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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

Making New Connections at the Directors & Editors Open Night

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Thanks to everybody who joined us at the Long Room last week in Ponsonby, for our Directors & Editors Open Night. It was great to see you and chat about DEGNZ!

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