Art or Commerce—A Moot Question?

24 July 2015

This week I attended three film-related events that highlighted the polar differences between art and commerce in film.

On Wednesday morning I went to the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) briefing on the review of the New Zealand Screen Production Grant (NZSPG), driven by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage (MCH).

The outcomes of the review are positive, particularly in the international production arena, with the NZSPG seen as delivering on its promise. Tweaks have been made, some with the intention of improving opportunities for small post-production and visual effects companies and in the area of children’s drama production to stimulate growth.

From a DEGNZ perspective, the NZSPG increases work opportunities for editors on higher-budget productions intended for international markets. For directors, over time we are hopeful that more international TV productions will look to New Zealand directors to work on their shows, and that more internationally focused New Zealand productions are made with Kiwi directors employed. One of the intentions of the DEGNZ director attachments on the Ash vs. Evil Dead series (hopefully franchise) of Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi is to expose NZ directors to their view with hopefully one or more getting picked up in future. We have the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) in part to thank for this. Shortly, we will be announcing another initiative intended to further improve DEGNZ director member opportunities in drama.

The more significant news out of the briefing in some respects, however, was the demise of Film New Zealand (FNZ), the international marketing entity promoting New Zealand and its screen industry to international producers, with NZFC taking on its responsibilities and staff. This could be seen as the clearest indicator yet of the ‘business-fication’ of NZFC, which up until recent times has really been seen as a cultural institution with a cultural mandate in film. It’s not hard to imagine that there will be commercially focused Key Results Areas (KRAs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) driving this new area of operation for NZFC, which is increasingly taking on responsibility for both film and television, reinstituting the chatter of an eventual merging of New Zealand on Air and NZFC.

In outlining the changes to the NZSPG, it was interesting to note NZFC CEO Dave Gibson’s emphasis on the cultural aspect of the incentive, perhaps indicative of some disquiet or at least sensitivity around the overtly commercial nature of everything that’s occurring.

The other events I wish to make mention of were two indigenous films I attended at the New Zealand International Film Festival: Embrace of the Serpent and Balikbayan#1. These two films would sit smack bang in the centre of the Culturally Significant planet of NZFC’s five planet strategic model if they were Māori, but it’s difficult to imagine that they would get funding from NZFC in the current environment even if they were. They eschew the Hollywood model for filmmaking, instead expressing the singularly artistic vision of the auteur directors behind them—something that’s almost entirely out of vogue in filmmaking with NZFC now. It’s more likely such projects would have to find favour with Creative New Zealand or other Arts funding streams in the same manner as do the projects of multi-disciplinary artist Lisa Reihana.

As part of the hosting DEGNZ volunteers are engaging in with the international directors who have come in for the festival, giving them a friendly local face to connect and communicate with, I went out last night with Balikbayan#1 director Kidlat Tahimik after his film and performance at the Academy.

Kidlat is the father of independent Philippine cinema, has multiple awards from the Berlin Film Festival, a Masters from the business school at Wharton, and he took up film under the tutelage of Warner Hertzog after becoming uninspired by his work with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

Listening to Kidlat talk about his filmmaking, it was refreshing and invigorating to hear what lay behind this film 35 years in its journey from start to finish. No script, obviously long interruptions in forward progress, and absolutely no mention of the imperatives of box office, eyeballs on screen, and return on investment. He had something to say through film and said it.

As we transition from the arthouse focus of the past for which we established an enviable international reputation to the emulation of the Hollywood model, which our cousins across the ditch have according to some failed spectacularly at, is “Art or Commerce?” a moot question? Or is there a middle ground where the culturally significant planet shines as brightly as the others, not overshadowed by commercial imperatives, and on which artistic auteurs can still find a home alongside the planet of the next Peter Jackson?

We shall see. And let’s hope so. As much as we all need increased box office and other revenue to make sustainable careers in film and television, there is still a place for the artistic freedom of expression through film that inspired many of our accomplished filmmakers to go on to commercial and critical success.

 
Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Digital Kapow!

10 July 2015

We are being assaulted by digital technology and the digital realm and its effects on our chosen careers and our livelihoods are irrevocable.

I have written about this previously, but recent events bring it once again to the fore.

Digital editing has been around for a long time and for editors it has been a relatively slow and measured transition to the new paradigm. With the decline in the quality of footage shot in the field for a lot of TV shows, it really does often boil down to “We’ll fix it in post.” A good producer and editor is what save many a TV show these days. And this has helped maintain their value.

