The Times, They Are A Changin’

I’ve had an incredibly busy time these last few weeks attending industry gatherings, and if there’s one thing certain, it’s that change is coming.

New Zealand On Air held a drama day recently with more than 130 industry people who intersect with drama. As most of you will know, there has been a large amount of criticism levelled at current NZ scripted content, primarily by The Spinoff’s Duncan Grieve. He has a low opinion of the high-end drama that is currently being made, and he is supportive of the idea that those operating in the self-funded and low-budget digital realm—including himself—should be given more money and opportunity. His complaints have resonated with a lot of people.

Also, we at DEGNZ and the NZ Writers Guild have been particularly vocal about the appalling exploitation of creators by online platforms, some of whom are doing it with NZ On Air funding attached. (Look out for our upcoming Young Creators events.) After a day-long talk fest that was productive, NZ On Air has published a summary that identified four areas of focus for them:

  1. Development
  2. Diversity
  3. Innovation
  4. Newer platforms

They are currently working on developing a drama strategy that will take these into account. In the meantime, they have suspended funding for any new drama development funding. It’s likely that it won’t be until the first quarter of 2018 that their new strategy will come through in their operations, but there’s definitely some change on the way. Read the summary from the Drama Day here.

A week later, I attended a presentation by streamer Lightbox, who announced their first commissions. After showing us the multi-million dollar per episode US dramas and multi-hundred thousand dollar per episode NZ On Air funded reruns they stream, Lightbox announced the funding of new digital content from, you guessed it, Duncan Grieve and the web series makers behind High Road. While Lightbox were breathless about their low-budget commissions, there was a collective silent sigh in the room from those who didn’t already know that Lightbox wasn’t coming with Netflix-style commissioning budgets.

Still, it’s better than nothing, which is what had been happening in the paywall streaming space with commissions (that is public knowledge) until this point in New Zealand. Lightbox assured us that they had money to spend. If so, it’s a pity that didn’t make the bold move that everyone is craving for, rather than low-risk ones.

With Netflix committed to spending $500 million in original programming in Canada next year, we can only hope that they will spread some of their largess around here sooner rather than later or we’re all going to die from anticipation.

On the Friday before the Big Screen Symposium (BSS), DEGNZ brought the other guilds and associations together to discuss the concept of a Code of Ethics for the screen industry. As I have written about repeatedly, we are extremely concerned about the terms and conditions being offered in commercial transactions by platforms/producers for scripted web series.

The worst offender is NZME, although there are others who aren’t too far behind. With one of a number of projects I am aware of, the content creator ended up getting approximately $10.00 per hour to create and produce a web series, has no right to revenue share and retains no IP whatsoever in the project. These are just some of the issues with the contracting for this particular show.

Opportunity for eyeballs, future work, blah, blah, blah are the big carrots that entice creators to take on these projects. But in the Guild’s view the platforms are exploiting creators for their own commercial ends—this we believe is unethical behaviour.

DEGNZ feels we need a Code of Ethics for all in the screen industry—funders, platforms, broadcasters, screen industry practitioners—to protect the rights of writers, directors, producers, cast and crew, particularly in the brave new world of no-budget and low-budget screen content creation. After considerable discussion, all of the guilds and associations have agreed to raise the idea with their memberships, and in the first instance, get feedback as to what people are experiencing at the coal face.

DEGNZ is determined to bring about change to help ensure sustainable careers not just for directors and editors, but also for all screen industry practitioners. Our President, Howard Taylor, is the instigator and main driving force behind this initiative. We will update you on this as we go.

At the BSS, current CEO of the NZ Film Commission Dave Gibson gave his valedictory speech entitled ‘Change and Challenge’. The biggest change coming with NZFC is who will replace Dave after he finishes up in December. We wait with bated breath and should find out soon.

In his speech, however, Dave spoke to the changes that have and are occurring in the small screen, and many of those he wrought in relation to our big screen. Some key points he made were around the introduction of a further three planks of NZFC affirmative action to address gender inequity, and some significant time spent on explaining the structure of the New Zealand film library Te Ahi Kaa, and the establishment of the New Zealand film rights management entity Te Pun Ataata. Both are intended to help preserve and provide access to New Zealand’s film history. He also hinted at the Māori Strategy, which has been in development at NZFC for two years. You can read Dave’s full speech here.

Then on the Monday after the BSS, I attended a day-long Industry Summit that brought together all of the funders, guilds and associations to discuss industry issues. Each participant was asked to speak briefly to three topics that most concerned them. I spoke about:

  1. Copyright
  2. Code of Ethics
  3. Quality versus Quantity, i.e. less productions, more money per production

With 21 attendees there were a range of issues. What was most encouraging from our perspective was that Jane Wrightson of NZ On Air identified with our thoughts on a Code of Ethics. What was clear was that the screen industry till now has not had an effective, unified voice to talk particularly to government with.

