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The Future of (NZ) Film

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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

Is It Time for TVNZ to Revert to Public Broadcasting?

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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

Brand New Zealand in Film

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NB: Anna Serner quotes extracted from a Nordisk Film & TV Fund article

 

Anna Serner, the CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, spoke at the Big Screen Symposium a couple of weeks ago on gender equity.

In the short time she has been at the Swedish Institute, she has essentially delivered gender parity in funding for feature film. By parity, that means that 50 per cent of films are written, directed and or produced by women. As in New Zealand now, it was the number of women directing films in Sweden where the numbers were poorest.

At the same time Serner strove for gender parity, she also strove for higher quality.

“Our strategy is basically to have high demands, and clear goals. We look for films that either can reach a high national audience or will go to international festivals. Ideally, we’d love to have both!”

This demand for quality saw an increase in rejections for funding applications from both men and women, rising from 80% ‘no’ to 90% ‘no’.

Serner’s approach upset men and women. The men because they felt it was harder to get funding. The women because they wanted to be considered “directors” rather than “women directors” and because their funding applications were still being rejected.

The quality focus is a very interesting aspect of the changes Serner has brought about. It is linked into a desire to project ‘Brand Sweden’ through film, which ties into the Swedish Government’s policy to project ‘Brand Sweden’ through four key profile areas: Society, Innovation, Creativity, Sustainability.

This from the Brand Sweden strategy document:

Countries are dependent on the esteem and confidence of the rest of the world in their competition for tourists, investors, talent and the attention of others. Sweden is a country with a good reputation, but the world is changing rapidly and competition for attention is growing. A strong image of Sweden abroad is important for achieving political objectives, promoting trade, attracting investment, tourists and talent, and encouraging cultural and scientific exchange.

The Swedish Film Institute has a very interesting matrix for deciding whether or not to fund film and help project Brand Sweden. It takes a four quadrant approach.

– Courtesy Anna Serner, Swedish Film Institute

 

Quadrants A, B and D are the successful quadrants. C is for the duds.

For New Zealand, the number of Admissions would halve as we are essentially 50% the size of Sweden. And if we looked at NZ films, in A you would have films with niche audiences with high critical acclaim, such as the recent Inland Road and Stray. Sitting at the upper end of both axis in B would be Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Let’s not talk about C. And in D you would probably find the latest Pork Pie.

Swedish independent filmmakers target A and B and with considerable success. They had three films in Cannes this year (we haven’t had one since Christine Jeff’s Rain, 17 years ago). The breakout hit The Square is a definite B, as would be another great Swedish film Force Majure, both by director Ruben Östlund.

For Anna Serner, the Swedish brand is equally important domestically as internationally.

“The Swedish brand is very highly regarded internationally but not enough at home. So we have to fight harder to get the films to reach the audience, by branding Swedish films better and having a greater diversity of voices.”

Brand New Zealand is definitely talked about in Business and in some aspects of Arts and Culture, the Venice Biennale being one example. But it’s not integrated into a cohesive strategy. And it’s not consciously focused on in our film output. It’s high time this was done.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

 

Correcting the Imbalance

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Ten years of business-focused government policy is now seeing a correction taking place in the New Zealand labour market.

Health and education have been the focus of recent labour matters, but thanks primarily to Radio New Zealand, the independent contractor market is now in the spotlight.

RNZ has put considerable effort into bringing into the open the plight of courier drivers, who are forced to operate as businesses, buying their own vehicles, uniforms, and scanners yet being dictated to by the companies that contract them as though they were employees. Worse, after deducting all their expenses, many it seems are earning less than the minimum wage. John Campbell interviewed Minister for Safety and Workplace relations Iain Lees-Galloway on this here. RNZ offered CEO Mark Troughear of Freightways, who owns NZ Couriers, the chance to respond here.

Thanks, or no thanks to the Hobbit Law, all film workers are classed as independent contractors and thus prevented from negotiating as a group to improve their terms and conditions.

Now I am not comparing the terms and conditions of courier drivers with those of screen industry workers. We all know which lot is in a better place. But we also all know that in the domestic screen industry, particularly with digital content, the unscrupulous are taking advantage of screen workers.

