15 Oct 2014
I have arrived at DEGNZ at a time of significant change for the screen industry.
Digital’s impact on the broadcasting and film landscape is immense. There are new opportunities for content makers online. Exhibitors are coming under intense pressure from companies seeking to circumvent traditional distribution windows and trial online services. DVD and Bluray sales are on the decline as digital sales rise. The renaissance in episodic drama is in full swing, at least internationally, as film directors are pursuing the longer character and story arcs afforded by drama series, particularly on cable and digital outlets. These are just some of the changes. The problem at this point is still revenue: Digital distribution is not yet delivering meaningful revenue for filmmakers. Once again it’s the middlemen—the aggregators and digital distributors—and the digital services they feed that will profit.
Dave Gibson has now been CEO at the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) for just under a year, and he has begun implementing his ‘Planets’ strategy. We now have the ‘stepping stones’ pathways to feature film. Premiere Shorts is gone, replaced by Premiere Pathways. The hesitation over Escalator has disappeared, and a new low-budget approach has been phased in. A feature film component to 48 Hours filmmaking will be introduced. Three new Business Development Scheme teams have been funded. The Screen Advisory Board of Sir Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, Jane Campion, Andrew Adamson, James Cameron and Jon Landau is in place, as are the new incentives for both film and TV. All these Gibson undoubtedly hopes, together with the other tweaks and shifts in NZFC’s modus operandi, will help to align his planets. While the strategy continues to tout culturally significant films as important—the area where New Zealand’s past success has come from both with features and shorts—it does seem at this point that NZFC itself is more focused on low budget genre filmmaking.
New Zealand On Air has not been sitting idly by with the advent of the digital landscape. For several years now it has pursued a digital strategy that has seen a number of projects funded. The latest initiative—a co-production fund for interactive projects with Canada Media Fund. With prime time free to air TV littered with tentpole DIY property shows, singing contests and cooking competitions, new initiatives like the Canada New Zealand Digital Media Fund are welcome.
On the broadcaster front, Prime TV has made a foray into serial drama with Brokenwood Mysteries. TV3’s just announced a call for a five-day-a-week soap that will create another pathway for directors, editors and others to shape their drama mettle. The recent shakeups in management at Maori Television herald change—hopefully for the better. TVNZ’s recommitment to telefeatures was well received and its first multi-night drama heads for production. TVNZ 7 seems such a distant memory.
In television commercials production, budgets are down except for the biggest brands, and online content is up. Most companies have already adapted to the requirement for branded content and are making native advertising to sell product. One producer when I asked for the lay of the land responded: “Rome is burning. Too many producers, too many directors and not enough work.”
On the domestic political landscape we have new Ministers in Amy Adams with the Broadcasting portfolio while Maggie Barry takes up Arts, Culture and Heritage. Both come with little experience or knowledge in these areas. While Broadcasting sits at No. 7 with Adams, a position relative to where it has been for the past two terms, Arts Culture and Heritage takes a nosedive to join Barry at No. 20. This is a long way from the heyday at No. 1 when Helen Clark as Prime Minister held it, or around No. 8 with the Arts-inclined Chris Findlayson. Barry is not known for her Arts patronage. We can only hope that her passion for Kiwi ‘kulcha’ evolves to meet the needs of New Zealand culture.
But what do the above and the many other changes that have taken place in the screen industry and are still to come mean for the directors and editors in our guild.
The signs all point to unrelenting pressure to do more (work), with less (budget), for less (pay).
A prime example of a typical workload now is a low budget, independently made documentary or no/lo-budget feature. The director is expected to engage in crowdfunding, run ongoing social media, and undertake the marketing and distribution in addition to making the production, all the while trying to get something else up.
With digital equipment and distribution channels, we now have an incredible glut of content available: films, web series, viral videos, the list goes on. Everyone has taken to the catch cry of ‘Story’ with a passion, and the democratization of filmmaking means anybody can create something, and pretty much everybody now does. With so much free stuff around, some of it good, the pressure comes on for great work to be done for not a lot.
Educational institutions still continue to pump out graduates with a film, TV or production diploma or degree in hand. They will intern to get that break, and they will take that basic salary or rate if they are lucky enough to be offered it. The demise of documentary and the rise of reality shows have changed the role of the TV director forever. And TV producers bemoan the fact that they are increasingly fixing up poorly skilled directors’ work in post. While there are good rates for good directors and editors in TV, they are not across the board.
In film, the pressure is increasing for the key creatives of writer, director and producer to defer their fees, particularly as more private equity comes into film in first position. For low-budget productions, it is everyone including editors who have to work for the minimum or not much more. Actor, writer and director Peter Mullan had a salutary lesson for us all when he was out here recently. When Peter made The Magdalene Sisters in 2002 he had to defer 60 per cent of his fee. The film made US$34 million on a £2.5 million budget. It took him 12 years to get his deferred fee back, and he hasn’t seen another cent.
So what can we do about it? Here are some thoughts.
First. Be incredibly good at what you do. One way of ensuring you get paid well is being exceptional at your job. DEGNZ runs workshops, seminars, mentorships and networking opportunities that can help. Take advantage of them.
Second. Make sure you get what you want from taking that low or no-pay job. Satisfaction. Credit. Something great for your showreel. A favour for a rainy day. A warm fuzzy feeling. Be strategic, so that you get what you want when you give. Whatever that may be. Or say, “No.” You actually may be better off for it. If you think some person or company is trying to take advantage of you and you’re not sure what to do about it, talk to us. We can help.
Third. The power of ‘Story’ is a wonderful thing. Tell great stories. They will cut through the clutter and help get you noticed.
I would like to close out by paying tribute to the former ED Fiona Copland whom I have replaced. Fiona stepped in at short notice after the passing of long-time ED Anna Cahill, who had fought valiantly for the guild through a funding crisis due to a change in approach at NZFC, later resolved. Fiona gathered up the pieces and has put in place a fantastic programme for our members with the money to run it—funding kindly provided by NZFC. I have been fortunate enough to inherit this as we approach Year Two of the three-year run. My aim is to increase our offering to members and work on their behalf while further securing our financial well being.
When I started at DEGNZ on the first day, I looked at the banner we use at stands, workshops and elsewhere to promote ourselves. The tagline at the bottom said:
DEGNZ—Dedicated to the creative, cultural and financial wellbeing of New Zealand directors and editors.
I think that sums up perfectly what we are here to do for you.