In fact, the former VP of engineering at Wombat, Brendan Duffy, is now CTO of First Derivatives, an indigenous financial services company with over 700 employees worldwide, and many former employees have moved on to take other senior roles in the industry and start up their own software companies, as well as bringing financial services companies back to Northern Ireland.”
Allen, Roewe and McKiernan are optimistic for Northern Ireland as a location at the intersection of technology trends in software, entertainment, and financial services.
“We’re having a good experience right now and so we’re hoping that things will work out for us to stay for recurring seasons,” Roewe explained. “It’s a very positive thing and it is really bringing NI into the light as a place that has the production support and infrastructure to support large-scale productions.”
McKiernan said: “It really is the quality of the workforce, as well as the instrumental assistance we got from Invest NI in helping us get assimilated in the community. They introduced us to the right people, helped us find office space and helped with the recruiting and laid a good foundation. But once we got over there and started to interview people we were terribly impressed by the quality of the people we met with and the skills they had and willingness to do things in the payment area in particular, the loyalty we found and the work ethic. It was the stuff we hoped we’d find but it actually surpassed our expectations and that’s why we continued to invest in Belfast and we expect that site to grow even more.”
Allen praised the local Northern Ireland government and Invest NI for some of the work it is doing in boosting the level of skills and academic resources available in the region, citing a programme involving various financial tech companies, including Citi and NYSE that has produced 10 PhDs between Queen’s University and the University of Ulster.
“These PhDs are focused on particular problems and areas posed by at least five financial tech companies and once again this will only enrich the talent tapestry Northern Ireland has to offer in this area,” Allen said.
The Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) will be hosting its annual Innovation in Entertainment event on 27 September at Sony Pictures Studios in Hollywood. Executives in attendance represent some of the world’s leading entertainment companies, including HBO, Warner Brothers, Lucasfilm, Sony and DreamWorks.