First Union are taking up the cause of courier drivers as you can read about here. And it’s the guilds’ role to represent the interests of those in the screen industry.

DEGNZ along with the other guilds took part in the Film Industry Working Group to address our (DEGNZ’s) and the government’s concerns about both the Hobbit Law and the inability of screen industry workers to collectively bargain. In due course those recommendations should be made public. All the guilds worked in good faith on this and represented their memberships as they are expected to do. Guilds are after all essentially unions, although some officially are not, including us.

Until now, DEGNZ has not been a union, although it has been a question that the board has asked itself—Should DEGNZ unionise? In the last few months the board has looked into this carefully, and met with various parties to weigh up the pros and cons.

At a recent board meeting, the board unanimously voted “Yes” to unionisation. This coming Annual General Meeting the board of DEGNZ will propose to the membership for the Guild to unionise and ask for a vote on it.

In the lead up to the AGM we want to give the membership as much opportunity as possible to make their views known, ask questions and debate the merits of unionisation.

This is an important issue that we will ask all paid-up financial members to decide upon, so do let us know what you think. And please put the AGM, scheduled for Saturday 6 October at 10AM in Auckland, in your diary. We would like as many of you as possible to come and hear why the board supports this view, and to get behind whatever decision is made.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Movin’ and Shakin’

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The New Zealand International Film Festival is upon us again. And there’s an even bigger selection of New Zealand films on offer, both feature-length and short, than I’ve encountered before—18 offerings, four of which are made up of programmes of short films. This is a fantastic selection—a high number from DEGNZ member directors and editors.

As Bill Gosden, the festival director pointed out in his speech celebrating the 50th birthday of the festival, it couldn’t have existed without the passion of film lovers who have nurtured it to the point where it has become what NZIFF is today—a truly great International film festival, showcasing the best of New Zealand and international film.

As always I encourage you to get along and watch films to encourage independent filmmaking everywhere.

In other news, Clare Curran is certainly the minister who keeps on giving, unfortunately not so much in the funding realm. The latest in the Radio NZ saga is a measly $4.5 million dollars to RNZ from the $15 million in the May Budget allocation for public media. NZ On Air gets just $4 million, while a new Innovation Fund to be jointly managed by Radio NZ and NZ On Air gets the lion’s share at $6 million.

It must be disturbing for Curran to hear from chair Michael Stiassny of the Ministerial Advisory Group she appointed that not even they support a fully funded RNZ+ television station. What you get—or not—for the price of a cup of coffee.

In a related development, Head of NZ On Air Jane Wrightson responded to an article in Newsroom by Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria Univeristy, who singled out our current dual funding model of contestable and fully-funded public broadcasting for criticism. In her reply on the same platform Wrightson said that “In the 21st century media landscape it’s highly unlikely that one media provider model will fit all, and so a combination of ring-fenced and contestable funding is a clever response by a small country where media cost structures are always under pressure.”

There are supporters and detractors of the dual funding model approach. Whatever your opinion on the matter, I think we all need to acknowledge the incredible work NZ On Air has done in seeking to adapt to the rapidly changing screen industry while being incredibly underfunded.

Thankfully, we now see broadcasters slowly being willing to take risks with the arrival on air of Taika’s and Jemaine’s Wellington Paranormal, and two new dramas commissioned and screening at a later date: The Bad Seed out of South Pacific Pictures, and Fresh Eggs from Warners NZ. And we are starting to see more locally driven international efforts bear fruit with Screentime’s copro Scandi – NZ noir Straight Forward now in post and destined for TVNZ.

And talk about change, there sure as hell seems to be a lot going on at the Film Commission—a new pou whakahaere in the wonderful and talented Karen Te O Kahurangi Waaka-Tibble, new job opportunities with the departures of Development Executive Karin Williams and Investment Executive Chris Moll, and obviously a change of approach that always comes with a new CEO, this time with the arrival of Annabelle Sheehan who has been with us seven months now. Watch this space for more to come.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director