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

Newsflash

I try to stay up to date with what’s happening in the film and TV industry both at home and abroad by reading as many items and articles as I have time for. A few things have caught my attention in recent times that I would like to share with you. Some bode well for our industry while others take an in-depth look at the difficulties we face going forward, and how some are addressing them.

Firstly, news out of the Statistics Department has Gross screen revenue for the year increased 3 per cent to just over $3 billion with film production revenue doubling to more than $1 billion in 2016. Wellington revenue doubling to $644 million for the year, thanks no doubt to Peter Jackson and the myriad businesses that make up his empire. You can read more on this here.

Auckland can now look forward to an increased level of international production with the securing of the Kumeu studio site used to house Warner’s recent feature film production Meg, which was filmed there. A joint venture between Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development, The New Zealand Film Commission, Warners Bros and China’s Gravity Pictures, the Kumeu Film Studios will operate under a lease arrangement for the next 12 years. Warners made a considerable investment into buildings and two specialized water tanks for water filming—a major selling point for the studio. These legacy assets are already attracting considerable interest internationally and we can expect the studio to be well utilized, particularly if the two mooted new sound stages go ahead. You can learn more about the studio here.

Stephen Follows, a researcher and producer who digs up interesting facts and figures on a regular basis, took a look at the impending Writers Guild of America strike, of which I wrote on in my last column. Follows in his article looks at the numbers behind the possible strike here.

Screen Australia has an excellent blog that covers a wide range of topics. Recently they have done a four-part commercial analysis of the 94 films that Screen Australia has released. While it’s geared towards producers, everyone can learn from the facts that Screen Austalia uncovered here.

The impact of TV drama on the global screen industry has even caught the attention of the French, with Cannes introducing another market, this time for high-end TV drama. There is still politicking to be done around this with the French Government wading in, but Cannes Mayor David Lisnard and MipTV and Mipvom organiser Reed Midem have joined forces to try and ensure that Cannes remains the centre of screen festivals and markets. Info. on this here. It would seem we are going to be having a golden age of TV for some time to come in the drama space.

And finally, one piece of news that seems to have slipped quietly by without a lot of people noticing is that of Canada joining the European film funding body Eurimages. Canada is the first non-European country to do so, and becomes the 37th country to be able to access the approximately $32 million Eurimages contributes annually to around 60 coproductions. You can read about it here. In this time of shrinking funding for film, this would seem an astute move on Canada’s part.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Down Tools?

I was considering what to write about this week when an email came in announcing a possible strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

It was 2007 when the WGA last went out on strike. It lasted for 100 days. They were finally able to win one concession from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that saw them achieve for the first time a percentage of digital revenues—they had been completely denied any financial benefit on video and later DVD and bluray revenues and consequently missed out on what had been a far greater revenue stream for the studios and producers than box office. (We can by the way thank this strike for the rise and rise of reality TV.)

The WGA is a union, and in the US they are able to collectively bargain with producers regarding contractual terms and conditions.

The Directors Guild of America (DGA) and the Motion Picture Editors Guild (MPEG) are like the WGA, a union that collectively bargains on behalf of its members. Through the efforts of the American guilds including the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), their members have been able to get healthcare plans, pensions, and for some residuals—a share of revenues generated whenever producers sell programmes or films that have been made with their creative efforts.

In New Zealand, it is illegal for workers in the screen industry to collectively bargain. This came about because of what is commonly referred to as the ‘Hobbit Law’, which was rushed through parliament by the government in 2010 as part of a deal between Warner Bros and Government ministers to keep The Hobbit film production in New Zealand.

In essence, the law means that screen industry workers cannot be considered employees and therefore are unable to collectively bargain. Screen industry workers are classified as contractors. And when contractors come together in a collective manner to determine pay rates they are deemed to be price fixing in a cartel-like manner, which is illegal.

