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What Does 2019 Hold for NZ Film?

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I hope everyone is well and rested after the Christmas and New Year break.

As we kick off the year, I’ve been forced to ponder what 2019 holds for NZ film both personally and because it’s something we should all be asking ourselves with the changes in the global screen industry.

To come up with my answer, the first thing I decided to do was look back and see how NZ films performed at the Box Office domestically in 2018.

Box Office numbers in NZ as one indicator of performance are available and reliable, but they don’t paint a true picture for a number of reasons, including:

  1. NZFC’s mandate is as a cultural funding body not a commercially driven investor. A film doesn’t have to return its investment to make it worthwhile for them to fund it.
  2. International Box Office numbers are difficult to obtain and can be inaccurate.
  3. Other international revenues, such as a sale to a streamer like Netflix, can go unreported.

True returns on film investment, therefore, are difficult to determine.

Of course, like the Swedish with the Quadrant B films I’ve written about previously, we’d all love to have critically acclaimed box office successes, but they are few and far between anywhere.

However, to get NZFC funding you must have local theatrical distribution, and local Box Office is one measure used to rate the performance of a NZ film. So for starters, here are I believe all the NZ films that got theatrical distribution in 2018 with their box office (If I missed anything or am incorrect, please let me know):

  Title Genre NZFC Prod. Investment NZ Box Office
Narrative Fiction
1 Vermilion Drama Y $21,329.00
2 The Stolen** Drama Y $38,716.00
3 Human Traces Thriller Y $63,182.00
4 Stray Drama N $83,259.00
5 Kiwi Christmas** Family Y $301,494.00
6 Waru Anthology Drama Y $400,747.00
7 Hibiscus and Ruthless Comedy N $496,096.00
8 Broken Faith drama N $753,118.00
9 Mortal Engines* Fantasy N $1,428,448.00
10 The Breaker Upperers Comedy Y $1,776,484.00
Documentary
1 Wayne Doco Y $22,164.00
2 Maui’s Hook Doco Y $23,376.00
3 Yellow Is Forbidden* Doco Y $44,137.00
4 She Shears* Doco Y $132,512.00
5 Born Racer: The Scott Dixon Story Doco N $155,588.00
6 No Ordinary Sheila Doco N $356,243.00
7 They Shall Not Grow Old* Doco N $685,969.00

*Still in theatres at the end of 2018
**Received New Zealand Screen Production Grant funding—numbers were only available to 30 Sept. 2018; so one or more films in the table may also have received NZSPG but the info. hasn’t been released yet.

We can take a number of things from this table (with some added facts):

  1. Seventeen films received a release in 2018—a good number.
  2. Five of the 10 narratives were helmed by first-timers: Vermilion, Human Traces, Stray, Waru, Broken, and The Breaker Upperers (one of two co-directors). (Waru as an anthology film made up of eight shorts with first timers counts as one first time female director.)
  3. Three of the seven docos had first-time directors: Maui’s Hook, She Shears, and No Ordinary Sheila.
  4. Four out of the 17 films were female-led projects written by women with female protagonists: Vermilion, The Breaker Upperers, Waru and Yellow Is Forbidden.
  5. Waru and Maui’s Hook are Māori films and both address important social issues.
  6. Yellow Is Forbidden was NZ’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
  7. Local box office numbers range from poorly performing to bona fide hits.

We should remember that we are not comparing apples with apples here. Budgets vary wildly from a few hundred thousand for Stray and Waru to US$100 million for Mortal Engines. Distribution and marketing spend is equally varied. Budget size is a significant factor in profitability.

Stepping back a little, we can say that if 2018 is anything to go by, certainly output-wise, the NZ film industry is in good health.

So what about 2019?

Output
Output is likely to be over 10 films, both narrative and doco. We’ll hopefully have one box office winner. There’ll be a mixed bag of other films when it comes to quality and NZ Box Office, some of which will be critically acclaimed. Like the Australians, we do generally struggle to get NZ audiences to NZ films.

