Shakin’ It Up

29 September 2016

Last week I was at the No Borders Coproduction market in New York, which is part of IFP Film Week. Across 6 days I mixed with mainly American writers, directors and producers who were trying to get their narrative features or documentaries financed. The way the Americans go about it sits in stark contrast to what most New Zealand filmmakers are faced with.

US filmmakers are entirely dependent on attracting investors to their films—industry investors who put up time, equipment, facilities; cash investors who want a premium on their equity and can make use of Section 181—legislation to make a tax deduction on their investment; or non-profit foundations that want to support filmmaking, often social issue documentary. The idea of earning fees for a US first time feature filmmaker is mostly a dream.

I met three filmmakers from Texas who make a good case in point. They all work in or around the film industry. They and many of their mates support each other in their filmmaking endeavours. One was the director of the film they were at Film Week with, so the other two who were also directors had taken on the roles of producers to help their friend. They estimated that their film was going to cost them north of US$200k to shoot. They were putting up US$60k themselves in cash, and had brokered deals in kind to cover the rest. They were at Film Week to find finishing funds and distribution. The writer/director’s aim for his feature was of course to make a great film, with the hope that his talent shone through sufficiently to attract more money and distribution for his next feature—if not he’s back riding the same bicycle if he wants to make another. In fact, his talent had been noticed with the two shorts he had already made at what we in NZ would consider B & C level film festivals. This was getting him some traction in the market. I don’t know how well the Texans did at Film Week finding funding sources, but they were six weeks out from first day of principal photography when I meet them.

I arrived back from No Borders on Sunday morning in time to attend the second day of the Big Screen Symposium. I had missed the presentation by NZ on Air CEO Jane Wrightson on the draft strategy for dishing out around NZ$127 million in government funding for local content, but was in time to hear Dave Gibson outline the NZFC’s new thoughts around how they spend the more than NZ$20 million of government funding they receive each year for New Zealand feature film development and production. I know that the Americans can get tax breaks, have a much bigger market, and that we have cultural imperatives, but it’s still stark, right?

I have yet to go carefully through the information that has been put out by NZ on Air and NZFC with these announcements, but a few things stand out:

NZ on Air is openly talking about TV producers having to bring investors to the party for anything with a budget over $500k. Those investors will primarily be the broadcasters. But the language signals a change in attitude from government funding to public/private sector partnership. And now the vertically integrated local digital studios such as NZME—with funding, infrastructure, marketing clout and channels, and distribution channels to a large number of eyeballs—can openly compete for funding with bedroom-based production companies. Competition indeed. No wonder the MBIE mantra “Innovation” now sits front and centre in the NZ on Air lexicon.

On the NZFC front, CEO Dave Gibson finally openly declared that dark (read arthouse) drama is going to struggle in the current regime. That of course wasn’t news. Nor the fact that NZFC is looking for lighter, warmhearted fare. What was news was that a new strategy is coming for Māori. With a management change and a few years under the bridge from the failure that was Te Paepae Ataata, NZFC is once again looking at how to bring Māori into the fold, and finally getting Māori telling the Māori stories that have proved so successful in film. Here’s hoping.

The other news of note from NZFC was the announcment of GPS 2026 (another MBIE-like label), a forward looking initiative to imagine what the industry should look like and be doing a decade from now. This is a positive and DEGNZ will take up Dave Gibson’s invitation for the guilds to be involved. Ten years ago, the biggest player in the film industry today, Netflix, didn’t exist and nobody even imagined they were coming, but perhaps a bit of proactive crystal ball gazing on our parts might be prescient.

NZ on Air and NZFC are shaking it up; a necessity to be honest. Digital disruption is usually attributed as the cause for everything in the screen industry these days. And it’s true. Out with the old and in with the new, whether you like it or not. The glass half empty leftie conspiracy theorists would say the neo-liberalists are using digital disruption to impoverish the established screen middleclass and put as many of the young working class as close to the breadline as possible. The glass half full screen industry practitioners would likely enthuse as Cliff Curtis did in his closing at the Big Screen Symposium about what a wonderful world it is now for the young in film and TV to make their mark.

As I sit in my malfunctioning chair at the Guild, however, it looks to me like there is more opportunity than ever in this new era to make even lower wages as a director or editor. I guess that Americans would say we should be thankful to have government funding to help us do that.

DEGNZ will be making a submission to the proposed draft strategy for TV funding. If you have any thoughts you would like to share, please feel free to do so to me and to NZ on Air.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director