It may well be that Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett who facilitated the discussion and who is developing a ‘Next Step’ plan for us, will identify this as one area of focus. There will be more to come on this, which we will keep you appraised of. Thanks have to go to Brian Kassler of Showtools who organized this event.

And finally, the weekend after BSS I attended the Ngā Aho Whakaari Hui-ā-Tau two-day conference. I was asked to speak to our work around the Code of Ethics and was also invited to sit on the panel for the short film pitches. But staying with the theme of change, we heard in oblique detail from NZFC CEO Dave Gibson more on the Māori Strategy, which they hope to have confirmed at the board meeting this week. There is a considerable shakeup coming with how NZFC deals with and funds Māori.

A lot of the initiatives Dave will leave behind will be fait accompli for the new CEO Anabelle Sheehan, but she will undoubtedly  have some of her own changes in mind she’ll want to bring about. Let’s hope that they are good ones.

Preceding all of the above was a three-day NZFC workshop I attended as part of my ongoing professional development. I think I need a cup of tea and a lie-down.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Prof. Dev. – The Next Best Thing To Doing It

With the Big Screen Symposium almost upon us again with a host of excellent speakers to hear from, I thought I might reflect on professional development.

Eight or so years ago I decided to focus on narrative feature film and TV drama. I had come from a background of documentary, news, travel, and marketing storytelling for the screen, but I knew very little about dramatic narrative storytelling.

I threw myself into learning and haven’t stopped. For the first five years I applied for and attended a large number of professional development opportunities the New Zealand Film Commission and other bodies offered. If a talk was on with Script to Screen, SPADA or with anyone else, I was there. At the same time I was making or helping to make short films and developing features and TV drama series.

Three years ago I was contracted in to DEGNZ as the Executive Director. A good part of my responsibility has been to run the guild’s professional development programme for directors and editors. I’ve managed mentorships, film talks, attachments, workshops, panel discussions and seminars. And until this year I made a point of attending every single one of them.

Last year I took part in a year-long professional development programme in Europe. And this year I’m doing one here.

I think I can fairly say that when it comes to professional development, I’ve had a lot of experience with it. And I see the benefits. Not just for me, but for others, too.

Now of course professional development is not actually ‘doing it’, which is the best school of all. Most of the good speakers I’ve encountered have a long history as industry practitioners, which is how they accumulated the knowledge they impart—from on-the-job successes and failures. This is why workshops where you get hands-on experience are particularly valuable—it replicates to a greater or lesser extent the actual work involved without the pressure.

In my time focusing on narrative drama, I’ve met a lot of directors who say they want to direct a feature film. And I mean a lot. TV drama, web series, TVCs and short films offer directors the opportunity to practise what’s required to make a feature. But because drama and comedy are scripted, the amount of time devoted to the actual directing is usually much less than the time spent on developing the scripts to be made. Consequently, unless you are a TV drama director who is regularly employed, it’s likely that your ‘doing it’ is broken up by lots of ‘developing to do it’ or ‘applying to do it’, or just ‘waiting to do it’. And it’s in these troughs that you can ‘learn to do it’.

In New Zealand alone, there are lots of opportunities to learn from industry peers, the up-coming Big Screen Symposium a prime example. And overseas there are many, many more if you have the time and or money.

What astounds me is from that large “I want to direct a feature” group, there is actually a much smaller pool of people who actively seek through professional development the skills and knowledge required to learn to direct feature film well. Directing actors particularly is something crucial that you can learn about through attending acting classes or workshops, having read-throughs, rehearsing scenes, improvising material, or engaging in other director – actor focused activity.

Common comments I hear from experienced actors who either attend or facilitate our workshops is that many directors they’ve worked with either don’t know how to communicate with actors to get good performance or that the directors are actually afraid of actors.

It doesn’t surprise me that a good number of directors who make their way successfully in film or TV drama in New Zealand are also actors: Michael Hurst, Peter Burger, Aidee Walker, Danny Mulheron, Jackie Van Beek, Oliver Driver, Kathy McRae, Ian Hughes, Matthew Saville, Roseanne Liang, to name a few. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. But it’s obviously an advantage.

Editors are fortunate in that if they are working they are practising their craft every day. But they too need to learn to adapt to narrative drama storytelling  if that’s their ambition.

I encourage everyone in the guild to grab as many opportunities to upskill as you can. Whether it’s applying to the Story Camp Aotearoa, attending a Rehearsal Room, going to a WIFT Coproduction Summit, or doing a Drama Editing workshop. I reckon Prof. Dev. is the next best thing to doing it.

