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Go back fifteen years and it was pretty easy to figure out what success was for screen content. For the small screen it was the Nielsen ratings. For the big screen it was the box office. The show that knocked it out of the ratings park or the film that pulled significant box office clearly indicated it had found a lot of eyeballs. These measures only account though in essence for popularity.

What about the Māori news or information programme on a Sunday morning that Māori loved? Or the arthouse feature that had its world premiere at the A-list festival in Berlin and then did well at the A and B-list festival circuit but only did $250k at the NZ box office. This content reached its intended audiences, but they were niche not broad.

We all recognised this, though. Figure out your audience, broad or niche, and target your content at them. Even for niche audiences, you could still learn whether or not you were successful.

Nowadays, however, in a fragmented market, it’s not so easy to identify what success really is.

A series intended for Free-to-Air that doesn’t rate could find a much bigger audience when it’s moved to On-Demand. A film that does average box office in New Zealand could end up selling or being licensed to a global streamer and potentially be seen by millions more people than was ever thought possible.

The old indicators still work, but it’s simplistic to use them as the only measures of success, especially when popularity is the only yardstick being championed.

The digital world of content distribution has changed the paradigm and complicated how to measure real success, especially when those who control the means of distribution. Netflix, for example, rarely reveal what the very accurate data they alone have access to indicates about audience specifics.

To define a new measurement for screen content success, New Zealand company Parrot Analytics developed a 360 measurement system to take into account multiple points of digital activity around the world. This system is used by, amongst others, TVNZ, CBS, Disney, Sky, and WarnerMedia. Without the data from the content platforms available, this would seem a very valuable service. Perhaps something NZ On Air might want to consider to support their funding decisions if they don’t already utilise it.

But film sits in a very difficult position amongst this digital measurement system. The shared theatrical experience is considered first and foremost for film, unless you are making a telefeature. Filmmakers want their films to go on the big screen before they find their way to the small. Look at the ructions Warner Bros. created when they decided to send their entire 2021 slate straight to HBO Max at the same time as the theatrical release.

Even with the NZFC playing in the series drama space, NZ film is very much its raison d’etre. But the audience for New Zealand film just isn’t there like it used to be. The writing was on the wall before COVID arrived.

NZ film has had a tropical vacation in theatres while Hollywood has been on hold due to COVID, but winter is coming with the onslaught of backed up blockbusters about to hit us.

Amongst all the other changes needed at NZFC right now, defining success for NZ film is another thing that needs to go on the agenda. A paradigm shift in thinking is required because we can’t rely solely on box office numbers any more. Even more so because film is both art and business. There has to be room for both.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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The world of film continues to be shaken up both at home and abroad. The only thing that’s clear is that streaming is here to stay and picking up steam.

Disney is just undertaking an entire reorganisation of its business to put streaming front and centre with content leading the way. The Mulan experiment as a Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) release possibly helped decide their future direction. Even with the need to subscribe to Disney+ just to get the ability to pay the premium price, punters made Mulan the fifth most-streamed SVOD title in the US in September, as tracked by measurement company Park7 Data.

Disney’s move follows WarnerMedia’s refocusing on content after the tepid response to the launch of HBO Max. Over at NBCUniversal, they too have reorganised along with the introduction of their streaming service Peacock.

So where does that leave the theatrical exhibitors?

Just two months ago, the world biggest theatrical exhibitor AMC and NBCUniversal paved the way for PVOD to become a Hollywood fixture when they overcame a bitter windowing disagreement to do a deal. Showing how quickly the old model is now becoming defunct primarily due to COVID, attendance numbers are nearly 85% down on what remains of AMC’s just under 500 theatres still open in America. Even worse, AMC predicts it will run out of cash to operate by the end of the year.

The second largest theatrical distributor on the planet, Britain’s Cineworld, has just announced it will shutter nearly 700 theatres in the UK and the US, threatening nearly 45,000 jobs. It doesn’t know when it will reopen them.

All of this comes amidst the moving feast of tentpole film releases. Christopher Nolan managed to convince Warners to put Tenet into theatres this year, but Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Bond film No Time to Die and Christopher McQuarie’s Mission Impossible 7 are just some of the films pushed back to 2021. All this does is put more pressure on the exhibitors.

Theatres are crying out for tentpole films to help generate revenue, even with social distancing measures in place. They just can’t get them. The situation is so dire directors James Cameron, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen amongst others signed a letter to the US Government that said without additional support, 69% of small and mid-sized cinemas in the US would likely go bankrupt or close.

