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As the first glimmer of dawn lights the sky and the promise of Level Two becomes more real, its time I stopped leaving all the communication to our ED Tui. He is doing an amazing job. Thank you, Tui. Tui and Tema, our events manager, are working as hard as ever but they have volunteered to take a pay cut till things improve and I thank them for that.

When I started in television (the 1970s), a New Zealand documentary tradition was being established by the NZBC – at that time the only player in town. The documentaries we were making reflected New Zealand’s preoccupations of the time. A major theme was ‘who are we?’ What defines a New Zealander? Culturally the country was in its adolescence and we spent a lot of time gazing in the mirror. A decade later we had matured. We were more self-confident and turned our attention outward. But from that time a number of qualities became attached to the idea of being a New Zealander – self-reliance, inventiveness (the number 8 wire cliché), love of the outdoors and sport. For me the value we Kiwis put above all others was ‘fairness’. We see ourselves as a just society that tries to treat people fairly. The phrase ‘a fair go’ is part of our lexicon. Now, thanks to our Prime Minister, we can add another value – kindness. The word resonated and we have embraced it.

Those two values are at the very heart of what our Guild is about. We are here to look after the well-being of our members. They are the values that drive everything we do. They are the reason we became a union. Perhaps as well as promoting ‘buy local’ to support the NZ economy, we should be pushing ‘watch local’ to support our industry!

So be fair, be kind and I reckon we should have a great party when we come out of lockdown.

Howard Taylor
President

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You would think 28 days in lockdown would give you plenty of time to think. For me, it hasn’t as I have been extremely preoccupied along with a number of other industry people in the Pan-Sector COVID-19 Action Group, working on how to get the industry back into work. I can tell you that the weekends, and in particular Easter, were very welcome.

But as we head towards the fateful Day 28 of Wednesday—which could very well pale into insignificance at 4pm today—I would like to reflect right now on what it was like before and what it will be like after Coronavirus.

I’m a Boomer. I’ve never known war, although my brother and his friends did have to give some thought to how to avoid ending up in Vietnam. The closest I’ve gotten to a bomb was when I arrived at my Soho hotel in London the day after the nail bombing of the nearby Admiral Duncan pub by a Neo-Nazi. I was living in Tokyo though when Shoko Asahara and his Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 and injuring thousands of others—I got to report it, not experience it, luckily.

Still, none of this compares to the devastation that COVID-19 has wrought on the world. Some have referred to it as the World War of the 21st Century without a visible enemy. Sure, we’ve had to queue for food like they used to during World War II, but we can still choose between a Savvie, a Chardie or a Pinot. Hardship? Not in this sense, to be truthful. But economically, a definite “Yes!”

Of course, like many people I’ve had financially difficult times in my past, but it’s always been up to me to get out of them and it was always possible to do so—the economic environment even during the GFC was never as bad as it is now for all of us.

Most of us in the screen industry, myself included, are contractors. I’m fortunate in that the Guild still has paid work for me to do, albeit on reduced hours that I voluntarily instituted to help out (I’m still working fulltime, though). My wife’s small business has gone from a comfortable sole trader income to almost zero. Many of you have no income right now except for the Wage Subsidy. I hope that you have all applied for and received it. And if you were declined, please ensure you entered the correct IRD number and are classified as a sole trader and not an employee. One of these could be the reason why you were declined.

Can we go back to the old normal? Even with a vaccine, it doesn’t seem possible. So what’s in store for us all in the screen industry in the new normal?

It’s clear now that the world is suffering from a lack of content. Broadcasters, streamers, cable, AVOD, TVOD—they all need it. From Israel to Bulgaria, the UK and the U.S. to Argentina, Australia and to a minor extent New Zealand, development is in overdrive and everyone is getting ready for new production to feed the Content Beast that’s starving.

Andrew Shaw, General Manager Commissioning and Production at TVNZ recently told me that internationally, existing content that had been passed on before is being re-examined in a new light. This means opportunities for sales offshore that producers might not have been able to secure previously. Then there is also produced material that hadn’t yet gone to market. All this will run out in quick time, however, and reruns are reruns no matter how you look at it.

As I’ve said before in this column: With great change comes great opportunity. But you’ve got to grasp it with both hands. Everybody internationally is gearing up to do so.

