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