For directors, a couple of now institutional advents heralded real change and devaluing of their skill. The first was one person camera (OPC), which really had its place in TV news. Doing away with the soundperson and putting the responsibility for everything on the camera operator, who in many cases was already directing for the reporter, laid the groundwork for what is now an everyday occurrence in reality TV.

The arrival of the PD150 and other such cameras made opc a reality mainstay in non-news programming, and cemented the position of opc as director on many shows, which continues to this day. This helped give jobs to the increasing number of graduates being pumped out of film and television schools.

Digital production and post equipment and film school graduates also wrought havoc on the corporate video market, where unsophisticated clients chose low cost over quality approach and hastened the growth of low-priced content marketing. In this arena, one-person film graduate outfits compete with TV commercials production companies who lament the loss of the big budget commercials of yesteryear.

Much information, marketing, and educational video content and a good proportion of reality, light entertainment and documentary programming today is made without a dedicated director at the helm, and it’s common for the same person to shoot, direct and edit projects, particularly in the content marketing arena.

A look at the lay of some of the land will help to show what is going on:

  • In the 2013/14 year, the Department of Statistics identified 12,500 people working in producing, contracting and broadcasting in the screen industry in 23,700 jobs—2.9 jobs/person.
  • 2,130 students with diplomas or bachelors degree graduated in Communications and Media Studies in New Zealand in 2013.
  • YouTube statistics state 300 hours of video are uploaded every minute—from video selfies to web series and everything in between.
  • In a Brightcove sponsored survey of Business 2 Business Content Marketers in Nth America by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 76% are using video in content marketing, with YouTube the platform of choice for 72% of them.
  • The shift with the funding bodies, who have been stuck on the same level of funding for years with no real increases in sight, is a further clear indicator of digital ramifications.

Last night saw the launch of the second round of Loading Docs, an online initiative for 10 x 3 minute documentaries. This project receives both New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) and New Zealand On Air (NZOA) support. Each of the successful applicants was required to generate $2k in crowdfunding and received 2k in matched funding and other non-financial support.

NZOA has a Request For Proposal (RFP) out for web series of around 6 episodes of approximately 5 – 7 minutes for a $100k budget, down from the heady times of Auckland Daze ($357k for 6) and The Factory ($600k for 20). The web series strand is just one of five separate digital funding streams for content at NZOA now.

Te Māngai Pāho is on the digital bandwagon, too, following a joint initiative with NZOA last year. Hahana ($40k for 10) was the first webseries to receive funding.

On the up side, the democratization of video production has brought down the barriers to entry and allowed new talent to come to the fore. Creators can now take risks, experiment and develop their skills free from the interference of funders, investors and others seeking control, often in the hope of being recognised and given mainstream opportunities. This of course also means there are yottabytes of crappy content out there that you have to wade through to find something good.

On the downside, because so much content is being produced for free or next to nothing, professional cast and crew are regularly being asked to work for nix or close to for content for digital and increasingly broadcast.

In short—more content, more content creators, and less or no money for budgets.

The latest bastion to be assailed in New Zealand by digital is drama—short films and low or no budget feature films have been round long enough already.

I have mentioned before the ridiculous, maximum $45k per half hour of broadcast drama that Māori Television has issued an RFP for. Producers are falling into line for this, self- and cast and crew- flagellating whip in hand. At DEGNZ we have taken a strong stance against this development because directors, editors and others will not be fairly compensated for their work. This particular issue has become so contentious that the other guilds and associations are making noises, too.

It’s not hard to imagine that the generally fair and equitable pay rates for traditional NZ TV drama is going to come under digital threat at some point, particularly as NZ web series become more prolific.

With NZOA’s latest web series RFP, producers are running around town seeking cast and crew to make pilot samples for free on the promise that if they get commissioned they will be paid for their services retrospectively.

Our role at DEGNZ as we often reiterate is to enhance the cultural, creative and financial wellbeing of New Zealand directors and editors.

Our fight for fair pay rates is made the more difficult by individuals agreeing to working conditions that are not only patently unfair, but sometimes raise serious occupational health and safety concerns.

We ask that you give careful consideration to the overall ramifications of your agreeing to work on drama projects where you are not adequately compensated. Otherwise, you could end up knocking yourselves out.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Measuring Success

26 June 2015

With the New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF) just around the corner, I thought it interesting to look at what parts festivals and box office play in the working lives of directors and editors.