Jeffrey Katzenberg has grabbed the opportunity with Quibi, the new short-form content platform that’s just launched. Katzenberg took big risk in founding the successful Dreamworks with Spielberg and Geffen when it was considered insane to start a studio without an archive. Prior to that he took a massive punt with Roger Rabbit when he was Chairman of Walt Disney Studios. As a former professional gambler, Katzenberg was used to betting the bank. Being a card counter, you can understand that he always had a strategy to win. So, what about the New Zealand strategy to grasp all the opportunity and win in the screen industry?

Well, one was mooted before COVID-19 hit. And we have it now in the draft strategy released two weeks ago. Granted, it was formulated prior to COVID-19, so it should be measured upon that. And I’m happy to do so.

My personal opinion—and, I am at pains to point out, NOT DEGNZ’s position—is that it’s a document lacking in vision and the independent spirit of the New Zealand screen industry, being full of bureaucratic intentions rather than specific, entrepreneurial action plans needed to truly move the industry forward. The advent of COVID-19 means it now must be rewritten. And we have once again been provided an opportunity to feed back, which I encourage every single person to take.

So what might the New Normal look like that we need to strategise about?

On the film side, which is so dependent on theatrical exhibition, it’s a changed world. Sales agents are making sales but no longer paying Minimum Guarantees for films—essentially deposits that were used to help finance features, and producers were required to have.

Distributors are selling to streamers, broadcasters and others, but as Elizabeth Trotman of Studio Canal said in a Screen Producers Australia (SPA) interview two weeks ago, they were really dependent on blockbusters to make money because independent film didn’t pay. How to move from that old business model and into the new environment is something StudioCanal are thinking hard about. Paul Wiegard, co-founder of Australasian distributor Madman, said last week in another SPA interview that they are in a fortunate position because they have their own streaming platforms in DocPlay and AnimeLab, and other diversified revenue streams. While passionate about narrative feature film, Wiegard was more optimistic about documentary. In the end, he was clearly uncertain about theatrical exhibition for narrative features at this point.

The future of theatrical exhibition is decidedly unclear, with many exhibitors headed towards bankruptcy. Social distancing won’t help theatrical survivors to persuade customers back into theatres, and it certainly won’t deliver the box office they, the distributors and the studios will need. Independent film—and that is all New Zealand film—has a decidedly sketchy future for the foreseeable future unless it can find a home on a digital platform, pay channel or free-to-air broadcaster. And the NZFC requirement for theatrical release to get financing will obviously have to change.

On the television side, we will likely see a merged TVNZ and RNZ sooner rather than later. It’s clear public broadcasters have an unrivalled position when it comes to News and Current Affairs when the chips are down. And TVNZ did a very good job in building TVNZ OnDemand, a platform they can monetise, and HeiHei in partnership with NZ On Air. They are in a good spot. Let’s hope the Government gets the mix right. Our futures as television makers depend on it.

NZ platforms though are suffering a lack of content, just like their international counterparts. There’s only so much self-isolating content we can all take. With a transition to Level 2, we will likely see an increase in documentary and unscripted first, then drama as we find ways and means to operate safely in larger numbers. The stimulus package for the NZ screen sector now being talked about will absolutely be needed if we are to climb our way out of the hole we are in and back into production.

Private, free-to-air broadcasters and media organisations are struggling with the massive decrease in advertising, although SKY’s subscriber platforms are helping them to weather the storm. Private media is looking to the Government to rescue them and they should hear about their package soon.

Production for the international market in New Zealand is one of the tougher nuts to crack. On the one side, for serviced production we have to get the international talent into the country to complete projects and to start new ones. On the other side, we don’t have sufficient talent here for local production of internationally-focused shows. And the opportunity for locally-produced global shows seems to be rapidly closing. We don’t yet have the funding and processes from our funding bodies to really take advantage of the international opportunities. Hopefully, we will see changes soon enough for New Zealand producers to exploit.

The big problem facing us all is cost and how that’s paid for. Increased Health & Safety should mean new line items to the budget and increased shooting days, not greater demands on directors and editors (and other crew) to do more for less. The funding bodies understand this, and are looking to ask for more. But in an environment when every sector needs assistance, there’s only so much largess the Government can provide. Meanwhile we are back where we were a few short years ago when DEGNZ with the NZ Writers Guild waged a battle against digital platforms and producers working with measly budgets and grabbing all rights.