Here from the Employment Relations Act 2000 is the relevant information:

6 Meaning of employee

(1) In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires, employee

(a) means any person of any age employed by an employer to do any work for hire or reward under a contract of service; and

(b) includes—

(i) a homeworker; or

(ii) a person intending to work; but

(c) excludes a volunteer who—

(i) does not expect to be rewarded for work to be performed as a volunteer; and

(ii) receives no reward for work performed as a volunteer; and

(d) excludes, in relation to a film production, any of the following persons:

(i) a person engaged in film production work as an actor, voice-over actor, stand-in, body double, stunt performer, extra, singer, musician, dancer, or entertainer:

(ii) a person engaged in film production work in any other capacity.

Author and playwright David Macaray writing in 2013 on the 2007 – 2008 WGA strike in the Huffington Post characterised the stoush as the “ …classic case of Labor vs. Management. The writers vs. the producers. Those with talent vs. those with money. Proletariat vs. bourgeoisie. Oppressed vs. oppressor. Surfer vs. ho-dad.”

Later in the same article he suggested readers: “ …take a moment and ask ourselves why so many of us root for the Establishment. For a country that, historically, has taken great pride in embracing the underdog, we seem to have lost our footing. We root for the wrong side in these labor vs. management disputes. Working people are the underdogs. All of them. Including those lucky enough to be represented by a labor union. Can’t we see that?”

New Zealand is of course very different to the Hollywood world that the American screen industry revolves around. And because the unions in New Zealand were broken so long ago, the generations that follow the baby boomers have very little if any knowledge it seems to me of what unions fought for and still seek to achieve here. Three terms of right-leaning government with a former ForEx dealer at the helm hasn’t helped. Which isn’t to say that rabid socialist ideology is the answer either. But as I look out the window in Grey Lynn at what was the residential neighbourhood of many a screen industry worker,  numbers of whom it seems are being supplanted by the Range Rover Sport, yoga pants and quinoa crowd, I have to question whether or not we’ve got it right. Are we so mislead by the now defunct American dream here, too, that we can’t see that most of us are our own worst enemies? Escalating house prices a case in point.

A New Zealand producer very recently lamented to me the difficulty of working with the Australian screen industry because they have unions, there are minimum standards and awards, and fringes to deal with superannuation, workers compensation, etc. But the Australian screen industry is on fire. Large international productions are still going there. Local production from drama to reality to information programming is booming.

The spectre of lost screen production that was used so effectively by an American corporate to change New Zealand employment law just doesn’t stack up when we look across the Tasman.

In Australia and New Zealand, production companies have been gobbled up by offshore entities because the creative talent brought to bear in our countries has proven itself both at home and offshore through the sale of the product that embodies our creativity, yet the lot of the above-the-line creative talent of writers, actors and directors is generally worse than it’s ever been.

The director’s position particularly in the New Zealand screen industry has so eroded that most director’s incomes are going down not up. Like a lot of people in a lot of other jobs. It’s fast becoming time that we need a paradigm shift in our industry and our country. Recent studies that show workers in the creative sector are least likely to be replaced by robots and software in the near term is no reason for complacency, or for accepting lower wages and poorer working terms and conditions.

Down tools like the WGA threatens? Obviously not here. But workers’ rights are meaningful. For all of us. Whether or not you own your own house.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

The Slap… Not Just An Aussie Drama Series

While the Australian screen industry is different from ours, there are sufficient similarities to warrant us keeping a close eye on what happens across the Tasman. The uproar that occurred when Freemantle Media hired a Canadian female director to direct an iconic Australian TV series, and later saying that there wasn’t a good enough Australian female director to do it brought into the open what many members of the Australian Directors Guild felt was the disdain that Australian production companies had for Australian TV drama directors. In Australia, this is directly reflected in the terms and conditions of employment of Australian directors and  forebodes for directors  here in New Zealand what Australian producers’  attitudes could be on Australian only or Aus – NZ copros shot here. We are all aware already how the NZ director’s position and the terms and conditions particularly have been eroded in the New Zealand screen industry over the last 15 years. I therefore felt it was important to put out Australian Directors Guild CEO Kingston Anderson’s entire op ed in their latest newsletter for your reading.