First-timers
We’ll continue to see films from first-timers, as NZFC looks for the next Jane Campion, Pietra Brett-Kelly, Peter Jackson, Annie Goldson, Niki Caro, Leanne Pooley or Lee Tamahori.

Female driven films
NZFC’s initiatives to address gender inequality should see more female-driven films coming through this year and certainly next.

Maori & Pacific Island films
Anthology film Vai is opening NATIVe at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival with eight female directors, seven Pacific Islanders and one Māori. NZ had one film in 2019 Sundance in Heperi Mita’s documentary about his mother Merata (Australia had 6).

Maori and Pacific Island stories and filmmakers are also receiving additional attention from NZFC, so there will be a flow through, but more likely from 2020 on.

Narrative and documentary
Ten narratives (58%) out of 17 is quite high. There may be a rebalancing with a more even percentage between narrative and doco.

The trend reflected in the NZ results reflects what is going on globally: drama, particularly arthouse drama, struggles to get box office (and financed) unless you have name cast or directors the likes of Debra Granik, Lynn Shelton, Alfonso Cuarón or Pavel Pawilkowski, or have built in audiences.

That said, first-timers or other directors with drama without name cast might well score the coveted Cannes slot that New Zealand hasn’t had for over 15 years. I predict, though, that we will see more genre and elevated genre projects coming through.

Documentary is low cost in comparison to most narrative films, and the market globally for docos is strong even though Netflix has cut right back on them. We will continue to see good documentary numbers going into production.

International Financing
I haven’t touched on this till now but it’s too important in today’s market to leave out. It’s been a tough film market out there, but reports from Sundance say the buyers are back in play and spending up big.

I’ve just seen a report out of Europe saying streamers will spend north of US$20 billion on film and TV in the coming year. This is new money that wasn’t around before Netflix arrived on the scene in 1997. A good chunk of this will go to TV series but film will definitely get some, so the world is awash with money at the moment for financing… for the right projects.

Considering the incredible change that has occurred in film particularly over the last five years, you could say things are somewhat positive for NZ filmmakers. And that’s not a bad place to be.

Of course if you want to make money, you should be in TV drama because it’s better than it’s ever been. Internationally anyway.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Geoff Murphy, Iconoclastic Filmmaker

When Geoff Murphy died last week, he left a film industry very different from the one that he entered in the 1970s. In those days it couldn’t be called an industry – just a bunch of mates trying to make movies. Geoff was at the forefront of the renaissance and deserves the accolades bestowed later in life: a lifetime achievement award at the Moa New Zealand Film Awards, one of twenty Arts Foundation “arts icons”, New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2014 Queen’s New Year Honours.

Colourful, irreverent, his anti-authoritarianism was a badge of honour to the end, his signature gesture an up-thrust middle finger to the establishment. I remember, a decade ago, sitting with him on the porch of his man-cave in Holloway Road as, a roll-your-own stuck to his lip (Diane wouldn’t let him smoke inside) he carved miniature cannons for his model warships and railed against the mendacious moguls of Hollywood and bumbling bureaucrats of Wellington.

A budding teaching career didn’t have a hope when he discovered jazz, drugs and Bruno Lawrence. They created BLERTA – Bruno Lawrence’s Electric Revelation and Traveling Apparition. A bunch of hippy musos, partners, their kids and assorted hangers-on toured the country in their bus jolting the locals awake with a crazy mix of theatre, jazz, rock, pyrotechnics and psychedelics. And film. They were experimenting with film in their concerts and from this grew their first films – Wild Man and Dagg Day Afternoon.

Some of the BLERTA crew – including Alun Bollinger, Martyn Sanderson, Bruno and Geoff – put their 60s principles into practice scraping together enough to buy some land at Waimarama and establishing a commune focussed around making music and movies.

With no money and no gear, they built their own. He and Andy Grant built the first camera crane in the country. His very kiwi ability to find creative solutions to problems stood him in good stead all his career.

