Just Not Cutting It

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Just over four years ago a group of senior editors were sitting around on a Sunday afternoon in Auckland lamenting the fact that standards just weren’t like they used to be. They questioned each other as to why that was. The answer they came up with was that in the old days, i.e. the days of film, assistant editors worked in the cutting room like apprentices, learning their craft under the tutelage of the cutting editor.
In this way they were learning the technical aspects of their work and:

  • observing the editor at work,
  • getting the chance to cut on the project and have their work critiqued by the editor,
  • and being part of the conversations between the editor and the director, producer, funding body, broadcaster, etc.

All the while they were on the project for essentially the full length of the edit.

With the advent of digital editing, the role of the assistant editor quickly morphed into dealing much more with the technical preparation of material for editing, often on opposite shifts from the editor. This was usually done in a cost-saving exercise by the producer so that one edit setup could be used across 24 hours, rather than having to hire two to work in parallel. Additionally, the assistant editor’s time working on the project was reduced, because producers could see that once the technical work was finished there was a way to further lower costs.

All this meant that the chance to observe, cut and receive critique was often curtailed unless the editor made a considered effort to ensure their assistant got the opportunities. For the editor it meant working unsupported through post, dealing with the increased digital complexities of an edit on top of doing their job.

The impact this became obvious when senior editors were being brought onto projects to ‘fix’ them because less experienced editors were being held responsible for not delivering a satisfactory cut.

At the same time, the technical nature of the work was becoming more complex and assistant editors were often required to figure it all out by themselves without significant guidance from the editor who was too busy doing what they were hired to do.

With the financial support of the NZ Film Commission, DEGNZ began to offer Assistant Editor Workshops in late 2018 to seek to formalise and standardise the technical aspects of the assistant editor’s role in a two-level training programme, which also recognises the Technical Assistant Editor as a career path in itself.

DEGNZ, again with NZFC support, introduced Feature Film Editing Attachments, so that junior editors seeking to work in features could get back into the room with the editor for the creative aspects they are often missing out on.

A third issue arising from digital editing and productions is digital workflow. Again, many are being left to figure it out for themselves with the result that a digital mess is being delivered to professional post production houses who have to waste precious time and resources sorting it out. This of course costs money that could be used to better effect on the creative side of post-production.

DEGNZ approached the Screen Production and Development Association (SPADA) with the issue. As a result, inaugural Post Production Workflow Workshops will be run by SPADA with DEGNZ in Auckland and Wellington next week, primarily targeted at producers who are the ones most likely to suffer when post doesn’t go well.

A bigger picture issue that DEGNZ is currently working on with a number of post houses nationally is to develop Best Practice Standards for post-production. We hope that the initiatives we have put in place and others we want to introduce over time will deliver greater creative outcomes and make the technical side more efficient and cost effective for everyone.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

The Future of (NZ) Film

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When Bob Iger of Disney speaks about the future of film, it’s worth listening.

Why?

Because amongst the hundreds of companies that sit under the Disney umbrella are 20th Century Fox, Lucas Film, Marvel, and Pixar. Brands number in the thousands and include through whole or partial ownership indie darling Fox Searchlight, streamer Hulu, and networks ABC, ESPN, FX, National Geographic and A & E.

Of course Disney doesn’t own everything. There are other conglomerates out there, the likes of Amazon, Apple, Comcast, and TimeWarner who are shaping the screen content world we are in now. But Iger demands everyone’s attention.

So this month at Disney’s third quarter earnings announcement when Iger essentially declared that big movies belong in theatres, and everything else will go to its streamers Hulu and the soon-to-launch-globally Disney+, everyone sat up.

Reporting on this, Journalists Dana Harris and Chris Lindahl in Indiewire wrote that “The very, very top films with awards potential will see generous theatrical offers and bidding wars that price out all but the deepest pockets. The highest-quality films with no clear awards play will also see strong offers and bidding wars, but from streamers, and considerably less generous offers from independent theatrical distributors. For everyone else, it looks like a struggle — although they could also benefit from the streamers’ ongoing arms race to acquire the content mass necessary to achieve market dominance.”

So where does that leave us in New Zealand with our 10 or so narrative and documentary features a year? Blissfully unaware some say.

A recent article in The Hollywood Reporter gives some indication that even the top names in film can see the writing on the wall. Directors including Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan amongst others were behind the Ultra High Definition Alliance’s announced introduction of a “Filmmaker Mode” TV setting. Director Ryan Coogler essentially admitted the fate of film by saying, “I care deeply about how cinema is experienced at home because that’s where it lives the longest. That’s where cinema is watched and re-watched and experienced by families. By allowing the artists in the tent to help consult and give feedback to the electronics companies on Filmmaker Mode, we can collectively help make the consumer’s experience even more like it is in the cinema.”

