SINZ and Other Confessions

5 March 2015

Faced with a blank page and no hot topic I’m left to update you on some of the recent traffic across my desk.

Screen Industry New Zealand (SINZ) got together last week for the first time in over a year. SINZ is an informal gathering of guilds (Writers, Directors & Editors, Producers, Actors) and associations (WIFT and Nga Aho Whakaari) to share information and highlight those issues that affect us all, and individually. SINZ does not have the mandate to speak or act collectively. Rather, it’s a conduit for communication so that we can all stay up with the state of play. Discussion centred on digital rights, the ongoing changes at the NZFC and gender equality. While we all have a different take on issues, we can also see where thinking meshes. From a DEGNZ perspective, expect to see us working more collaboratively with other organisations to help achieve tactical and strategic objectives.

If you follow the DEGNZ Facebook page, you may have noticed a post announcing that the Australian Directors Guild (ADG) was officially recognized as a union last week. This is a major achievement by the ADG after years of struggle, and deserves our heartfelt congratulations. The ADG can now legally represent all their directors in negotiations with producers. The power of the Directors Guild of America and the Directors Guild of Canada lies in their ability to negotiate collectively on behalf of their members, setting work terms and conditions as well as providing other services and benefits. New Zealand has for many years now been a union-unfriendly environment, as evidenced most recently in our industry by The Hobbit and Outrageous Fortune disputes. Rest assured that even without collective bargaining power, how to assure the creative, cultural and financial wellbeing of our members is at the forefront of the minds of the DEGNZ board and staff.

Last week saw the launch of the Vista Foundation, an organisation set up by cinema and film software solutions company Vista Group. The foundation is joining together with the NZFC to launch a marketing and distribution training programme for selected filmmakers led by long time producer John Barnett. This is just one of many initiatives Vista hopes to get behind. It’s a matched funding arrangement that sees private and government cash come together around film. NZFC CEO Dave Gibson is enthusiastic about getting private money into the industry, so that filmmakers become less reliant on the NZFC as the funding source. Not everyone has the pulling power of Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi to raise US$400,000 plus in a marketing and distribution crowdfunding campaign however, so filmmakers will welcome the up to NZ$75,000 carrot the NZFC is offering top dog out of the programme.

Next week the Minster of Broadcasting Amy Adams is hosting a 25th anniversary celebration of New Zealand On Air (NZOA) content. While Dr Ruth Harley in her John O’Shea Memorial Address at the SPADA conference in late November last year lamented the serious mistakes she made when leading the organisation, we still have much to thank NZOA for. Without a public broadcaster in sight these days, NZOA still helps deliver a broad range of content on screen that wouldn’t get made without it. Let us hope there are more anniversaries to celebrate with them.

Finally… what a difference a little over a year and five percent makes. I was speaking to a producer yesterday who has struggled to crew a feature film about to shoot. Everybody’s busy—crew anyway. The NZ Screen Production Grant is doing the business, particularly with international productions. More importantly, international TV series shooting here are on the up. This means drama directors and editors have the opportunity to gain long term employment working on projects with big budgets and lots of toys, especially if the shows move beyond a first series. But what about NZ feature film and the employment opportunities there for directors and editors?

The NZFC’s development and production budgets aren’t seeing any significant increases. Development (including training) has remained relatively static at around $2million per year for the last five years, while production financing seems to have been going down year on year, from just under NZ$16 million in the 2009 – 10 period to just over NZ$10 million last financial year (changes in reporting methodology may account for some of this difference.)

Yes, last year we had a much higher number of NZ films hit theatres than usual, thanks primarily though to the lo-budget flow through from Escalator and other schemes. Budgets for film are being driven down globally for features.

One NZFC response has been to target low-budget films in the $250 – 500k range with an emphasis official or not on genre product. Another is to keep first time director budgets to under $1. 5 million or so. These initiatives could well help to keep the number of films up to the level of last year. The inevitable outcome here however as occurred with Escalator is that pay rates are forced down to fit the budgets—More jobs, but less pay.

At the Hawaii International Film Festival last year I suggested to the Oahu Film Commissioner that she apply a small tax to every incoming production to help stimulate the almost non-existent local dramatic feature film industry—an idea that would go down like a lead balloon here.

Maybe it’s time for NZFC budget increases to get our filmmakers busier, and hopefully pay them what they are worth.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director