In 1981 I remember coming out of a screening of Goodbye Pork Pie with a silly grin on my face. It was this tongue-in-cheek road movie that established Geoff as New Zealand’s pre-eminent action director and Alun Bollinger as a highly-rated cinematographer. The film somehow captured the zeitgeist of the time and New Zealanders took it to their hearts. To Geoff’s surprise it set box-office records that took years to surpass.

His next film, Utu, is regarded by many as his best. Quentin Tarantino possesses an intimate knowledge of New Zealand cinema and Utu is his favourite. However, the cut that was released had been “improved” by the producers and Geoff was not happy. When, in 2013, Nga Taonga Sound and Vision (the NZ Film Archive) was restoring Utu, Geoff was given the chance to recreate his director’s cut. He leapt at the opportunity. The result was released as Utu Redux. More recently Tarantino was putting together a season of screenings of his favourite films. He rang Geoff to ask for permission to screen Utu and explained that he needed a 35ml print. Geoff insisted he screen the Redux version and when he realized that they could only access a 16ml print of Redux, and Quentin would have to screen the original version, Geoff withdrew permission.

After Quiet Earth Geoff headed to Hollywood to work on action block-busters like Young Guns II, Freejack, Under Seige II and The Last Outlaw. Despite mixing with Hollywood royalty, Geoff, ever the outlaw himself, refused to be impressed by fame. His battered Toyota station-wagon stood out among the Ferraris and Bentleys in the studio carpark.

By this time he had left both his wife Pat and long-time lover Diane and married film-maker Merata Mita. Their son Hepi remembers growing up in Hollywood: “Mickey O’Rourke used to hang out on our couch. One day Mick Jagger rang and invited us down to stay on Mustique, his Caribbean island, so off we went. Dad and Mick got on like a house on fire.”

When Peter Jackson invited Murphy to be second unit director on the Rings trilogy, he returned to Wellington where he moved in with old flame Diane Kearns. A solid unit, they were together till the end.

In 2009 I had the privilege of working with Geoff on Tales of Mystery and Imagination, a genre-bending music film based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe with music by Lucien Johnson.

In 2014 his last film was released: Spooked, a cyber-thriller starring Cliff Curtis.

Despite his time in Hollywood, he was very clear about both the difference between Hollywood and New Zealand films, and his identity as primarily a New Zealand film-maker telling “our stories”.

He is survived by his brothers John and Roy, and a number of children, several of whom are in the screen industry – Robin (production manager and producer), Paul (director – Second Hand Wedding, Lovebirds), Matt (director – Pork Pie – the remake), Linus, Miles (director – commercials and short films), Heperi (director – Te Taki A Merata Mita – How Mum Decolonised The Screen), Rafer, Richard, Rhys, Awatea, and step children Joe and Paul Kearns.

 

Howard Taylor
President

8 December 2018

Stray Director Dustin Feneley to Share at Rialto Film Talk

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Stray film still

Film Talk at Rialto Cinemas is where filmmakers and film fans meet. After each Film Talk screening, members of the creative team will join a moderator from the Directors & Editors Guild to discuss their work.

On October 3, Film Talk will screen Stray, finishing with an audience Q&A with director Dustin Feneley.

Stray is Feneley’s much-anticipated first feature and is editor Dione Chard’s first full-length film. Both are members of DEGNZ.

Come along if you missed the film at the New Zealand International Film Festival and to hear about the making of the film.

STRAY

Stray film poster

In a cold and remote landscape, two strangers struggle to repair their broken pasts. A young man is on parole after serving time for attempting to murder the man who killed his girlfriend in a hit and run. A woman is released from a psychiatric facility far from her homeland. These two damaged strangers cross paths in the mountains in winter and fall into a complex intimate relationship, putting to the test their capacity to trust and heal.

When: Wed 3 October 2018, 6pm
Where: Rialto Cinemas Newmarket, 167-169 Broadway, Newmarket, Auckland

Cost: $12 for film industry members – Book Tickets

Hopes and Dreams

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Thanks to the New Zealand Film Commission, I was fortunate to attend the Cannes Film Festival 2018 where hopes and dreams are realized or not, and was reminded of where we Kiwis sit in the global film industry with our 5 – 15 films each year—somewhere towards the back unless someone has been good enough to put themselves in the front row.

