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I’ve been writing this blog for the DEGNZ newsletter for close to six years now. There have been a few times when I’ve been stuck for what to write about, but ultimately came through. But from memory there were two or three times when I couldn’t move from the blank page and we’ve had to delay the newsletter to the following week.

I listen to Jeff Goldsmith’s podcast The Q & A. One of the questions he always asks writers he interviews is what they do when they have writer’s block. Of course the answers vary from: I don’t have it, I go for a walk, I just write anything to get through it, and multiple other responses.

You perhaps have twigged that the above is what I am doing now to address what was the blank page staring me in the face. Moving on.

Something else I listen to on a regular basis is Standing Room Only on RNZ. Last Sunday it featured a Simon Morris interview with the new CEO of NZFC, David Strong. In it, Strong quoted the Jackson Court Report of 2010, in which Peter Jackson said, “Arguably, there might be no more than 25 or 30 truly talented screen writers and directors working in a country the size of New Zealand.”

Supposedly, in each round of EDF at NZFC now, there are 20 – 30 applications. There are five EDF rounds a year. I understand that around 50% of projects applying for EDF get it. They are either new projects or projects coming in again for another round of EDF.

EDF these days doesn’t mean that a script is in early development. The competition for EDF is so strong that if a project isn’t a good way along the development path when it first goes in, then it’s unlikely to get funded. In other words, a lot of blank page staring must be going on during spec writing to get a script in good enough shape to be seriously considered for funding.

Strong also outlined how scripts going through NZFC were selected to be made—EDF with internal and external assessors, and ADF where local and international assessors were used to decide whether or not the film would get greenlit for production funding.

NZFC production funds between 10 – 15 films per year, some of which are documentary features. The remainder are narratives.

With some unscientific number crunching looking forward, you could make a guesstimate that of the 150 or so films that apply for funding each year 75 get EDF, so the odds of getting EDF are 50%, or one in two.

If 75 films got EDF each year and 10 – 15 films are made, then the odds of a film getting EDF and getting made are 20% or one in five.

Another way of looking at it is that of the 150 films in any given year applying for EDF funding, only 10% or one in ten will get over the line and get made, perhaps substantiating Jackson’s view. Some, I’m sure, would dispute that the best scripts always go into production.

Morris also asked Strong what vision he pitched to the NZFC board to get the job. His response: he didn’t pitch an “agenda”. Rather he went on to speak of the dramatic change in the film business globally and the need to continue to attract international production to deliver economic and other benefits that will help to make the New Zealand film industry sustainable—his job he sees it is to create the environment to deliver that. I don’t believe that’s a message that going to resonate with New Zealand filmmakers, but one that will certainly make crew happy.

Coming into the Film Commission doesn’t give any new CEO a blank page. In this instance, Strong picked up on the more recent legacies of former CEOs Dave Gibson and Annabelle Sheehan.

But each CEO gets to decide the direction in which they will drive the organisation. As Morris pointed out, Gibson drove it towards commercial fare, Sheehan towards diverse. You could take from the interview that international production is a priority for Strong, even though he pointed out repeatedly the cultural remit of the organisation and the need to tell NZ stories on screen.

There is perhaps light at the end of the tunnel, though. Earlier in the piece he did state that the whole purpose of being a director or writer is to have their own voice… “Let the director have their voice because we go to cinemas to see great stories, and great stories have to be inspired by great writers and great directors.” If Strong can achieve this for New Zealand film while treading the path of attracting international production, then he will have made his own mark on the industry, and it will be considered a success by NZ creatives. Now if he would only stop calling films “shows”.

You can listen to the full interview here.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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DEGNZ President Howard Taylor signs off.

I am retiring from my role as president of the DEGNZ. Going, but not quite gone. As required by the constitution, I will be continuing as a board member for another year to ensure a smooth transition.

I regard being on the Board of the Guild an honour and a privilege. It is also a lot of work – as my fellow board members will attest. However, I believe that giving back in this way to the industry that has given me such a wonderful career is the least we can do.

I have been on the Board since we set the Guild up 25 years ago and I have been president for five years. I turned the role down twice because I felt, rightly or wrongly, that while I had spent a lifetime in the world of television, I was not familiar enough with the film world. That changed when, having written a feature film screenplay, I took part in a year-long course in international co-production of features. The new-found knowledge gave me the confidence to finally say yes to the role of president.

I am a great believer in Guilds and the role they play in the industry. The lobbying we do on our members behalf is very often unseen. There is a tendency for government and industry bodies like the NZFC to listen to producers and either forget the creatives or assume that producers speak for everyone. The voice of the director (and editor) in the debates that arise is vital.