While television does find a place in some festivals, it’s more usually accorded accolades at awards ceremonies such as the Emmys and the New York Festivals Awards. And in a way that’s understandable. The programme has already found its audience in being broadcast. Audience success in TV is measured in NZ by a little black box that sits in 400 or so living rooms. Rate well and you’re in. Rate poorly, you’re out.

Film, whether short or feature, needs critical acclaim and to find an audience, and festivals are an important way to do both.

I produced a short film in 2013 directed by Poata Eruera and edited by DEGNZ president Peter Roberts. It had its world premiere at imagineNative in Toronto, and has been seen at festivals including in France, Greece, Hawaii, Florida and Tahiti. It secured a slot in Ngā Whanaunga in the NZIFF, which saw it screen in the main centres, and then do the NZIFF regional tour. It’s recently been selected for a festival in Montreal, is up for consideration for a tour of Australia and will be broadcast on Maori Television this year. I don’t write this to blow my own trumpet. Rather, to highlight the point of how festivals are finding audiences for the film and getting it in front of them in theatres, for which it was made. And perhaps more importantly, pointed out how the selection in Toronto triggered a post production grant from the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) that allowed us to do a Dolby 5.1 sound mix and deliver as a Digital Cinema Package, enhancing the theatre experience. Without this festival exposure, I would be left to putting it online and trying to drum up eyeballs in competition with the billions of other videos in that space. Even worse, a film made for the big screen would be viewed on a computer screen or smaller. Fortunately, imagineNATIVE was one of the 28 A List Festivals that NZFC currently recognizes and will provide support to filmmakers for.

For directors and editors, this A list is what separates the wheat from the chaff for your film, and for directors particularly, for your career.

With more than 5000 festivals listed on the largest film submission website Withoutabox, only about 100 have any real cachet, and within that number, a shifting combination of 30 or so rate in the NZFC’s eyes.

For features, Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, Venice and Berlin are primarily where you need to go, although a small number of others count, particularly for documentary and genre. Otherwise, you’d better have box office success. Around $1 million in domestic box office puts you in a good place, and if you can do $1 million in local currency in Australia, the UK, and or the US, you’ve got an indie hit on your hands.

Some examples of relatively recent New Zealand successes:

  • Mt Zion, directed by Te Arepa Kahi and edited by Kahi and Paul Maxwell earned $1.3 million in NZ. Its festival success sat outside the majors for features, and included Mill Valley, Hawaii, ImagineNATIVE and Hofer Filtage.
  • The Orator, directed by DEGNZ member Tusi Tamasese and edited by Simon Price did a respectable $767,000 at the NZ$ box office, but more importantly gained acceptance into Venice and Sundance, an indicator of the vitally important “critical acclaim.”
  • The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, the documentary feature directed by DEGNZ member Leeane Pooley and edited by DEGNZ member Tim Woodhouse, racked up $1.8 million at the NZ box office, got into Toronto and a number of other good festivals and won multiple awards.

Without this kind of success—critical acclaim and or good box office returns—particularly for the two narrative drama directors, they could have become roadside casualties on the NZFC highway of first time feature film directors who never made another film. Each of these three talents, deservedly, has gone on to make further films with NZFC funding.

While international success is very important, local festivals like NZIFF, Show Me Shorts and Doc Edge are good for you and your film, too. They are highly credible internationally, put New Zealand stories in front of New Zealand audiences, and allow your film to be seen with some of the best of international offerings.

DEGNZ celebrates the success of its member directors and editors who this year have found a place on the highly competitive NZIFF film roster:

Documentary features: directors Costa Botes with Act of Kindness, Rebecca Tansley with Crossing Rachmaninoff, Shirley Horrocks with Tom Who? The Enigma of Tom Kriesler, and editors Prisca Bouchet with Ever the Land, Cushla Dillon with The Price of Peace, and Costa Botes with his film.

Narrative features: director Jason Lei Howden and editor Jeff Hurrell with Deathgasm.

Shorts: directors Rowena Baines with Dancing in the Dark, Hamish Bennett with Tihei, Ivan Barge with Madam Black, Alyx Duncan with The Tide Keeper, Giacomo Martelli with Coral, and Jackie Van Beek with The Lawnmower Bandit. (Apologies to those we didn’t pick up or receive notifications for.