The film industry remains dominated by two territories—North America and Europe. In 2016, 2,123 feature films were produced in Europe alone, in the US 789, while the total worldwide for that year for the top 10 markets was approximately 7,973. India with its massive output including Bollywood films tops the list with 1,903. China is clearly a major player now, too, with 944 films, but it is still grappling with how to be most effective with its money and create films with international appeal.

Although Europe is a conglomeration of cultures, in fact in film they have a shared sensibility. European films dominated European sales agents’ catalogues at Cannes, although films from South America, Africa, and the Middle East vie for space as Europe looks to other territories for the next great filmmakers. Saudi Arabia has recently thrown its film doors open and both the commercial and cultural film sectors are queuing to get in.

It’s this attraction for the new that’s possibly one reason New Zealand has been thrust aside at Cannes. In many respects we’ve already had our time in the Cote D’Azur sun. Vincent Ward, Jane Campion and a couple of others preceded Christine Jeffs with Rain, which was the last NZ film selected for Cannes in 2001. A more likely reason is that we just haven’t had a filmmaker and film with Cannes appeal. That doesn’t stop us from trying, though.

Each year thousands of films including those from NZ seek selection at Cannes. It’s hard to get in and when films do, the filmmakers, their film bodies or investors, and their sales agents celebrate. Director’s Fortnight, International Critics Week, Un Certain Regard and the most prestigious of all, Official Competition, are the sought after sections. Repeaters who are Cannes darlings often dominate official competition. This year it was Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s turn to take the top prize, the Palme d’Or, with his seventh Cannes selection.

While we all dream of a film in competition, what most Kiwi filmmakers attending Cannes are doing there is hoping to secure international sales and distribution for films that have yet to be made. A fantastic script, unknown but talented director, internationally renowned cast, commerciality, festival potential—all or a combinations of these things are what sales agents are after.

Some seek films that are bright, full of hope, comedic, or genre, and exhibiting clear commercial potential. Others are attracted to the darker side, the auteur vision, the arthouse film that could break out, although it’s definitely harder to find sales agents for such films these days even though it’s what many Europeans are still making.

We are in a sub-category of our own at Cannes, like our Australians and Canadians colleagues, with our English language peculiarities that are neither definitively US indie or European arthouse. UK sales agents although part of the European makeup are obviously more friendly to English language films, but certainly are more driven by commerciality than their European counterparts. The same for those from the US.

Elevated genre is one way for us to break out, whether it’s horror, drama or thriller, but you can’t go past a great script whatever type of film you are pitching. It’s a matter then of finding a sales agent who loves the script as much as you do. But you’ve got to get them to read it first. To do that you and your project will be put through the wringer, sometimes gently sometimes not, to see if it meets that particular sales agent’s yardstick. And the yardsticks do differ.

One key ingredient that gets films made and into the market it seems to me is passion—The passion of the writer, director and producer that’s going to see them go the hard yards across many years to get their film up. And the passion that the sales agent and distributor must have to take a film on—it’s a tough environment for them these days and you hear of as many bankruptcies or close downs as you do successes. One sales agent I know told me that from Berlin in February to Cannes in May this year, he knew of four sales agents that went bust.

Filmmaking ultimately though is about hopes and dreams, whether it’s arthouse, tent pole or something in between. Every filmmaker understands this no matter what genre or budget they are working with. The big question we all confront sooner or later is whether our hopes and dreams can be realized or they just remain pie in the sky. And Cannes can help you find the answer while delivering the spectacle that makes it the most glamorous film festival around.

I highly recommend that anyone who wants to make a film go to Cannes. It’s fun, sobering, hard work, overwhelming, and it will break you out of that isolationist world that we all mostly operate in. And I suggest you go soon. If Cannes doesn’t adapt to the changing screen world, it could end up as just a fond memory of what it used to be.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director