While it would be wonderful for us all to have the freedom implied by the fact that film is an artform, we are constrained by the pressures of the commercial world. Those pressures impact us directly as an erosion of conditions and fees. The Guild has a key role in protecting what we currently have and promoting improvements. This will be tested when we put on our Union hat and go into negotiation with SPADA to negotiate minimum rates and conditions as set out in the new Screen Industry Worker legislation.

The Guild’s role in providing education and skills training to members is important in an industry where most training is for beginners.

Directors live in silos. It’s many years since I was on another director’s set. Watching other directors work is a valuable learning experience and it’s great the DEGNZ can give directors (and editors) that opportunity.

What I value most is the sense of fraternity that Guild membership brings. We look after each other. Yes, we are competitors for jobs, but in my experience the willingness of directors and editors to lend a hand to their fellows trumps any sense of competition. Guild membership gives me a sense of connectedness to the screen industry that I have never found anywhere else.

The Guild has evolved hugely over the years, becoming a sophisticated organisation dealing with a plethora of active issues. I am proud of what the Guild has achieved and look forward to its robust and noisy future. Kia kaha.

Howard Taylor
(Ex.) President

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On Wednesday evening I participated in our online Editors and Assistant Editors Gathering. There were about 35 of us. It was an opportunity to discuss issues that affect editors and assistant editors, and to network.

One of the questions that often came up from students studying screen, and one that I regularly encounter, is: How do you get a job in the industry?

This is a question we are wrestling with at the Guild as we put our efforts into the Reform of Vocational Education, to provide both a clear pathway into work as well as to outline educational structures and content that will help to ensure learners are as prepared as they can be to work within the screen sector.

The Gathering also got me to look back at how I got into the screen sector, and I thought I would relate that pathway here.

I was living in Tokyo Japan working with an American and Canadian friend in their small agency as a writer and rewriter of copy for advertising and communications content. A good chunk of the work was taking the Japanese to English translations the Canadian and others were doing of corporate video scripts and brushing them up for re-narrating in English.

The American had gone to film school in California and had a mate who was working as an Editor at Entertainment Tonight, a daily entertainment show on CBS. My friend managed to convince his mate and his mate’s bosses they needed a stringer (contract) crew in Japan to do entertainment stories for the show. They agreed, so he went out and bought camera and sound gear, roped his Canadian partner, me and another friend in, and very quickly we were filing stories for them. It was fun work. In the early days it was occasionally covering well-known bands coming to Japan to play concerts before it spun into much broader entertainment content and more regular work.

Meanwhile I had been travelling back to NZ once a year for breaks. On one trip I met a young Kiwi student studying at Auckland University who was a good Japanese speaker. He told me that he had been getting work with a couple of Japanese line producers, one living in Auckland the other in Sydney. They were coordinating Japanese TV commercial crews coming down to NZ for shoots. This made me think that there was an opportunity to get into this work as my English-speaking Japanese girlfriend (now wife) worked regularly as an interpreter, and my sister was a travel agent. We set up a company and for a few years worked with Japanese crews, most often in Central Otago and Southland shooting commercials.

During this time we returned to NZ to live and continued running the company, but I decided that I wanted to make content rather than just help others to make it. I made up a list of production companies in Auckland (there weren’t many at that time) and started banging on doors. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do too much knocking before I was hired to work as a production assistant for television and film producer Robin Scholes. So began my climb up the ladder through various roles as a writer, director, producer and executive producer doing corporate, TV, travel, and news for companies, including a couple of my own, before I launched into narrative drama.

Everybody has their own path into the screen industry. Every once in a while from now on I’m going to ask someone to write about their own experience. I’m hoping it will at least be interesting if not helpful for readers, while the Guild works to make it less about who you know and more about what you know, and formalise how to get there to kickstart a career.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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Yesterday I was sitting all day on line in the National Affiliates Conference of the Council of Trade Unions.

There were three of us from the screen industry. Teachers, nurses, forestry workers, maritime workers, supermarket workers and everybody else who makes up the New Zealand workforce were also represented.

Every time I join these union discussions it brings home the fact that the screen industry is so entirely different from many others.

We are made up almost exclusively of contractors not employees. We are not protected by the Employment Relations Act. We don’t have collective bargaining. We go predominantly from short-term job to short-term job. We don’t get holiday pay. We can end up working below the minimum wage. These are just some of the differences.

But many of us are very fortunate in comparison to large numbers of employees in other sectors. Most of us love the work we do. We are engaged in a creative industry where self-expression is encouraged. A good number of people in our industry are well-paid at levels above the living wage.