Of course the name directors will still get their films into theatres—witness the Netflix launch of Scorsese’s The Irishman, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and Amazon’s commitment to theatrical release for the auteur directors it backs. But for the rest of us? We might have to get used to premieres in Filmmaker Mode unless you can get your films into festivals.

Once streamers Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime and WarnerMedia are in full swing here, perhaps NZFC might even relax its demand that you have to have NZ theatrical release to get production funding.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Is It Time for TVNZ to Revert to Public Broadcasting?

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My op-ed this week is devoted to personal musings in the lead up to the NZ Screen Sector Strategy hui, and the changing nature of the screen industry as we know it.

Colin Peacock on the Radio New Zealand website wrote on the weekend about ‘Convergence’: what it is and what it has led to—telecommunications and broadcasting merging due to digital technology and the Internet.

One outcome of the convergence that’s happened here, which I wrote about last newsletter, was the TVNZ board reporting to Government that it will not be paying a dividend for the foreseeable future.

In the same RNZ convergence article, TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick is quoted as saying that TVNZ will refine the data from TVNZ OnDemand users to allow advertisers to tightly target ads to online viewers.

Following last year’s revamp of TVNZ OnDemand, RNZ also reported Kendrick as saying, “Consumers of online video are pretty clear they pay with their wallet, their data or their time. We’re in an ad-funded world.”

With no profits in sight and the Government forgiving TVNZ its requirement as a state-owned company to deliver a dividend, is it time to turn TVNZ back into a public broadcaster and forget about advertising as the main revenue stream?

If convergence is the reality, how about converging ONE, TVNZ 2, DUKE, TVNZ OnDemand and Radio NZ into a new media powerhouse for public broadcasting? Let’s call it Aotearoa Media Powerhouse – Digital (AMP-D) for ease.

The commitment by Kendrick to a significant increase in local content, the mix between local and international shifting markedly towards local, and investment in an online future while making that content available across more devices would make absolute sense for AMP-D. This would parallel the efforts the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) are making to survive.

Granted, TVNZ would be moving from a business that cost close to $300 million to run in 2018—essentially what they earn from advertising—to a public broadcaster that has to find other ways to earn revenue.

How about an AMP-D Studios along the lines of BBC Studios, whose remit is to produce and market programmes not only for the BBC, but for other broadcasters on the open market at home and internationally, returning profits back to the BBC. AMP-D Studios would give the commercially inclined at TVNZ a new playground to play in.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to AMP-D is we’d get away from this navel-gazing that differentiates New Zealand content for local audiences, which is fragmenting away before our eyes. AMP-D Studios and independents could produce programming that is—to steal something else from the BBC—distinctive (in our case NZ), world-class content. Why couldn’t AMP-D Studios generate shows like The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, produced by Danish public broadcaster DR, which sold all around the world? There’d have to be a cap to how much of the public purse AMP-D Studios could get, though.

AMP-D could also generate news and current affairs nationally in a revenue generating service to commercial media companies, much as the NZ Press Association and the worldwide video news service Visnews did previously. This would allow the commercials to put their own spin on the content without the major cost of resourcing.

AMP-D OnDemand could have two operational tiers: Subscriber Video On Demand (SVOD) that’s ad-free and costs a monthly fee, and Ad-Supported Video On Demand (AVOD) that carries advertising in a free-to-air service. Hulu already operates this hybrid system.

In such a new environment, it would make sense for NZ On Air and the NZ Film Commission to ‘converge’. Let’s call this the Aotearoa Media Fund (AMF). AMF could manage the discretionary funding allotted to it to spend between broadcast, digital audio-visual content for the Internet, film and radio.

To really power AMP-D up, AMF could be required to stop funding content on the commercial platforms, dedicate its funding to AMP-D and meet its requirement to deliver great New Zealand content that is valued and enjoyed by many New Zealand audiences on multiple public broadcasting platforms. A cap in funding for internal production for both screen and radio content could be levelled to ensure independent production companies could operate in the new environment.

AMP-D could benefit local feature films by being required to carry all films funded by AMF, guaranteeing free-to air play to New Zealand audiences for every NZ film, which doesn’t happen now. The best films would get significant marketing and promotion. The not-so-good would get buried in AMP-D OnDemand—the same for not-so-great content on Netflix—where they’d sit for those still interested enough to search them out. (Smart Kiwi producers could take a page out of Norwegian producer Anders Tange’s book on how to build an audience independently of a streamer as he did for his Viking comedy Norsemen on Netflix.)