See you at the Big Screen Symposium. I’ll be there. And if you want to talk, swing by the DEGNZ booth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the guild’s professional development programme or anything else you’d like to share.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

P.S. While I may gush enthusiastically about Prof. Dev., others don’t. Case in point: Guardian writer Caspar Salmon on director Q & A’s after films here.

Knockin’ Around Asia

I was fortunate to have been invited to the Asia-Pacific Producers Network annual meeting last week in Taiwan. There were 40 or so producers there from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, and Patrick Frater, Variety’s Asia Bureau Chief, who is based in Hong Kong.

I spoke to a good number of them and there was one topic on pretty much everyone’s lips — China. Everyone has been, is or wants to be doing productions with the Chinese. The Koreans however are excluded at the moment because the Chinese government doesn’t like the Thaad Missile Defense System the Americans moved onto a disused golf course there, as a counter to North Korean missile test firings towards Japan. Until that’s resolved the Koreans are getting the cold shoulder from the Chinese entertainment business.

As a counter to this, a Korean producer pitched me a NZ-China co-pro because he could no longer do it between China and Korea. His proposed Chinese producing partner was also attending. It transpired that in the month that we had been communicating about it prior to my arrival, the Chinese producer was no longer interested. The reason — Chinese demand had changed. It’s name directors and actors and big budgets now, not small comedies as he had planned or any other lower budget projects.

According to Variety’s Frater, the Chinese market can dramatically change from week to week and it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s been obvious for some time however that the Chinese government was clamping down on capital outflow. Chinese company Dalian Wanda is the most obvious example of this. Wanda bought mini studio Legendary Pictures and the US’s AMC Entertainment Group, which is now the largest theatre owner in the world. It had to abandon its plans to acquire Dick Clark Productions for $1 billion. Other deals that suffered include Xinke’s US$345 million planned purchase of Hong Kong’s Voltage Pictures and last week Recon gave up on its US$100 million acquisition of LA-based Millennium Films.

Even though it can take up to two years to get money out of China if at all, it hasn’t deterred Asian production companies from wanting to do business there. All the highly active Hong Kong producers now either have offices in China or live there. Taiwanese producers I was given introductions to were away in China for meetings. The Japanese I met were making frequent trips to China to drum up business.

China now has 41,000 movie screens, over 700 million mobile internet users and three major streaming providers in iQIYI, Youku Tudou and Tencent with a combined total of 70,000,000 paying viewers in the first quarter of 2017. Revenue from paying users of internet video in China is expected to hit US$2.2 billion this year. No wonder Asian producers are making films, TV series, and web series for and with the Chinese.

American streamer Netflix, who is dominating in the rest of the world, is playing catch up in Asia. It’s done a deal with China’s iQIYI, is producing local content in Japan and India, has announced a licensing deal for Korean shows and will be premiering Korean original material in 2018. In Singapore and Indonesia it has partnerships with local telcos for distribution. Elsewhere in Asia, though, Netflix has far greater competition from domestic streamers who already have significant local offerings.

So what does all this action in Asia mean for us here?

Natural History New Zealand and Sir Richard Taylor’s Pukeko Pictures have well established relationships in China built over many years, and they are already producing TV content with the Chinese. Huhu Animation announced a multi-picture deal and the first official China-NZ co-production, animated feature Beast of Burden. These apart, there’s not a lot going on although two official feature co-productions with China and one with Korea are mooted.

We have seen in recent months a small number of Chinese TV series shooting in Queenstown, and we can expect more such inbound productions. I believe it’s unlikely though that we’ll see the volume of China-related production that Asian producers are engaged in, in the short to medium term.

One of the great difficulties we and the Australians face in dealing with China or any Asian country for that matter, is the language and or cultural divide. The Asians are much better at understanding each other culturally, and the similarities have made programmes and films cross borders there a lot more easily. A Japanese producer I spoke to told me that his drama series was selling all around Asia and that it had been remade in Korea.

Of the 78 film and TV co-productions the New Zealand Film Commission has on record since 1988, only five have been with Asian countries, three of those with China. The rest are with predominantly English speaking countries such as Canada , the UK, and Australia, although Germany does feature in the statistics, too, primarily because they have come in as minority co-production partners who have an affinity with NZ content, particularly, Maori. English-speaking Singapore, with whom we have a co-production treaty and one film (The Tattooist) under our belt, has an undeveloped film sector and a highly active domestic TV production base. The other English speaking country in Asia is the Philippines, with whom we have no formal co-production agreement. With both, though, there is the cultural divide.

