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