It’s almost certain that there would be an increased cost to establishing and running AMP-D that would take a long time to mitigate if ever, even with the efficiencies of a combined entity. That would be the cost of continued existence.

But perhaps it might be useful to compare New Zealand content and its industry to the kakapo — an endangered species that’s potentially headed towards extinction if we don’t do something paradigm-shifting to save it.

“What about us?”, the commercial platforms here would scream?

Frankly, it’s a fight for survival and we have to ensure first and foremost that our content and our platforms survive and flourish in the brave new world that’s upon us. Sorry, you commercial guys, you’re going to have to sort it for yourselves. Or maybe ‘converge’.  And if they withered and died, maybe it would all be for the better for AMP-D. After all, it would still have to face Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney +, HBO +, Hulu and others. Heck, AMP-D might even have to team up with the public broadcasters in Australia, Canada, the UK, the U.S. and elsewhere to live to fight another day. Such collaborations are already happening in Europe.

I’m happy for anyone to shoot holes in my postulations above. I’ve only spent a couple of hours daydreaming, not weeks and months devising a strategy. The intent is to get you to do more thinking about our industry with the screen sector strategy upon us. We can now imagine our own futures and let Government know.

We are going to be sending out the list of questions I wrote about in the last blog to everyone on our database. We want your thoughts about the direction the New Zealand’s screen industry should go. So please take the time to ponder, write to and or tell the Screen Sector Strategy NZ and DEGNZ your opinions. We’ll make sure we collate them and submit them from the Guild along with our thinking, so that we all have a say.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Where to From Here?

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The Screen Sector Strategy has announced the dates of its intended hui in 3 locales to gather industry input into a strategy document for the New Zealand Screen Industry. This will be taken to Government in the first half of 2020.

This is an important opportunity for every individual to give their ten cents worth on how they would like to see the direction of the screen industry go.

The DEGNZ board has put together a list of questions for members to help stimulate your ideas. You can find the Guild questionnaire available here to download. Please do send your responses back to us at admin@degnz.co.nz with ‘Questionnaire’ in the subject line.

Below are some recent developments that could contribute to your thinking.

The Spinoff reported in an article on Saturday that for the foreseeable future, TVNZ will not report a dividend to government—essentially, TVNZ’s profitability is way down and is likely to remain so. The impact of Google and Facebook on onscreen advertising revenues is a major factor in this, as well as the advent of Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix and the fragmentation of the media market.

In the same article, The Spinoff reported an unprecedented call-out by NZ On Air to all the major news providers to attend a meeting to discuss the long term sustainability of journalism.

Across the ditch in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Final Report into Digital Platforms addresses this topic amongst others. Key findings include:

  • The availability of a wide range of high-quality news and journalism provides significant benefits to Australian society and is important for the healthy functioning of democracy.
  • News and journalism risk under-provision for a number of reasons, including the general inability of commercial news media businesses to capture the broader social benefits of journalism.
  • Media businesses, particularly traditional print (now print/online) publishers, have experienced a significant fall in advertising revenue as advertisers follow audiences who have migrated online to access news and other content. This has coincided with strong growth in online advertising, which now accounts for half of all advertising expenditure. Google and Facebook together account for nearly two-thirds of online advertising expenditure.

These aren’t earth-shattering revelations, but clearly highlight the fundamentals of what we all are wrestling with and that are driving TVNZ, Mediaworks, Fairfax, and NZME amongst others to the wall.

The Australians have also called for a levy on streamers to fund local content, the need to maintain broadcast TV quotas, and an end to cuts for screen funding bodies and public broadcasters as previously written about in the Guild blog here.

Funding cuts have impacted heavily on Screen Australia and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In New Zealand in comparison, our funding bodies (NZFC, NZ On Air) have had relatively static funding for years, with more and more calls upon it.

As many of you will now be aware, there is international production work to be shot in New Zealand coming out of our ears. We are already seeing a shortage of experienced personnel and crew rates and other production costs are rising while New Zealand budgets stay the same. The question of how local production can survive and thrive in the face of the onslaught of offshore work arriving is vexing a number of us.

We are at a crucial time for both the local and international screen industries. There are seismic shifts still to come as Disney, WarnerMedia, Apple and other streaming services come online and continue to shake broadcast and theatrical to their foundations.

The Screen Sector Strategy work now underway needs to be completed quickly and effectively if we are to have a sustainable industry in New Zealand that benefits from international production and contributes to the development of local screen content and Kiwi screen IP.

Please share your thoughts on where to from here with us at the Guild, at the Screen Sector Strategy hui and with submissions, so that a well thought out strategy is distilled that will work for us all.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Are We Missing the Streamer Boat?

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It’s hard not to bang on about streaming services when they are continuing to upend the screen industry as we know it.