I expect that when we have more Chinese-speaking directors, writers and producers in New Zealand we will see volume pick up. But until then, we’ll just have to look to Netflix, Lightbox and hopefully Amazon Prime for increases in New Zealand film and TV production volume. And perhaps one day soon, someone will crack the straight to international market TV drama nut and provide a pathway for others to follow.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Express Yourself

There are a number of opportunities fast approaching for you to voice your opinions on the state of the industry and how it affects you. I encourage all of you to engage as we are all faced with ongoing rapid transformation that will have a profound effect on your career prospects, opportunities, and incomes.

First up—The New Zealand Film Commission has finally gotten around to working on a tangata whenua strategy to support Māori in film.

With Māori stories and content being the key differentiator of New Zealand film on the international scene and Māori-driven projects having outstanding box office domestically, you have to wonder why it’s taken so long since the disaster that was the Te Paepae Ataata initiative for NZFC to get into action. Māori used to be at the forefront of indigenous filmmaking but that position is now well and truly occupied by Aboriginal Australians. Amazing what good levels of funding can achieve. NZFC is running a roadshow to gather input for the strategy. You can have your voice heard in Rotorua, Wellington, Auckland and the South Island. Details here.

Then there is our annual membership survey.

As a financial member you will have received a direct email with a link to it. It’s anonymous and will help us gauge what’s happening in your work sphere, what you think about what we as the guild are doing, and what you think we should be doing. As we continue to engage with funding bodies, government and other organisations over your creative, cultural and financial wellbeing, it’s also important we have facts to back up our arguments, so please take the seven minutes required to complete the survey. It will be a big help.

Next: I mentioned last week that on Thursday 24 August in Mt Eden the top five political parties will have representatives presenting their thoughts on the NZ screen sector.

Not only is this an opportunity for you to hear what they have to say, but it will also give you a chance to put your questions forward to the party individuals present. The election is up for grabs at this point and all of us need to lobby government to get our messages across. Seats are still available to attend this evening, which will be hosted by media commentator Russell Brown. RSVP here.

And then a little further out the Copyright Act review coming up in 2018. Directors are authors of audiovisual content and cinematographic film. For this reason directors should have copyright of such. They don’t. We can change this if we get the required changes to the Copyright Act. You can make a submission when the opportunity becomes available. Read what you need to know here, register to receive updates, and make a submission when invited to.

Finally, we are now just over five weeks to the general election. If you are not enrolled, please do so. And most of all, please vote to voice your opinion on the future of our country as it will be determined by the political party/parties in power.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Politics and the Screen Industry

Jacinda Ardern’s rise to the top of the totem pole in the Labour Party brings politics and the screen industry into focus.

Jacinda, like Helen Clark before her, has always been a big supporter of Arts and Culture, and she’s been proactive in her engagement with the screen industry across the last few years.

When Labour was last in power Helen Clark held the Arts and Culture portfolio, putting it front and centre at No. 1 on the cabinet list. Trevor Mallard held the Broadcasting portfolio at No. 7.

When John Key became prime minister, he took up the Tourism portfolio and Arts and Culture was given to Chris Finlayson at No. 9. Craig Foss held Broadcasting at No. 17.

In 2015, Maggie Barry became Minster of Arts, Culture and Heritage at No. 20, while Amy Adams held the Broadcast portfolio at No. 7—Adams is entranced with the digital realm and views broadcasting as a sunset industry.

As of today, Maggie Barry holds Arts, Culture and Heritage at No. 16 while Broadcasting is no longer a cabinet portfolio, perhaps a reflection of Adams’ view.

I think this is a pretty explicit indication of the importance of arts, culture and heritage, and broadcasting to the current government, although they have been persuaded to keep the incentives in place for screen production and provide some more funding for international incentives and the New Zealand Screen Production Grant for NZ productions, even though Minister of Finance Steven Joyce has publicly expressed that he would prefer not to have to offer incentives at all.

Both the NZ Film Commission and NZ On Air get their government funding through the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. As I’ve said before, NZ On Air hasn’t had a funding increase in 10 years. NZFC got a one-off windfall through Lotto but there’s not been a lot of movement in funding for NZ productions. Maori TV received an extra $10.4 million for infrastructure as part of a government funded te reo initiative, but their programming budget is unchanged.

To adapt to changing times while still playing with the same level of funding, NZ On Air now has its new platform agnostic funding model, but merely seems to be throwing more digital foxes into the chicken coop with the content-laying chooks while throwing their hands in the air and saying its not their responsibility.

