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It’s hard not to talk about what’s going on in the global screen industry when COVID continues to upend screen life as we know it.

Perhaps the biggest seismic shift that has occurred is Universal Studios and AMC, the U.S. and the world’s largest theatre chain, announcing a historic agreement for the studio’s movies to be made available on premium video-on-demand after just 17 days of play in cinemas. Exhibitors have long fought the shortening of theatrical windows and have been able to leverage their fight off the legislation in the U.S. that prevents studios owning theatres.

Some of you will remember the days when a movie came out in theatres first, three months later on VHS, pay TV three months after that and two years later on free-to-air television. This sort of worked for everyone as first VHS and later DVD was incredibly lucrative. Geographical territory releases are part of the windowing business model and still exist today.

Streaming of course upended all of this with its ability to release in multiple territories simultaneously straight into the consumer’s home. In a recent podcast, director Gina Prince-Bythewood, the helmer of Charlize Theron’s The Old Guard, while lamenting that the Netflix release of the film didn’t give it the cinematic presence that a typical theatrical release would have, also extolled the streamer for putting her film into 190 countries in one day.

It’s easy to understand why AMC caved in to Universal—it’s close to bankruptcy thanks to COVID, as are many other theatrical chains and independents. This deal is a watershed one for the movie business. Variety in an article, poses six questions on what the agreement might mean. Perhaps the most interesting for everyone in the independent film space—and that’s where all NZ films sit—is that the studios may shift away from just superhero films and towards quality fare.

In the second big piece of news for the week, the British Government launched an emergency £500M (NZ$1.17 billion) film and TV coronavirus production insurance fund. This is expected to kickstart production in the country that remains threatened by the pandemic. With this boost, British producers will be able to get back into filming, confident that the fund will effectively underwrite the cost of productions closing due to COVID. We still await a similar response from our government for the New Zealand screen industry.

And finally, across the ditch the Australian Government added A$400 million (NZ$431 million) to its location offset, essentially allowing international productions through their rebate scheme to access a total rebate of 30%, in comparison to NZ’s rebate scheme via NZSPG of 20% with a small number getting an additional 5% through the Uplift. It’s highly unlikely that the NZ Government is going to participate in a rebate race to the bottom, and I’m personally not convinced as some others are that this is going to have a significant negative impact on international productions coming to New Zealand.

Time will tell.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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On Wednesday evening, Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Carmel Sepuloni, together with the Minister for Economic Development, Phil Twyford, and Minister for Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi, announced the Screen Sector Recovery package. Included was $140 million previously announced in the budget, being $115 million to the international NZ Screen Production Grant, with $25 million to the domestic Screen Production Grant for local productions.

The rest of the announcement was new funding, but how much and where it went was clear as mud. As far as I can figure out it breaks down like this:

  • $15.4 million to NZFC with $2 million allocated to cultural capability funding and the rest to recovery for production affected by COVID.
  • In a guess on my part, $8 million to NZ On Air for production affected by COVID.
  • $50 million in a new fund to be dedicated to high-end drama and film projects, targeting streamers it would seem, with criteria still to be developed.
  • An additional $25 million, which seems to have materialised out of nowhere, for NZ On Air to spend over four years for Pacific, student and disability broadcast media.

The elephant in the room, though, is insurance. Without it, no new high-end drama or feature film will be able to get up without a major studio willing to bankroll the whole thing and take the associated risk that COVID has brought.

How to get insurance and completion bonds for production is a global problem putting the brakes on production everywhere. The insurance industry has already been hit with massive COVID-associated claims. Consequently, insurers won’t issue insurance to cover COVID-19.

Screen industries around the world are hatching various plans to deal with the insurance issue, but they all, to a greater or lesser degree, come down to one thing: government underwriting of insurance.

The New Zealand Film Commission commissioned the Screen Production and Development Association (SPADA) to write a paper for Government to outline the issues and justify the call for Government to come up with a solution that would allow new drama and feature film projects to get up. While the new funding announced on Wednesday night was welcomed by everyone, a significant number of those in attendance at the Beehive waited with bated breath for a Government response to the insurance issue. It never came.

Small productions and those that had existing insurance coverage prior to COVID will get made, but independent production everywhere needs the insurance problem solved. That includes any NZ On Air funded drama soon to be announced from the last round. Without an insurance solution or a studio willing to take on the risk, we could all be watching a lot more low-budget short-form web series to satisfy our scripted desires.

Unfortunately, we are still waiting cap in hand for the Government to come to the rescue. If they do, we will then truly be able to take advantage of the very fortunate position we find ourselves in as a screen industry in comparison to the rest of the world.

Here’s hoping.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director