So here we all are, sitting with bated breath waiting for a Government announcement that will decide our immediate fate and shape our long-term future. It’s not all grim. As Queen Elizabeth said in her address, “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return.”

For all of us, I’m sure that those better days can’t come soon enough.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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I asked myself and my colleague whether or not I should write about the impact of the coronavirus on our industry in my regular Op Ed. I’d decided not to, then woke up to some news that has changed my mind.

CANNESERIES, the TV version of the Cannes Film Festival, has decided to postpone from April to coincide with MIPTV in October, while the Cannes Film Fest is currently going ahead as planned in May… so far. And the next in the James Bond franchise, No Time To Die (an apt title if ever there was one) has decided to move its opening slot from April to November—the only tent-pole film scheduled for this year to do so at the moment. Perhaps the studios are buoyed by the prospects of Niko Caro’s Mulan, which goes out this month in the US with a projected US$85 million opening.

In February, Paramount Pictures postponed a three-week shoot in Venice for the latest in the Mission Impossible franchise, while at Berlin, Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke (Ash Is Purest White, A Touch of Sin) told media that his next film slated for a start in April is delayed indefinitely.

The number of major entertainment companies pulling out of the SXSW Festival, due to start tomorrow, is increasing daily.

With the movie theatres empty in China, Korea and Japan, and undoubtedly so in Italy and Iran, I know I’m not the only one thinking about what this all means for the film business.

The Hollywood studios have already assembled coronavirus strategy teams and many are in contact with the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Washington and the World Health Organisation (WHO), monitoring the situation. As with the James Bond and Mission Impossible films, the studios are having to consider what it all means to their production and releasing schedules, but more importantly what the overall impact is going to be to their business.

In China where the virus originated and has been impacting the longest, there have been rapid moves to deal with the theatrical ramifications. Huanxi, distributor of the Chinese blockbuster Lost in Russia, premiered the film online for free, while Enter the Fat Dragon becomes the second major Chinese film to premiere online.

I’m sure the streamers aren’t rubbing their hands with glee, but they are and will be an obvious benefactor of theatres shutting down and people being forced to stay at home… as long as subscribers can continue to afford to pay for their subscriptions.

A lot of my European film colleagues attended this February’s Berlin International Film Festival. I have already given consideration as to whether or not I will go to Cannes this year. I’ve gone for the last three, and this year the head of the new Australian Directors Guild wanted to use the opportunity for all of the English-language speaking guilds to gather. I’m most likely not going to attend as I pretty much get sick with a cold or the flu every time I come back from a European trip. I have already cancelled my trip to Seoul in April, which was to attend the second gathering of the Alliance of Asia Pacific Audiovisual Writers and Directors—an event that was postponed in February after the coronavirus outbreak in China was becoming more serious.

Back home, I was talking with a New Zealand filmmaker whose feature is due out soon and COVID-19 was certainly on his mind in regard to what, if any, effect it could have on his box office. I just learned this week that NZFC has instituted a conservative travel policy for its staff.

Officially, I haven’t heard of any strategic thinking going on in regard to New Zealand’s film and TV industries in relation to the virus, but it’s undoubtedly weighing on a few minds including ours. We will update you if any news comes in.

As I sit writing this I have just learned we have a fourth confirmed case of COVID-19. I, therefore, am providing a link here to the Ministry of Health website about the virus and what to do should you display any kind of symptoms.

Take care out there.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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I was fortunate to be invited as a guest to the New Zealander of the Year Awards last night. It was an eye-opener for me. It brought home how myopic I have become with the screen industry essentially consuming my every waking hour. When I’m not thinking about and doing my job here at the Guild, I’m more often than not working on moving my own projects forward.

At the Awards I got to see and hear about wonderful New Zealanders who work endlessly, tirelessly, and often voluntarily, consumed by their passions to do work that will benefit others.

There were many wonderful characters and stories in the semifinalists and finalists we were introduced to.