In New Zealand however, NZ films are having a bit of a dream run with no tent poles and not a lot else to compete against.

DEGNZ member director Sam Kelly’s Savage hit a million dollars at the box office, David White’s This Town has done just over $700k. Paul Murphy’s Low Down Dirty Criminals is still in theatres at Week 7. In the old normal it would likely be gone by now, pushed aside by new releases.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Film Commission just extended for a further six months its COVID-19 Policy regarding its Terms of Trade. This means for films up to $2.5 million, you no longer need to have both a distributor and a sales agent. You only need one or the other. Or, in a major change, a recognised VOD platform can replace the sales agent or distributor.

Frankly, I believe the mandatory need to have any of them for films up to $2.5 million is an old and broken model. If you have a good script and package and they believe in the project, then a sales agent, distributor or platform will come in.

And if they don’t and you make a good film, you will just as likely find them when the film’s ready to show. The supposed financial commitment they make through a Minimum Guarantee (MG) can sometimes be a sham anyway, so why have it as a mandatory requirement for the finance plan? If you have a finished film and more than one sales agent or distributor wants it, it puts you in a stronger negotiating position.

Guaranteed distribution on the public broadcaster’s OnDemand service would deliver the potential for eyeballs with marketing the key to getting people to watch, guaranteeing a viewing avenue for the NZ public.

Theatrical exhibition then becomes the nice-to-have, not the must-have, while still offering the box office revenue opportunity. Window the theatrical first as is still being done and you protect the box office from pillaging by the OnDemand.

Over the Tasman, Screen Australia has already done away with the need for Australasian distribution. A positive amongst the carnage that’s been wrought there in film and television. The big ‘If’ there is whether or not the streamers will pick up the slack as the Australian Government hopes they will. Not levying streamers to produce local content in the expectation that they will take Aussie content anyway is a bet Australian production companies don’t like the odds of.

Meanwhile, here we sit, basking in the glow of the setting sun of the old film industry, hoping like hell that the Golden Age of television is going to save us.

We shall see.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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When Bob Iger of Disney speaks about the future of film, it’s worth listening.

Why?

Because amongst the hundreds of companies that sit under the Disney umbrella are 20th Century Fox, Lucas Film, Marvel, and Pixar. Brands number in the thousands and include through whole or partial ownership indie darling Fox Searchlight, streamer Hulu, and networks ABC, ESPN, FX, National Geographic and A & E.

Of course Disney doesn’t own everything. There are other conglomerates out there, the likes of Amazon, Apple, Comcast, and TimeWarner who are shaping the screen content world we are in now. But Iger demands everyone’s attention.

So this month at Disney’s third quarter earnings announcement when Iger essentially declared that big movies belong in theatres, and everything else will go to its streamers Hulu and the soon-to-launch-globally Disney+, everyone sat up.

Reporting on this, Journalists Dana Harris and Chris Lindahl in Indiewire wrote that “The very, very top films with awards potential will see generous theatrical offers and bidding wars that price out all but the deepest pockets. The highest-quality films with no clear awards play will also see strong offers and bidding wars, but from streamers, and considerably less generous offers from independent theatrical distributors. For everyone else, it looks like a struggle — although they could also benefit from the streamers’ ongoing arms race to acquire the content mass necessary to achieve market dominance.”

So where does that leave us in New Zealand with our 10 or so narrative and documentary features a year? Blissfully unaware some say.

A recent article in The Hollywood Reporter gives some indication that even the top names in film can see the writing on the wall. Directors including Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan amongst others were behind the Ultra High Definition Alliance’s announced introduction of a “Filmmaker Mode” TV setting. Director Ryan Coogler essentially admitted the fate of film by saying, “I care deeply about how cinema is experienced at home because that’s where it lives the longest. That’s where cinema is watched and re-watched and experienced by families. By allowing the artists in the tent to help consult and give feedback to the electronics companies on Filmmaker Mode, we can collectively help make the consumer’s experience even more like it is in the cinema.”

Of course the name directors will still get their films into theatres—witness the Netflix launch of Scorsese’s The Irishman, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and Amazon’s commitment to theatrical release for the auteur directors it backs. But for the rest of us? We might have to get used to premieres in Filmmaker Mode unless you can get your films into festivals.

