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We are in the midst of election turmoil both here and in the United States.

Pork barrel politics are in full swing here with promises from all sides intended to sway voters.

We are fortunate, though, that the Arts has already received funding from Government due to COVID in the $8 million-dollar Cultural Capability allocation over two years ($2 million each) to New Zealand On Air, the NZFC, the NZ Music Commission and Creative New Zealand.

Additionally, from the total $150 million allocation it’s managing for the Government’s COVID 19 Sector Regeneration Fund for Arts, Culture and Heritage, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage (MCH) is sorting out now how to best spend the other $12 million in Cultural Capability funding. A number of us in the screen sector and from other Creative and Arts-related organisations have been in focus groups with MCH to discuss this.

Participating in these focus groups has made me very aware of how fortunate the screen sector is in comparison to other Arts sectors. There are many creative organisations and individual artists who are barely hanging on in the COVID environment. It was particularly poignant to hear of suicides in the music sector.

Another very clear reminder of the screen sector’s difference for me in these meetings was the fundamental blending of art and commerce that is central to our sector. Our art comes about as the result of tens or hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars in investment to generate a work. The annual budgets of NZ On Air at $150 million, NZFC at $26.4 million and with a New Zealand Screen Production Grant Budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars exhibit this.

In television, there’s no real tension between art and commerce. It’s a business. Everybody knows it. That’s not the case in film. Film still remains the domain of the auteur director, whether they are making an art house film or a Hollywood blockbuster.

Director Christopher Nolan has been given the authorial right by Warner Brothers to bet the bank on a cinema release with the $200 million film Tenet. Why?

Nolan exhibited his artistic talent with his first film Following. His second feature, Memento, on a $9 million-dollar budget grossed $40 million worldwide. His Batman trilogy, Man of Steel, and Interstellar have generated billions. That’s why. Nolan is now an established blockbuster auteur.

Nolan’s debut feature Following was made on a budget of £3,000. Most of the cast and crew were friends of the director, and shooting took place on weekends over the course of a year.

Of course, not everybody who’s a director has the talent or will take the path of Christopher Nolan. But we should celebrate every New Zealand film that gets made whether its self-funded or the beneficiary of NZFC financing.

Sam Kelly and Guy Pigden, two of the latest DEGNZ members to finish films, took different paths to the same result.

Sam’s NZFC funded Savage is knocking it out of the park at the moment, having taken over a million dollars at the box office in two weeks. Guy’s film Older, funded through Pledge Me, had its official premiere last weekend, and is available to stream on Prime Video. Streamer reviews are looking good too.

As well, we have DEGNZ member directors Armagan Ballantyne in production on her sophomore feature Nude Tuesday, Michelle Saville on debut feature Millie Lies Low restarting after a COVID shutdown, Linda Nicol wrapping up on her debut Poppy, and Leanne Pooley with feature documentary Girl On A Bridge, which has finished its cinema run and is now available online.

Even amidst these COVID-created tough times, we have much to celebrate with the success of our members in the feature film arena and the funding our sector’s received.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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There are a few key unresolved issues in our sector and we are sitting on our hands waiting for action. The transformation of TVNZ into a proper public broadcaster is one. Then there’s the Screen Industry Worker Bill that will allow contractors to engage in collective bargaining. Another, the underwriting insurance needed to get the domestic film industry up again.

I know there is an election on, but we are still some ways away from the transformational change needed to get going properly, as well as grasp the opportunities on offer in the new world we are in.

In the UK, the new Director General of the BBC is moving rapidly to address the challenges there. Amongst them the COVID-19 pandemic, lack of diverse representation, political pressure, pay disparity, technological disruption, the emergence of competing news outlets, a battle to maintain relevance and the threat to the licence fee. A number of his changes will undoubtedly prove unpopular as he drives the organisation to be leaner and more commercial as well.

Yet here we sit still waiting for the Government to address the public broadcaster issue. It was December last year when Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi proposed merging TVNZ and RNZ. In January, he presented a revised plan and was asked for a business case due last month. Meanwhile, streamers have become the new global studios, YouTube has become the most popular source of video content in New Zealand, and TVNZ continues to lose money. The only wait that’s been blessedly terminated is what’s happening to TV3. The good news is Discovery’s acquisition of some of Mediaworks assets including the network—perhaps the first time in the channel’s history that it’s going to have real money in the bank to draw on.

Starting in 2018, the Film Industry Working Group toiled for months to unanimously come up with recommendations to help shape the Screen Industry Worker Bill. This extended process together with the time to draft the Bill, the Select Committee submissions and the interruptions caused by COVID mean we have to accept there will be no passage of the bill into law prior to the election. We are now faced with its fate hanging on the election result. Even after all the Select Committee submissions were predominantly in support of the Bill, National continue to oppose it. They will throw it out if they come into power. Accepting the rejection of the Hobbit Law they were responsible for putting in place would obviously be too much for them.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for the industry right now is the lack of commitment from our Government to underwriting the local film industry, replacing the insurance companies who won’t insure for COVID. In June, the Australian Government put in place an AUD$50 million fund to provide financial guarantees because insurance companies are not providing coverage for COVID-19. In July the British government launched an emergency £500M (US$646M) film and TV coronavirus production insurance fund. NZFC and SPADA have already made representations to Government to underwrite local production. Nearly two months later and we still haven’t heard an answer.

I know that the New Zealand screen sector has received monies to address the impact of COVID. We are all thankful for that. But this underwriting is necessary if any new New Zealand films are going to get made. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too much longer to find out.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director