For all of them, we wish success in the future as well.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Talking Documentary

10 June 2015

Documentary is a hot topic at the moment.

I recently attended the Documentary Edge Festival’s Screen Edge Forum in Auckland, opened with an address by Chris McDonald, the president of the second largest documentary film festival in the world, Hot Docs in Toronto. Chris highlighted the growth of Hot Docs from its inception with an audience of 4,000 to where it is today—a festival that attracts over 200,000, draws 300 buyers from around the world and this last year selected some 140 films from 2700 submissions.

Chris’s presentation was in part an encouragement to Alex Lee and Dan Shanan who celebrated the 10th birthday of their Documentary Edge Festival, which has finished its run in Auckland and is now taking place in Wellington.

Doc Edge is a vital outlet for Kiwi documentary makers to get their films in front of audiences, and a number of DEGNZ members did so, including Briar March, Richard Riddiford, Chris Dudman, Tony Forster, Rowena Baines and Bertie Plaatsman.

The NZ International Film Festival (NZIFF) coming up soon provides another key documentary showcase for local films and amongst the 10 docos announced so far, DEGNZ members Rebecca Tansley, Costa Botes and Shirley Horrocks have docos in it.

The documentary highlight of the year so far has got to be the acclaimed The Ground We Won from DEGNZ member Chris Pryor and his partner in life and film Miriam Smith. This film comes hot on the heels of another resounding documentary success by DEGNZ member Bryn Evans with his equally popular Hip-Hoperation.

So what’s behind all of this feature documentary activity?

Some say the demise of the documentary form on broadcast television. TV documentaries have taken a dive in NZ since their heyday some years ago. And those that still get through are considered to be highly proscriptive. With feature documentary, the filmmaker supposedly gets to say what they want to, not what the broadcaster tells them their viewing audience wants to see.

Some attribute it to the New Zealand Film Commission’s (NZFC) increased funding for documentary feature and the joint documentary initiatives run by NZFC and New Zealand on Air (NZOA). At Screen Edge Wellington, NZFC CEO Dave Gibson told the audience there are 12 documentaries in production with NZFC funding. At the same time he pointed out the NZFC requirement for a strong audience engagement plan as a string to help trigger funding—something equally demanded by NZOA. There are undoubtedly documentary filmmakers with plans at the ready awaiting the outcome of the NZFC’s board meeting of the last two days to see if the joint initiative Doc Connect is going to continue.

Another factor touted in the growth of documentary is the demise of TV journalism and Current Affairs.

International Documentary Association (IDA) Board President Marajan Safina in a recent review of that LA-based organisation’s last six years cited the gap left by journalism as helping to set the documentary form on fire.

A local example of this could well be TV3 journalist David Farrier’s documentary The Tickle King: The Hunt for Truth in Competitive Tickling nearing completion with NZFC funding. What started out as a just another possible loopy news story by Farrier has ended up as a potentially investigative documentary on the shady individual and company behind an allegedly exploitative scheme. Campbell Live might have given this story more airtime if it were still around.

Internationally, the rise of Netflix is considered a contributing factor to the strengthening of the documentary form.

Netflix has brought its ever increasing financial muscle to documentary projects, such as a Leonardo DiCaprio documentary feature and series themed around the environment, and other high profile documentaries it is engaging with at an early stage. This follows some years of documentary acquisition and brand building around the form, which is delivering new audiences for documentary in the streaming service’s constantly expanding connected world.

The news out of the last Sundance is also positive for docos. The Film Collaborative (TFC) reports that of the 41 docos on offer, 23 found deals with two including The Wolf Pack, which will screen at NZIFF, going for six figures, while Hot Girls Wanted, which screened at Doc Edge, did an all-rights deal with… you guessed it… Netflix.

It’s not all coming up roses, though.

In regard to distribution, the trend in the US at least is for documentaries geared towards TV/Netflix as it’s becoming harder to do a theatrical release.

On the funding front there, Emmy Award winning filmmaker Pete Nicks pointed out in an IDA column that while the US is experiencing a creative non-fiction boom and there are now a large number of organisations that US filmmakers can tap into for funding, those organisations expect social impact bangs for their bucks, potentially limiting creative filmmaking freedom. He goes on to add that the one thing that will not change is the difficulty in finding funding for small, quirky, character-driven, art-house documentary films.

In the documentary feature editing workshop that DEGNZ ran in Wellington last weekend, we worked with one such quirky film.