Our public broadcaster TVNZ is exerting the same stranglehold on its OnDemand platform that it has held on its broadcasting channels, but now has more competition for funding from other players including NZME and VICE. The Filthy Productions lambasting Duncan Grieve of The Wireless online news platform has had his digital hand out for a while. We can assume that former TV3 News boss Keith Slater’s own platform Newsroom will be doing the same.

While TVNZ abandoned any pretence of public broadcasting a long time ago, Radio NZ is coming to the fore in this arena and competing with everyone else online. Not only are they continuing to put out quality radio, but their mix of video, podcasts, and online print news on their website is a welcome respite from all the dross that our established news providers are offering. Their Wireless website for ‘yoof’ is also now well established. The $2.84 million annual increase RNZ received after an eight-year funding freeze is small but welcome.

The giant in the digital room, Google, is preparing its case for more flexible Fair Use and Safe Harbour provisions with the government announcing a review of the Copyright Act in 2018 after the election. The guild views this as extremely threatening to sustainable careers in the screen industry. As part of its lobbying, Google touts the idea that more relaxed legislation will lead to greater innovation and thus new and increased revenue opportunities, which seems to have been bought lock, stock and barrel by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. They will increasingly rattle this particular cage but while attractive to those who see digital as a shiny new bauble, its not proven—Google of course is seeking to prove it.

Google through YouTube is just one of the many foreign companies operating in the New Zealand screen sector, which now includes the former Touchdown, Screentime, Greenstone, and South Pacific Pictures—all 100 percent foreign controlled—as well as Amazon Prime and Netflix. Mediaworks has been in foreign hands for a long time, as has NZME with the NZ Herald and Fairfax with Stuff. We have to wonder if we’d be better off if TVNZ was foreign-owned and their archive became a state asset. It’s no secret that Labour has looked closely at what’s required to create a true public broadcaster. It’s my view that Radio NZ is almost there—it just needs more money to make it happen. TVNZ 7 did pretty well with $15 million a year, and having worked in the past in niche channels I know that it doesn’t take that much to set up if you have a slot to go out on.

The above are just some of the topics we can ponder on and question about as we face an election in just seven weeks time. Where do the political parties sit with issues in the screen industry? Thanks to Film Auckland, we now have a golden opportunity to find out.

On the 24th of August in Auckland from 5pm – 8pm at Industry Connect, 34 Shaddock Street, Mt. Eden, media commentator Russell Brown will facilitate a forum with the top five political parties invited along to give their takes on the screen industry. You can reserve a free spot at this event here.

I encourage all of you to get along and find out what our political parties think about your future career prospects, and to put questions to them.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Support Independent Film in Theatres

Here we are again with New Zealand International Film Festival about to start. The weather’s been relatively atrocious. And digital is still buffeting the film and television worlds, with indie film taking the biggest hit.

We’ve had Lightbox, Neon, Netflix, Quickflix and now Amazon’s Prime Video for a while, along with OnDemand services from TVNZ and Mediaworks. Just the other day Minister of Arts Culture and Heritage Maggie Barry issued a press release marking NZFC’s TVOD service passing the 100-title mark. Even the festival has gotten into it with its own TVOD platform showing a few NZ and international titles. There is something special about the big screen experience, though, and I’m a fan of it.

Director Christopher Nolan just came out and said that he would never work with Netflix because his films are made for watching in theatres. He did however complement Amazon for offering a theatrical release and a three-month window before they streamed the films they acquire.

I was fortunate to be in Cannes this year and watched Bong Jun Ho’s Okja on the big screen at the Cannes Film Festival. I really liked it, and it was a pleasure to see it writ large. Okja was a Netflix Original that sneaked into Cannes where it was both booed and received a standing ovation. The Federation of French Cinemas kicked up such a fuss that Cannes introduced a new rule that only films committed to being screened in French movie theatres could be selected for the festival. To understand this you need to know (if you don’t already) that France views film and the cinema experience seriously—the release windows of Theatre, TV, DVD/BluRay and Streaming are jealously guarded, with 36 months required between Theatre and Streaming. Netflix of course cuts straight through this in most other countries. I note though that Ho ensured Okja got into cinemas in his home country of South Korea, even though the three major exhibitors refused to take it because of Netflix’s no-hold back policy that doesn’t allow for theatrical windows.

There’s no holding Netflix back at the moment, though. They’ve just recently announced another 5.2 million subscribers added in the last quarter—just over a million in the US and the rest internationally. Half of Netflix’s subscribers are now outside the US, with domestic growth slowing while international is exceeding their forecasts.

There is concern in some quarters about Netflix’s financials, as commentators believe Netflix will need to increase local content production to grow or maintain international subscriptions. They are already spending $6 billion a year on content at the moment, but investors are kept happy as long as there is booming consumer growth.