Op Ed from Australian Directors’ Guild
CEO, Kingston Anderson:

At the end of 2016 the ADG discovered the Fremantle Media was importing a Canadian director to direct the new television version of the iconic Australia story Picnic at Hanging Rock. The ADG was inundated with calls from members shocked at this move. There had not been an overseas director imported to direct a major Australian mini-series before and the fact that it was an iconic Australian story puzzled everyone. When challenged by the ADG about why this occurred the producers said they could not find a suitable candidate to direct the series. This slap in the face to such directors as Daina Reid, Rowan Woods and many other highly experienced and internationally produced directors was the final straw for many ADG members as it highlighted the disdain and disrespect many production companies had for Australian television drama directors.

But this is not a recent trend and it is highlighted by the ongoing battles the ADG has been having with producers and broadcasters over the retransmission rights that were  granted to directors in 2006. This was supposed to provide a director with a small royalty that would recognise their copyright in a film. However, the resulting opposition by producers to allow directors to claim this right has left a bad taste in many directors’ mouths, especially on productions that have gone on to be great hits and returned the producers both awards and money.

It also goes to the heart of the way director’s fees have stagnated over the past ten years leading to many leaving the industry or leaving the country. At the 2015 SPA Conference in Melbourne, the eminent TV producer John Edwards lamented the demise of long-form TV drama to increasing costs, except in one area – directing. The fact that he specifically mentioned that directors were the only ones who had not seen increasing fees speaks for itself.

It is these three things – Respect, Rights and Remuneration that are the heart of a campaign the ADG is running to highlight the situation TV drama directors find themselves in 2017. While Australian directors who work around the world are both respected and rewarded, many are disappointed at the attitude of Australian producers and production companies to their work. The lack of respect shown to Australian directors when choosing the set-up director for Picnic at Hanging Rock highlights a sea change in the attitude of producers. This attitude, to treat Australian directors as “just crew” has also seen occasions where the DOP on a television series has been paid more than the director.

As Paris Barclay, President of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) said on his recent visit to Australia to support local directors, “The director will shape a TV production in their own creative way. If you give the script to another director it will be a different production from another director.” This seems obvious to many but for producers their attitude to “cookie cutter” television belies this fact.

The advance of quality television around the world driven by the likes of HBO  has seen the movement of feature film directors to the small screen. This has occurred most notably in the United States but recent examples such as Rowan Woods and Tony Kravitz directing “The Kettering Incident” for Foxtel reflect a changing environment where the directors are asked to deliver more higher quality productions to attract that elusive audience. This importance of the TV director is recognised around the world and as such many of our most talented directors have left these shores – Kate Dennis, Michael Rymer, Jessica Hobbs, Daniel Nettheim to name a few. Most are directing in the UK or US where they are respected and paid well and where they receive royalties if their shows are successful.

The ADG is not calling for rates of pay that match their US or UK cousins, we want rates of pay that reflect the large increase in budgets. Those per episode budgets keep going up but the directors fee stays the same. We also see overseas productions being shot here using Australian directors alongside overseas directors, their rates of pay for doing the same job wildly different. A recent television production shot in Melbourne saw the overseas director getting paid more than three times the level of the Australian directors for doing the same work. If the show is successful, the overseas director will get rewarded in residuals but the Australians will not.

So what to do about this inequity?

The ADG is in negotiation with Screen Producers Australia (SPA) to address these issues in an historic agreement for directors. It will address these issues and hopefully with the co-operation of Australian producers we will be able to properly reward our talented TV directors and promote the respect they deserve for their high level creative work. Otherwise we will continue to lose the best and brightest which will inevitably lead to a reduction in quality on our TV screens. And in a world where competition for eyeballs is truly global, this will put the Australian television production industry at a disadvantage.

To illustrate this a producer at a recent SPA conference asked why he couldn’t get one of our directors back from the US to direct his new show.
My question was “Are you going to pay him the same as you always have?”
His answer was “Yes”.
My response was “Then why would he come back?”

Kingston Anderson
CEO
Australian Directors’ Guild
 & Australian Screen Directors Authorship Collection Society