Media intelligence service FilmTake recently reported that Disney, WarnerMedia, and Apple are expected to spend between US$8 million to $20 million per episode on new drama series.

Amazon has supposedly set aside over a billion US dollars to bring a five-season Lord of the Rings series to Amazon Prime.

There are other epics planning to cash-in on the void left after the conclusion of Game of Thrones include WarnerMedia’s Dune series, Showtime’s Halo, and Apple’s fantasy series See.

Disney+ is also producing a Star Wars series, Mandalorian, which is costing $15 million per episode.

And these are just the TV blockbusters.

The Financial Times reported that in Europe, Netflix will make 221 projects in 2019, including 153 originals.

Netflix has launched its first European production hub in Madrid, targeting Spanish-language production and drama series, which have been a priority and a large source of success for the U.S. streaming giant.

In July of this year, it also announced that it is creating a dedicated production hub, featuring 14 sound stages, workshops and office space, at Shepperton Studios in the United Kingdom.

In the last year alone, over 25,000 cast, crew and extras have worked on almost 40 Netflix originals and co-productions across Britain.

New Zealand is certainly not missing out on service production for streamers as witnessed most recently by the noise about the Lord of The Rings TV Series potentially being shot here for Amazon. Netflix has already been here with Letter For the King and is currently shooting another.

But are we missing the boat with local IP to satisfy the booming global appetite for content, particularly drama?

Yes, local producers do continue to sell their NZ ON Air and TMP funded content internationally, but that’s been the case for many years now.

NZ formats for the international market have made headway, as most recently attested to by Filthy Productions’ sale of Filthy Rich to the Fox Network.

It’s easy to forget that Rob Tapert has been making TV shows here for the international market for over 25 years—everything from Hercules and Xena to Spartacus and Ash vs Evil Dead.

But there’s nothing new in all this, as it was happening prior to the advent of Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) services like Netflix and Amazon.

While NZ On Air continues to do the best it can with limited funds for local drama, it’s essentially locked into a myopic approach by its adherence to the Broadcasting Act, and it doesn’t look like it will change that anytime soon.

But there is a little light at the end of the tunnel.

Screentime has forged into Scandi Noir with its Danish coproduction Straight Forward, now on TVNZ OnDemand, and its soon to be released copro The Gulf, with Paula Boock and Donna Malane’s Lippy Pictures and a German partner.

And we have seen one Netflix Original in Auckland-based Razor Films’ Dark Tourist, while See-Saw Films and Jump TV are into their second series of The New Legends of Monkey for the ABC, TVNZ and Netflix. Almost going unnoticed is Pango Production’s 2018 production All Or Nothing: New Zealand All Blacks for Amazon Prime.

But really! Can we survive the onslaught of service production work from streamers in New Zealand and get our own IP out there in more than an occasional way?

There are a number of factors holding us back and one of them is writers. We don’t have enough skilled writers with the experience required to get internationally-focused shows across the line. The NZFC/NZ On Air Raupapa Whakaari Series Drama Lab initiative is seeking to address this by bringing in international-calibre mentors to work on local show ideas with teams here. Hopefully this will bear fruit.

Another is lack of funding. NZ On Air production funding caps out at $6 million, and you can’t access the NZ Screen Production Grant and NZ On Air Funding for the same project. When even middle-of-the-road Aussie shows are being made for the international market at AUD $1.5 to 2 million or more per episode for 6 to 10 eps, you can see the problem. But before you get to production you have to go through development, and the cost for that is going to be anywhere between $300,000 to $500,000. Again, there’s not the funding here for that. Raupapa Whakaari’s matched funding is limited to NZ$50,000 per year.

You might well ask why do we need to create our own IP anyway, and not just be service providers for international productions?

For directors and editors there’s going to be more work on local shows than international ones. The post production is generally not done here for international shows, and there’s only a very small pool of Kiwi directors with the credits to get themselves hired on international productions. That will expand slowly over time, but local shows hire locals, and we are increasing the numbers of Kiwi directors working on NZ On Air dramas.

In the end though, it’s our distinctiveness as Kiwis with Kiwi stories to tell and landscapes to show that provides cut through in the international market. I’m paraphrasing Paula Boock of Lippy Pictures who participated on our Screenlink panel this week along with Mark McNeill of Razor Films and Steven Zanoski of Filthy Productions to discuss ‘Screen Content for the Global Market’. Locally owned IP also brings revenues back to New Zealand when it’s successful, long after production has finished.

I don’t think we are going to miss the boat entirely when it comes to creating our own shows for the streaming giants. But it does sometimes seem like we are standing at the end of the pier watching the ship sailing away and wondering how the hell we are going to get onboard.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director