Georgia Hale has represented New Zealand in four sports, and uses her position as the Captain of the Womens Warriors Rugby League team to do community work throughout the country, working with young children, rural communities, the intellectually disabled and other charities. Georgia won the Young New Zealander of the Year.

Dame Margaret Sparrow is a long-time advocate of men’s and women’s reproductive rights.  She helped introduce the morning-after pill to New Zealand, has been a trailblazer for legal abortion here and is absolutely thrilled that after decades of effort, a bill to decriminalise abortion will soon go in front of the whole House. Dame Margaret won the Senior New Zealander of the Year Award.

Bill Buckley of Buckley Systems, the world’s leading manufacturer of electro-magnets, won hearts and minds with his clear ‘Kiwiness’ and absolute passion for his latest effort. Buckley’s newest venture, Neutron Therapeutics, took on a task many others worldwide thought impossible: to build an accelerator that could be used in-hospital as a neutron source, replacing a nuclear reactor that was required to perform the same function.

Using the accelerator, Neutron Therapeutics has developed Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT) that allows the targeting of cancer at a cellular level. Buckley firmly believes that they will be able to eradicate brain tumours with the treatment. He won Innovator of the Year.

And just when you thought I’d completely moved off the screen industry, we come to actor and teacher Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira, who took out New Zealander of the Year. Jennifer was acknowledged for her ongoing dedication to Arts and Culture in theatre, film and TV and her passion for Te Reo Māori, showing through shining example her commitment to bi-culturalism and bi-lingualism in New Zealand. Jennifer, as many of you know, has run workshops for DEGNZ, passing on her knowledge and experience of working with actors. Congratulations, Jennifer, from us at the Guild!

There were other winners on the night and an equally-deserving large numbers of Kiwis who were nominated for the work they do in communities in New Zealand.

It was a breath of fresh air to put the screen industry aside and spend a few enjoyable hours hearing about Kiwi achievements from other walks of life.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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We’ve got the elections this year and that means everything is up in the air.

Simon Bridges says he’ll likely reverse the TVNZ-RNZ merger if National gets back into power.

The Film Industry Working Group’s recommendations around collective bargaining for the screen industry could go out the window.

NZ On Air could get an increase in funding… Or not.

There is some certainty in the media space, though. My predictions:

TVNZ will continue to lose money as long as it stays the way it is, no matter how good a job Kevin Kendrick does (and by all accounts he’s doing a good one).

TV3 will face the same uncertain future it has since it started in 1989, even with a new owner.

The NZ Screen Sector Strategy 2030 will… do something good, bad or indifferent (industry bets seem to be on either of the latter two at the moment).

NZ On Air will have a new CEO shortly—whether it’s a great opportunity for someone new to make a mark or a hospital pass will come clear by the end of 2020.

And the rest of the world, including Australia, will keep capitalising on the demand for internationally-focused TV drama produced locally.

At DEGNZ, it’s very much steady as she goes.

We have a strong board in place who are highly proactive around key issues for us and the industry.

Our focuses strategically will be copyright, collective bargaining legislation, post-production workflow and training, and keeping an eye on the vocational education work being done by various entities, which will get a lot of attention in 2020. There are, of course, always unexpected developments that need a response and we’ll stay alert to these as the need arises.

As a union now affiliated to the Council of Trade Unions, we will have an opportunity to sharpen our skills and knowledge with them in preparation for negotiations should the collective bargaining legislation go through.

We’ll continue to provide membership services including our professional development programme, thanks to the financial support of NZFC, the Vista Foundation, the Australian Screen Directors Authorship Collecting Society, accounting firm VCFO, and with the support of Resene, Event Cinemas, Rialto Cinemas, Dominion Law and Handy Training Online.

We’ll maintain our partnerships on various activities with the NZ Writers Guild, Equity NZ, SCGNZ, NZAPG, SPADA, WIFT, Ngā Aho Whakaari, NZCS and look to forge a relationship with the newly-formed PASC.

DEGNZ is committed as we always say to ‘the creative, cultural and financial well-being of New Zealand directors and editors’.

With the shake-ups in our domestic screen industry scene including more SVODs coming online, and on the international stage with Brexit, the U.S. elections, and the novel coronavirus, we hope that you will join with us as we head into what is undoubtedly going to be a tumultuous 2020.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director