It would be nice to see some of that content money spent here but we have yet to see a locally produced Netflix show, although Monkey, shot at Kumeu Studios is a joint production between Australia’s See-Saw and NZ’s Jump TV for Netflix, the ABC and TVNZ.

There is laughter in some quarters about TVNZ Deputy Head of Content Andrew Shaw’s recent comment that Netflix is a passing fad. In comparison to the other streaming services paltry offerings in NZ, Netflix’s NZ feed is looking quite good. It will be interesting to see in two years time who’s passed and who’s still alive and kicking amongst the current bunch.

But all this Netflix chat has distracted me from what I wanted to say: and that is a call out to support independent film on the big screen.

We have an extremely highly regarded festival right here in NZIFF, offering us the best of what world cinema has to offer. And you can watch a lot of them in the magnificent Civic theatre, or at a number of other cinemas, including new venues the refurbished Hollywood in Avondale and the ASB Waterfront Theatre.

An Australasian distributor said to me recently that he thinks NZIFF is the best programmed film festival in the world, and he’s been going to many of them internationally for years. And this year there’s a fantastic programme of NZ films showing, a number of them directed by our very own DEGNZ members.

It’s tough out there in the independent film world, and every NZ film is an indie from a global perspective. This is a great time to celebrate our own films and those of other independent filmmakers—in theatres where they are best seen; otherwise you miss the ‘cinematic’ experience they all strive for.

I saw NZIFF’s opening night film The Square last night. It won the Palm D’Or at Cannes. Some criticised it for being too long. But that’s what European filmmakers do—make the films they want to. The Square was fabulous, funny, cinematic, and a joy to watch on the Civic’s massive screen.

I’m not hitting out at Netflix, though. I binge watch TV series as much as the next person. But if we want independent film (and that includes NZ film) to continue to exist, we’ve got to support screenings in theatres.

Thankfully, NZIFF travels nationally. I hope all of you get to take in at least one film during its run. There’s something for everyone.

On a final note, DEGNZ wishes NZIFF Festival Director Bill Gosden a speedy recovery from the illness that’s keeping him from his beloved festival.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

A Lot Going On

There’s a lot going on in the NZ screen industry at the moment, so I thought I would touch on a number of subjects.

First up is the NZFC’s Ramai Hayward Directors’ Scholarship for wahine Māori. A lot has been made of the fact that there hasn’t been a Māori woman director since Merata Mita 30 years ago and this award is looking to change that. The big elephant in the room in regard to this is why? Is it because there hasn’t been a decent script from a female Māori writer/director or writer and female Māori director to date that would get across the line? Or is it the bias that has seen so few women get to direct features in New Zealand? Or just a total lack of support for Māori women? Whatever the case it’s fantastic news that two absolutely talented wahine who deserve it have received the award. Rachel House is a gifted director in film and theatre, a great actor and is coming to the fore as an acting coach as well. Briar Grace-Smith is already well established as one of our premiere playwrights and screenwriters. I’m expecting both will prove themselves eminently capable as film directors with their debut features and look forward to seeing their stories on screen.

While talking about the Film Commission it hasn’t gone unnoticed that producer Chris Hampson and former radio exec. and businessman Ross McRobbie have reached the end of their terms on the board. They’ve been replaced by former production exec. and producer Paula Jalfon and ex ATEED CEO Brett Riley. Look at the NZFC board now and it’s obvious there’s a massive hole. Witi Ihimaera was the last active creative voice on the NZFC board representing artists. The previous one prior to that and the only feature film director in the last eight years if not longer was Vanessa Alexander. It’s high time there was an experienced feature film director on the NZFC board advocating for creatives amidst the board’s incredibly business and bureaucrat heavy make-up. We’ll be putting some names forward for the next board seat vacancy.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment announced last Thursday that they are launching a review of the Copyright Act. As any of you who read the op-eds by me will know, copyright is dear to our heart… cause we don’t have it and should. We were an active participant in the MBIE and MCH Copyright In The Creative Sector Study, and intend to be more active as the review takes place. As an aside it was pleasing to see Google taken to task by EU regulators with a $2.7 billion anti-trust fine for abusing its dominance by giving illegal advantage to its shopping comparison service. Google is using its massive power to weaken copyright law here and elsewhere.

NZ On Air has introduced its platform agnostic funding strategy, and there are apparently hands being extended out of the woodwork old and new. This is putting pressure on NZ On Air’s funds as they haven’t had a funding increase in 10 years, which many of you would know because it’s pretty much getting shouted from the rooftops these days. Online platforms particularly are queuing up to get funding for audiovisual content, and from our point of view exploiting content makers along the way. As I said last week and will say again, don’t sign a contract with an online platform without talking to your guild first.

