Dublin or bust: can Ireland prove itself to be a digital media leader?

12 Feb 2009

When we think of movies, we think of Hollywood, and, when we talk of all things digital, our thoughts inevitably turn towards Silicon Valley.

However, time has moved on and the boundaries have blurred. When mega-seller game Grand Theft Auto IV was released in May 2008, it shifted six million units globally in seven days, with an estimated retail value of over US$500m. This is in comparison to last summer’s blockbuster movie, Iron Man, which took in $210m in its first week.

What was once a golden empire of movie stars and enthralling special effects has now been superceded by the video games industry and, in turn, the movie industry has learned to compete.

With the arrival of The Matrix in 1998, the industry raised the stakes considerably.

In fact, Trinity College Dublin spin-out firm Havok created the physics engine technology that helped produce the movie’s computer-generated effects.

But, 10 years down the line, is Dublin ready to excel in the digital media industry? A recent report, entitled The Needs of the Business Community and Other Actors in the New Media Sector: a Report on the Dublin Region, seems to think so.

The report estimates there are around 140 Irish firms operating in this sector, making it one with considerable strength and growth potential.

“Irish digital media firms are becoming a global force in particular niches,” says Professor Alan Smeaton of Dublin City University (DCU).

Smeaton is also deputy director of CLARITY, the €16.4m tech partnership between University College Dublin and DCU, supported by the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork and funded by Science Foundation Ireland, which produced the report.

CLARITY found that, in the Dublin region, there are particular specialist areas moving from strength to strength.

“There are some innovative, emerging areas of strength in the digital media sector such as mobile technologies, animation and digital video, and film and television,” says the project’s lead researcher, Gordon McConnell.

Despite this good news, the report also found there were a number of shortcomings that must be addressed if Ireland is really serious about growing and investing in this sector.

For one, there is a skills shortage: in terms of both technical skills and in sales and marketing, it was found there are simply not enough graduates.

The report recommended the creation of a forum for universities and colleges to discuss these skills needs with the industry, as well as the establishment of Europe- and Ireland-wide networks forcollaboration.

Intellectual property (IP) issues were also highlighted, with a desire to cut down on red tape, form-filling and even the existence of common IP agreements, possibly routed through Enterprise Ireland.

One business need not identified in the report, but which was pointed out as a key requirement by Liam Ward, managing director of Dublin-based digital media firm DV4, was high-speed broadband.

“Our broadband connectivity has got to be better than good enough. It has to be so amazing that, in comparison to digital media hubs like London, it will make us stand out so the whole package becomes incredible.”

He explains that when dealing with data-intensive digital media, such as DVD production and editing, as well as designing multimedia sites like DV4’s award-winning TV3.ie, broadband needs to be always-on, robust and high-speed.

As regards the digital  media sector in Dublin, Ward says: “We need to consolidate everything: we need to set ourselves up in such a way that firms like DV4 can work in an international field from Dublin.”

According to Ward, Ireland could be a hotbed for digital media but, he says, first it needs to attract big players.

“We also need the Government to set up the whole regulatory framework because while Ireland has a good history with the traditional film industry, it is under a lot of pressure right now, and we don’t always have the ideal weather for shooting traditional film.”

However, if you take films like Frank Miller’s 300, which was immensely popular and profitable, but was mostly made with green-screen technology and computerised special effects, then Ireland becomes an ideal location in terms of talent base and experience.

“Forget the weather! These digital productions are something we can really create here, providing we can improve the broadband situation,” says Ward.

Following the international success of Havok, can the new wave of some 140 new media firms breath fresh life into our digital economy?

With firms like Brown Bag Films animating the children’s TV series Olivia for Nickelodeon, and Muzu TV recently winning a contract with music giant EMI to distribute its artists’ music videos online, it looks like we are on our way.

 By Marie Boran

Pictured: DCU’s Professor Alan Smeaton and Gordon McConnell believe Ireland has laid the foundations of a promising digital media industry, but a shortage of IT and sales expertise may impede progress