Once streamers Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime and WarnerMedia are in full swing here, perhaps NZFC might even relax its demand that you have to have NZ theatrical release to get production funding.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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My op-ed this week is devoted to personal musings in the lead up to the NZ Screen Sector Strategy hui, and the changing nature of the screen industry as we know it.

Colin Peacock on the Radio New Zealand website wrote on the weekend about ‘Convergence’: what it is and what it has led to—telecommunications and broadcasting merging due to digital technology and the Internet.

One outcome of the convergence that’s happened here, which I wrote about last newsletter, was the TVNZ board reporting to Government that it will not be paying a dividend for the foreseeable future.

In the same RNZ convergence article, TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick is quoted as saying that TVNZ will refine the data from TVNZ OnDemand users to allow advertisers to tightly target ads to online viewers.

Following last year’s revamp of TVNZ OnDemand, RNZ also reported Kendrick as saying, “Consumers of online video are pretty clear they pay with their wallet, their data or their time. We’re in an ad-funded world.”

With no profits in sight and the Government forgiving TVNZ its requirement as a state-owned company to deliver a dividend, is it time to turn TVNZ back into a public broadcaster and forget about advertising as the main revenue stream?

If convergence is the reality, how about converging ONE, TVNZ 2, DUKE, TVNZ OnDemand and Radio NZ into a new media powerhouse for public broadcasting? Let’s call it Aotearoa Media Powerhouse – Digital (AMP-D) for ease.

The commitment by Kendrick to a significant increase in local content, the mix between local and international shifting markedly towards local, and investment in an online future while making that content available across more devices would make absolute sense for AMP-D. This would parallel the efforts the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) are making to survive.

Granted, TVNZ would be moving from a business that cost close to $300 million to run in 2018—essentially what they earn from advertising—to a public broadcaster that has to find other ways to earn revenue.

How about an AMP-D Studios along the lines of BBC Studios, whose remit is to produce and market programmes not only for the BBC, but for other broadcasters on the open market at home and internationally, returning profits back to the BBC. AMP-D Studios would give the commercially inclined at TVNZ a new playground to play in.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to AMP-D is we’d get away from this navel-gazing that differentiates New Zealand content for local audiences, which is fragmenting away before our eyes. AMP-D Studios and independents could produce programming that is—to steal something else from the BBC—distinctive (in our case NZ), world-class content. Why couldn’t AMP-D Studios generate shows like The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, produced by Danish public broadcaster DR, which sold all around the world? There’d have to be a cap to how much of the public purse AMP-D Studios could get, though.

AMP-D could also generate news and current affairs nationally in a revenue generating service to commercial media companies, much as the NZ Press Association and the worldwide video news service Visnews did previously. This would allow the commercials to put their own spin on the content without the major cost of resourcing.

AMP-D OnDemand could have two operational tiers: Subscriber Video On Demand (SVOD) that’s ad-free and costs a monthly fee, and Ad-Supported Video On Demand (AVOD) that carries advertising in a free-to-air service. Hulu already operates this hybrid system.

In such a new environment, it would make sense for NZ On Air and the NZ Film Commission to ‘converge’. Let’s call this the Aotearoa Media Fund (AMF). AMF could manage the discretionary funding allotted to it to spend between broadcast, digital audio-visual content for the Internet, film and radio.

To really power AMP-D up, AMF could be required to stop funding content on the commercial platforms, dedicate its funding to AMP-D and meet its requirement to deliver great New Zealand content that is valued and enjoyed by many New Zealand audiences on multiple public broadcasting platforms. A cap in funding for internal production for both screen and radio content could be levelled to ensure independent production companies could operate in the new environment.

AMP-D could benefit local feature films by being required to carry all films funded by AMF, guaranteeing free-to air play to New Zealand audiences for every NZ film, which doesn’t happen now. The best films would get significant marketing and promotion. The not-so-good would get buried in AMP-D OnDemand—the same for not-so-great content on Netflix—where they’d sit for those still interested enough to search them out. (Smart Kiwi producers could take a page out of Norwegian producer Anders Tange’s book on how to build an audience independently of a streamer as he did for his Viking comedy Norsemen on Netflix.)

It’s almost certain that there would be an increased cost to establishing and running AMP-D that would take a long time to mitigate if ever, even with the efficiencies of a combined entity. That would be the cost of continued existence.