Speaking of online content makers, I see Duncan Grieve is having an open spat with Gavin Strawhan, one of the writers of Filthy Rich. Grieve has gotten personal saying what many are thinking about NZ TV as they watch Netflix, Amazon, Neon or Lightbox. We all wait with bated breath to see what comes from the first round of NZ On Air funding under the new system. Will it be more of the same from TVNZ for drama and comedy or something else?

And that brings me to the worst kept secret in town, which is the management shakeup at TVNZ. Everyone knows it’s happened, and depending on who you are you know who’s still got a job and what the job is. But TVNZ seems to be keeping their head down about it as nothing has come out through their comms channels. Is it fodder for their next reality series? Time will undoubtedly tell.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Online Content – Take 2

It’s rare that I raise the same issue two weeks in a row. But the contracts that online platforms are seeking to put in place—or are with those who either don’t know what they’re signing or don’t care—are so unfair that that the guilds are extremely concerned.

There are four key issues at stake:

1. Compensation
2. Intellectual property rights
3. Editorial Control
4. Sustainable work

Content creators are being asked to deliver high-quality scripted content that will bring eyeballs to screens and deliver revenue, directly or indirectly. The compensation being offered to do this is pitiful for the work required. With appropriate levels of compensation not being the ‘give’ that the platforms are offering for the ‘get’, you would expect that they would be fair and reasonable when it came to terms and conditions for the content. But they are not.

The most draconian of the contracts that the guilds have seen are asking for all rights for ever and a day from those coming in with developed ideas.

Then there are the incidences where creators are being employed for poor levels of pay to generate and develop content ideas that they have no rights in.

And when passionate content creators are asked to produce their own ideas under contracts for little money without the editorial freedom that stimulated many of them into getting into online content in the first place, they feel exploited. And it’s hard not to agree with their viewpoint.

A classic cry from the platforms is that they are offering content creators a space on the internet that can put their content in front of a lot of eyeballs with marketing backup. Another is that in this new world of content creation you can’t expect to get paid well for the work you do in the manner that you may have been in the past. And another is the ‘talent development opportunity’ and ‘talent exposure’ that they are giving you. Yet in this new world of content creation they are employing old world contracting norms that don’t allow content creators to fairly benefit from their endeavours, and to build sustainable careers.

I repeat what I said at our Screenlink evening on Lo-budget Content Making this week—Do NOT sign a contract with an online platform without showing it to a guild or entertainment lawyer. You are doing yourself, your colleagues and your industry a disservice if you do.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Web Series – Opportunities or Rorts?

Ever since Auckland Daze transitioned from online to TV, web series have been seen as an opportunity for young scripted programme makers to get the break they so desperately want and have been effectively shut out of in broadcast in New Zealand.

Of course there are those who see YouTube and other online platforms as a revenue generating opportunity and produce content in the hope that they can turn their web programme making into paid work.

And then there are the truly passionate who just want to make stuff and put it out there for people to see without a lot of expectation, hoping that their good work will get noticed and lead to something better.

On the other hand there are some, like Shoshana McCallum, who created a full spec TV pilot as she did with Animals to pitch to a network, which got shutdown and now it’s online so it at least gets seen.

Then there were Gerard Johnstone and Luke Sharpe who revamped Terry Teo for TV 2 and ended up having it pushed to OnDemand without it seeing the broadcast light of day until TVNZ responded to criticism by promising to schedule it and defending their non-broadcast play citing a viewer rating concern.

Some time ago, particularly after the success of KHF Media’s Reservoir Hill, New Zealand On Air realized there was no turning the digital clock back and so they gradually expanded digital content funding streams to deal with what would inevitably become a growing area of application activity.

The initial largess NZ On Air showed Reservoir Hill with 8 x 8 min. eps at just over $300,000 or $4,700/min. has essentially dropped to $100,000 for web series for around the same number of eps and mins., at essentially $1,500/min.*, although some series are going as low as $500/min., and some as high as $2,500/min. And now you have to make a pilot to go with the application.

Here are some comparable numbers for broadcast comedy shows; the genre most popular with web series: Agent Anna 2 (TV One) at $8,200/min., Auckland Daze (TV One), which moved from online to broadcast at $2,800/min., Paranormal Event Response Unit (TV2) at $4,700/min., and Find Me A Maori Bride 2 (MTS) at $2,800/min.

*(Per minute rates are based on the half hour or hour, not the actual commercial duration.)

It’s my guess that anybody working on a scripted show for less than $4000/min. that varies it’s locations and cast, employs art direction, make up, props, costumes, etc. and pursues a quality production approach is not getting paid properly.