Yes, not everything is great about our work situations and things could be better. That’s where the Screen Industry Workers Bill comes in. If we can get it across the line, and it looks like we will, then all of the guilds will be able to set minimum terms and conditions in negotiations with engagers (producers/production companies), both at an occupation level—for directors, editors, gaffers, grips, VFX supervisors, etc.—and hopefully at an enterprise level (individual productions). It will be a game changer.

The Government is also seeking a game changer for other industries through the Fair Pay Agreements, which they are working on now.

Fair Pay Agreements are kind of the Screen Industry Workers Bill for everybody else. You can read more about them here.

While it might seem like workers in other sectors have good representation and are able to collectively negotiate minimums and terms and conditions, that’s not the case. The Fair Pay Agreements system is designed to address that, introducing a means for sector wide collective agreements.

The Screen Industry Workers Bill, if it goes through, will be the first legislation in New Zealand to allow collective bargaining for contractors, which at this point is illegal, as it is seen as collusion and price fixing under New Zealand’s Commerce Act. The Commerce Act will be changed to allow collective bargaining for contractors to occur. Other contractors like Uber drivers and courier drivers are watching us with interest. It may be that the FPAs make allowance for contractors—still being discussed.

Ourselves, the New Zealand Writers Guild and Equity New Zealand have just finished a series of workshops around the country, thanks to the financial support of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). We covered off on the Screen Industry Workers Bill amongst other topics. We were pleased with the turnout, but there are still so many screen industry workers who need to understand the significant impact the Bill will have on them, and how important it is for them to participate in the democratic process that will occur as we go through negotiations.

Please help us spread the word about this important work by reading about the Screen Industry Worker Bill yourself if you haven’t already, and passing on the information in the links following:

  • First reading of the draft legislation in Parliament –videos of political party responses HERE
  • Written Submissions to the Education & Workforce Select Committee close –all written submission HERE
  • NZWG Written Submission to the Select Committee HERE
  • DEGNZ Written Submission to the Select Committee HERE
  • Equity Written Submission to select Committee HERE
  • Oral Submissions presented to the Education & Workforce Select Committee HERE
  • Select Committee report to Parliament HERE
  • You can read the Screen Industry Workers Bill in full HERE
  • Keep updated on the progress of the Bill HERE

Everybody has a part to play in helping New Zealand’s screen industry grow up and become a professional sector that encourages fair treatment, terms and conditions for all its workers.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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I attended the DEGNZ Rialto Film Talk last night of James Ashcroft’s Coming Home In The Dark.

Listening to James talk in the Q & A facilitated by DEGNZ member Hweiling Ow, it was clear to me that not only had James worked incredibly hard to earn the success he is having with his film, but that he has been very strategic in going about it.

Prior to the screening, James had mentioned to me that he’d made eight short films before directing his debut feature.

In response to a question from Hweiling, James told her that Coming Home In The Dark was the fifth feature film script he’d written with writing partner Eli Kent, and that he and Eli had written two more features after finishing the Coming Home In The Dark script. The majority of these done according to the NZFC funding data, without development funding from the New Zealand Film Commission.

James also mentioned that when he left his job as the Tumuaki/CEO of theatre company Taki Rua at the end of 2013 to pursue his career as a film director, he was without any collateral to work with and show. So he optioned a number of books, found a writer he could work with in Eli, and started cranking out feature film scripts—one a year to now.

Eight years later, with his Sundance-selected film under his belt and a manager and agent to represent him, James and Eli are polishing a script for Hollywood indie Legendary Entertainment, with James tapped to direct. And all this prior to the theatrical release of his first feature, which went into theatres this week.

In the U.S. there’s no script development funding system for aspiring screenwriters. Hollywood reps expect their clients to have a body of work and to keep adding to it so that they have something fresh that they can market their clients with. Everybody essentially writes on spec. until they come up with a good enough script to get them noticed and commissioned to write… something else.  Or, they raise the financing from investors to put their script into production: there’s no cultural funding body there to provide production financing either.

In New Zealand it seems to me, too often aspiring screenwriters and writer – directors are more intent on getting Early Development Funding or NZWG Seed Funding to fund the learning of their craft on one passion piece than doing the work, repeatedly, that will hone their skills. And most of us look only to NZFC to finance our films. The self-funded feature here is rare. Those that do it should be applauded, not matter what the film turns out like.

Anybody can write a feature film script. I’ve written two myself. But not that many people can write a good one. James and Eli it would seem to me are a great example of that maxim, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director