Director Jess Feast and producer Vicky Pope allowed the eight experienced editors in attendance to utilize the footage from Jess’s film Gardening With Soul. This gentle tale following a year in the garden with Sister Loyola is exactly the kind of film that is proving difficult to get up in the U.S. With just $15k in investment funding and $25k in a film finishing grant from NZFC, Gardening with Soul went on to earn around $500k at the NZ box office via self distribution. This success was done off the back of a focused marketing effort around Catholics and gardeners, and shows that the spades in this garden were definitely in. For the audience-engaged NZFC, Gardening with Soul is undoubtedly an unqualified success. Hopefully, the filmmakers will find a way to get this endearing film into the hearts of international audiences. And we wish all the documentary makers in the guild the same or better success.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

That Old Chestnut Copyright

29 May 2015

As Dotcom seemingly inches closer to extradition, copyright has raised its head here at the guild enough times recently for me to decide to write about it.

And before your eyes glaze over at the thought of reading boring copy about copyright, I can assure you that there are a number of things in it for you as a guild member, one of which could well be money.

We have a staunch advocate for copyright on the guild board in Costa Botes. Costa is a documentary maker who often exerts copyright over his films and then has to defend himself against online trolls who attack him for seeking to monetize his creative output so that he can earn a living as a filmmaker. Costa is wont to remind me and the board on a semi-regular basis about the importance of copyright and the need to protect it.

What got me typing on the subject, however, were three different prompts. The first was a discussion I had with the Executive Director of the Australian Directors Guild (ADG) Kingston Anderson.

Kingston brought up the Australian Screen Directors Authorship Collection Society (ASDACS), which is a non-profit company that represents directors, both Australian and New Zealand – film, television and all audiovisual media directors of works in public release – in collecting the rights that arise from the success of their work around the world.

ASDACS, which is now administered by ADG, has relationships with collection societies and guilds in a number of countries that research and monitor the display of audio visual works.

If you are a member of ASDACS and you have works that are registered with it, ASDACS through its sister organisations collects the royalties and will disburse them to you. This income comes primarily from countries in Europe where the authorship of audio-visual works is vested in the director—not the case in Australia or New Zealand at this point. More shortly on this. As a member of DEGNZ, you are entitled to receive all the income due without incurring the across the board 10% fee on any income ASDACS charges non-members.

A number of New Zealand directors are already members of ASDACS. We encourage you to join and register your works. For more information, go to the ASDACS website here.

As you will have noted, authorship vested in the director is the trigger for the revenue generation. This brings me to the second prompt.

While filing papers at the office I came across an internal discussion document written in 2005 by former board member Grant Campbell advocating for a focused guild effort to effect two changes in New Zealand copyright legislation: The first in regard to Moral Rights, the second Authorship. DEGNZ has sought for years without success to have the legislation changed to better represent the rights of directors in regard to these two key issues—the legislation is potentially a can of worms that the government is very reluctant to open up.

It needs to be pointed out that our efforts are not intended to allow directors to keep copyright, as copyright and moral rights often need to be assigned to allow projects to be funded and distributed.

We continue to strive for these changes at the guild, and this brings me to my third prompt.

In recent times the Copyright Council has rebranded and become We Create.

DEGNZ is a member of We Create and I had the opportunity to attend the AGM for the first time and have a follow up meeting with two key members of the working group there.

The former Copyright Council fought from a defensive position around the protection of copyright for its members, which includes bodies that represent musicians, photographers, publishers, writers and those in film and TV including the NZ Writers Guild (NZWG) and the Screen Production and Development Association (SPADA).

We Create is operating under a new paradigm of promoting New Zealand’s creative sector and the economic impact that the sector delivers, and by so doing highlighting the importance of Intellectual Property.

As a conglomeration of entities that have a vested interest in copyright, We Create provides a more powerful channel for DEGNZ to work with to lobby central government on your behalf.

You can learn more about We Create here, about copyright, moral rights, and here an information sheet that highlights the current situation where authorship in audiovisual works in New Zealand is vested in producers, not directors. And if you are particularly interested you can review the NZ Copyright Act here, paying particular attention to Clause 5 on Authorship and Part 4 on Moral Rights.

I leave you with the words of one of New Zealand’s leading producers to ponder: At an industry gathering he said [paraphrasing] that as a producer you are creating a library of product to support you in retirement. At DEGNZ we look forward to the time when New Zealand directors have similar rights to grow old with.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director