But perhaps it might be useful to compare New Zealand content and its industry to the kakapo — an endangered species that’s potentially headed towards extinction if we don’t do something paradigm-shifting to save it.

“What about us?”, the commercial platforms here would scream?

Frankly, it’s a fight for survival and we have to ensure first and foremost that our content and our platforms survive and flourish in the brave new world that’s upon us. Sorry, you commercial guys, you’re going to have to sort it for yourselves. Or maybe ‘converge’.  And if they withered and died, maybe it would all be for the better for AMP-D. After all, it would still have to face Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney +, HBO +, Hulu and others. Heck, AMP-D might even have to team up with the public broadcasters in Australia, Canada, the UK, the U.S. and elsewhere to live to fight another day. Such collaborations are already happening in Europe.

I’m happy for anyone to shoot holes in my postulations above. I’ve only spent a couple of hours daydreaming, not weeks and months devising a strategy. The intent is to get you to do more thinking about our industry with the screen sector strategy upon us. We can now imagine our own futures and let Government know.

We are going to be sending out the list of questions I wrote about in the last blog to everyone on our database. We want your thoughts about the direction the New Zealand’s screen industry should go. So please take the time to ponder, write to and or tell the Screen Sector Strategy NZ and DEGNZ your opinions. We’ll make sure we collate them and submit them from the Guild along with our thinking, so that we all have a say.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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The Screen Sector Strategy has announced the dates of its intended hui in 3 locales to gather industry input into a strategy document for the New Zealand Screen Industry. This will be taken to Government in the first half of 2020.

This is an important opportunity for every individual to give their ten cents worth on how they would like to see the direction of the screen industry go.

The DEGNZ board has put together a list of questions for members to help stimulate your ideas. You can find the Guild questionnaire available here to download. Please do send your responses back to us at admin@degnz.co.nz with ‘Questionnaire’ in the subject line.

Below are some recent developments that could contribute to your thinking.

The Spinoff reported in an article on Saturday that for the foreseeable future, TVNZ will not report a dividend to government—essentially, TVNZ’s profitability is way down and is likely to remain so. The impact of Google and Facebook on onscreen advertising revenues is a major factor in this, as well as the advent of Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix and the fragmentation of the media market.

In the same article, The Spinoff reported an unprecedented call-out by NZ On Air to all the major news providers to attend a meeting to discuss the long term sustainability of journalism.

Across the ditch in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Final Report into Digital Platforms addresses this topic amongst others. Key findings include:

  • The availability of a wide range of high-quality news and journalism provides significant benefits to Australian society and is important for the healthy functioning of democracy.
  • News and journalism risk under-provision for a number of reasons, including the general inability of commercial news media businesses to capture the broader social benefits of journalism.
  • Media businesses, particularly traditional print (now print/online) publishers, have experienced a significant fall in advertising revenue as advertisers follow audiences who have migrated online to access news and other content. This has coincided with strong growth in online advertising, which now accounts for half of all advertising expenditure. Google and Facebook together account for nearly two-thirds of online advertising expenditure.

These aren’t earth-shattering revelations, but clearly highlight the fundamentals of what we all are wrestling with and that are driving TVNZ, Mediaworks, Fairfax, and NZME amongst others to the wall.

The Australians have also called for a levy on streamers to fund local content, the need to maintain broadcast TV quotas, and an end to cuts for screen funding bodies and public broadcasters as previously written about in the Guild blog here.

Funding cuts have impacted heavily on Screen Australia and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In New Zealand in comparison, our funding bodies (NZFC, NZ On Air) have had relatively static funding for years, with more and more calls upon it.

As many of you will now be aware, there is international production work to be shot in New Zealand coming out of our ears. We are already seeing a shortage of experienced personnel and crew rates and other production costs are rising while New Zealand budgets stay the same. The question of how local production can survive and thrive in the face of the onslaught of offshore work arriving is vexing a number of us.

We are at a crucial time for both the local and international screen industries. There are seismic shifts still to come as Disney, WarnerMedia, Apple and other streaming services come online and continue to shake broadcast and theatrical to their foundations.

The Screen Sector Strategy work now underway needs to be completed quickly and effectively if we are to have a sustainable industry in New Zealand that benefits from international production and contributes to the development of local screen content and Kiwi screen IP.

Please share your thoughts on where to from here with us at the Guild, at the Screen Sector Strategy hui and with submissions, so that a well thought out strategy is distilled that will work for us all.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director