'Screen tourism' is set to have phenomenal economic impact

Game of Thrones is without doubt the biggest TV show in the world right now, broadcast in 199 countries and watched by 18 million viewers

EVERYBODY loves the movies, right? Well here's a thing you probably didn't know, but I was lucky enough to act in my second film a couple of months ago. Not that I am giving up my day job just yet but, thanks to my close and supremely talented friend who has now called me twice to appear in her movies, I have a burgeoning second career. In the most recent role, I was cast as 'Man at Bar'. Needless to say, I've rented my suit for the Oscars next year already.

I've been thinking about movies a lot this week. Why? Well, instead of sitting in rainy Belfast, this column has been written from the Universal Studios Theme Park in Orlando, Florida. What a place. I've never been and had no idea of the scale and magic of the place. At ages 14 and 11, I thought my two kids were the perfect age for a trip this year.

In reality, it wouldn't matter what age you are, the place is just incredible, with the re-creation of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter movies being particularly brilliant. The ride inside Hogwarts Castle is astounding, even the queueing which passes through Dumbledore's office, the Defence of the Dark Arts classroom and the staircase with the talking portraits is really good and very helpful in passing the wait times.

The crowds are immense with very long lines of people waiting for hours to do the rides. I had been warned and so we stayed in a Universal hotel which provided access to the 'Express' entrance. In high season, it's worth it I think; we still had to queue but the lines were much shorter.

Another reason why I thought movies should be my theme this week is an article I read in the Financial Times on the plane on the way to Florida. Last year the film and TV industry was the second largest contributor to GDP growth in the UK. According to the Office of National Statistics, the industry has grown by 72.4 per cent since 2014 against the EU average of 8.5 per cent for the same period. Part of this comes from box office takings which, for the first six months this year, were £679m, up 12 per cent on last year.

The real growth has come from film and television production though and in that respect, Northern Ireland merited a mention in the FT for, what else, Game of Thrones.

I get the feeling that most people here have no idea how big Game of Thrones is. Without doubt, it is the biggest TV show in the world, broadcast in 199 territories worldwide and watched by over 18 million viewers. On social media, it is a phenomenon also with over 20 million fans on Facebook; 6 million followers on Twitter and 3.5 million Instagram followers. And in critical terms too, Game of Thrones has 38 Emmy awards, the most ever received for a single TV series.

Off the back of that success, a new category of tourism, screen tourism, is having a significant impact on the Northern Ireland economy. Exact figures are hard to nail down but given that over 25 new Game of Thrones visitor experiences have been developed since 2013 ranging from guided coach tours, immersive experiences, food experiences and the rest, it is easy to see that the private sector is responding to demand.

In the public sector, Tourism NI in partnership with Northern Ireland Screen and HBO hosted ‘Game of Thrones: The Exhibition' in 2013 and again in 2014. The exhibitions were sold out with the 2014 exhibition generating an estimated £735,000 in direct spend.

In the property world in Belfast, there has been talk for some time about a new, full scale exhibition, though nothing official has been announced yet. If a proper exhibition was put together, even if it was a much scaled down version of the type of thing I have experienced in Florida, then we could expect a really serious injection of tourism spend into the economy here.

John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland, can see the potential and he and his team, along with NI Screen, led by Richard Williams, can be expected to exploit the potential as much as possible. Certainly the infrastructure is beginning to emerge to support it.

For instance, Tourism Ireland's impressive international marketing campaigns with HBO have had serious impact and there is now an app developed by NI Screen to help identify the 25 publicly accessible filming locations. The new road to the North Coast, aimed at making things easier for The Open golf tournament when it comes in 2019, is also easing the path for Game of Thrones fans too.

What is maybe more pleasing about all of this though is the way an industry is being built here and a big driving force in that has been globally famous producer Mark Huffman, who has directed so much of the external interest back home to here.

But right from the really impressive early development work for children being done by Joan Burney-Keatings' Cinemagic, the plethora of talent emerging in areas like production, set-building, sound, animation, writing, design, lighting, directing, acting and all of the other ancillary parts which make up the industry makes it feel like something really exciting is happening.

NI Screen has produced two documents in recent years called 'Adding Value' (Volumes 1 and 2). They make for very interesting reading and really capture some of the brilliant work that is taking place with a top line figure of an estimated £250 million of triggered spend on good and services off an investment of £42 million by NI Screen by the end of March next year.

That is a good return in anybody's books, even Harry Potter's. Meantime, I'm off for a game of Quidditch, and I'm hoping my next extra role will be as 'Man with Broomstick in 3D glasses'.

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director of MCE Public Relations

:: Next week: Claire Aiken

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