So how are people being compensated fairly?

Are cast and crew getting back end points in the production of a web series on which they work for low or no pay so that they can share in any revenue upside that might come from developments like an additional sale, a move from online to broadcast as in the case of Auckland Daze, or an offshore remake as happened with Reservoir Hill in Sweden?

When producers retain the intellectual property of a show and get cast and crew to work for free or below market rates, they have an obligation to share the success with the team that helped get them there when something goes good. And cast and crew have an obligation to demand it, even when it’s from friends as it most often is.

And what about when media giants want to pay little more than the basic wage for the creation and production of online content, take all the rights to ideas that creators come up with, rely on the creative execution of directors, editors and others to craft good programming, then monetise it to generate revenues for themselves? Something’s not right here, surely.

Film has essentially been the home of the above-the-line creative delusional—web series it seems is now the digital equivalent—There’s no lack of people laying their heads on the digital block with pilots for TVNZ’s and NZ On Air’s New Blood Competition in the hope that something greater will come of it.

If you are not being compensated at market rates for the work you do on a web series or online project, ensure that you negotiate the opportunity through points or another mechanism such as shared IP ownership to benefit later if additional revenues ever flow. Or ensure that you agree to a deferred fee arrangement for the difference and maybe a backend kicker that gets paid to you when the producer/rights holder starts to see money come in, either with the content you helped create or another series, version or manifestation of it.

And get your contract or agreement on paper, even if it’s a deal memo and not a long-form contract, before you start working on a project, not after you’ve started, particularly with mates—it’s merely being professional about the whole thing.

There are many positive outcomes that can flow when you contribute your time and expertise for nix or next to nada, and there are just as many rorts. Make sure you are on the right side of the equation. You deserve it. Otherwise you won’t build a sustainable career.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Just Do It?

I was listening to an interview with British director and editor Ben Wheatley on a podcast the other day.

Wheatley in case you don’t know him is considered the new enfant terrible of British film.

He started out making videos for YouTube and got noticed, went on to create online content and then moved into TV comedy.

He wanted to know how he could get into feature film and was told he needed to make a short. Being impatient, Wheatley pooh poohed that idea and went straight to a feature. He shot his first one in eight days, drawing on his experience doing fast-turnaround TV and approaching it like shooting a documentary, going hand held. The result was Down Terrace, which was released in 2009. It was well received by critics and has an 85% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes. His second feature Kill List, which was shot in 12 days, marked Wheatley as a filmmaker to really watch. Wheatley has with the recent arrival of his latest feature Free Fire now made six feature films, nearly one a year—and the budgets have been getting bigger as has the star power—amongst others Tom Hiddleston in High Rise and Brie Larson in Free Fire.

Wheatley’s from the ‘Just Do It’ variety of filmmakers. He and his mates from outside the film industry (but in the production industry) got together to make Down Terrace, and they’ve been working with each other ever since. He’s trained himself as an editor as well as a director, and this editing experience and his TV training he says has helped him get the coverage he needs on his films and not more, as well as always making his day.

There’s a theory that says TV directors lack a voice and therefore can’t make a decent film. Wheatley’s disproven that as he has a highly distinctive filmmaking voice. And in expressing that voice he’s come up with a process and philosophy that he prescribes to. From amongst many of his thoughts on filmmaking, here are six Wheatley tips for aspiring filmmakers (with my paraphrasing):

  1. Create the Industry Around You—i.e. kick the doors down and don’t wait around for bureaucrats/permission.
  2. Acquire a Particular Set of Skills—if you want to be a good low-budget filmmaker, you need to understand the process and all the roles of production well to be efficient.
  3. . Keep It Small—the bigger the beast, the harder it is to wrangle.
  4. Your Actors Are Your Biggest Asset—great performances work anywhere, poor performances just don’t cut it.
  5. Chop It—get rid of what’s not good… brutally. And don’t be afraid to go against convention when you do.
  6. Don’t Be Precious—just make stuff, and learn from it.

Of course, there are a lot of people out there already with the ‘Just Do It’ approach. And many of them are making bad films because it takes more than an attitude to make a good film—it also requires talent. Which doesn’t mean to say that you can’t learn from your mistakes and get better as you go. Filmmaking however is an unforgiving beast, particularly when it comes to funders. You have a good chance of surviving self-funded flops, critically and box office wise, particularly if not many people have seen it and you’re not using one to promote your next project. Make a flop with a funding body however and you are going to find it hard to get another project up as a director.

Just do it? Yes, that philosophy has its merits. But if you can, make the first one good, and the next one better than the last. That way, you might be the next Ben Wheatley (or Taika Waititi).

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director