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Thanks to the Doc Edge Festival, I was able to attend their opening night film The 7 Years of Lukas Graham, a story about Danish pop sensation Lukas Graham’s lead singer Lukas Forchhammer’s wrestle with fame. It got me thinking about the woeful state of documentary in New Zealand, something the guild identified at the 2019 NZ On Air Factual Summit in 2019 and sought to generate conversation about. COVID unfortunately disrupted our plans, but it’s back on our agenda.

One-off documentary internationally is in a strong place, although former Amazon Studios film head Ted Hope cautioned at the Danish doc fest, CPH:DOX, recently that the big players prefer documentary with mass appeal. Hope did go on to say however that with the proliferation of niche platforms catering to specialised audiences, there are greater opportunities for more distinct fare.

From Variety’s article:

One of the key things to recognize is the streamers’ need for a “targeted audience at a low price point,” [HOPE] stressed. “That’s basically the equation for efficiency. The most valuable type of audience member for a streamer is the new audience member. How do you attract new people to the platform? People that are not only passionate about something but have actually displayed their passion in a predictable way, are ripe precisely for that acquisition.”
Hope emphasized how different the business goals of streamers are from the world of exhibition. “It’s not profit and loss so much as customer acquisition. Drilling down to what that means I think reveals a lot.”

New Zealand documentary however is meant to target New Zealand audiences first, although with NZFC its international appeal is also taken into account when funding decisions are made.

In taking a look at the TV market for one-off documentary in New Zealand it’s pretty easy to see… there really isn’t one. NZ broadcasters on the whole aren’t interested in one-off documentary as they often tell us, although Māori Television does occasionally commission them.

Feature-length documentary suffers pretty much the same fate with the channels. While short form doco. has found its place with platforms and does attract NZ On Air funding, there’s nothing longer format for these documentary makers to go onto in TV, so they have to turn their heads to theatrical documentary features if they want to move to longer form.

Reviewing the latest figures/films available for NZFC-funded documentary feature for the  NZSPG/SPIF* and non-NZSPG/SPIF documentary films back to 2015 provides some interesting insights.

Please note: The funding totals are for NZFC administered funds only and do not take into account ‘market money’—Distributor/Sales Agent MGs, private investment, broadcast/platform fees or other non-NZFC investment. The box office totals are for NZ only and do not take into account Australia or Rest of World revenues.

In these latest stats:

  • NZSPG/SPIF films with higher budgets and commensurate marketing spend and screen numbers tend not to reach NZ theatrical audiences well, Chasing Great aside.
  • Non-NZSPG/SPIF films in general deliver a better Return on Investment (NZ B.O./TTL NZFC FUNDING) for every NZFC-administered dollar than NZSPG films in the NZ theatrical market.
  • Although the ROI of NZSPG/SPIF films is generally not great, the top two NZ documentaries by box office are NZSPG films, and four are in the top 10.

*NZSPG – NZ Screen Production Grant   SPIF – Screen Production Incentive Fund



YR TITLE (In alphabetical order) NZFC EQUITY NZSPG/


21 Dawn Raid $1,715,000.00 $1,317,490.00 $3,032,490.00 $332,074.00 $0.11
21 James and Isey* $365,345.00 N/A $365,345.00 $522,101.00 $1.43
20 Six60 Till The Lights Go Out $580,000.00 N/A $580,000.00 $535,402.00 $0.92
20 The Girl On The Bridge $690,000.00 N/A $690,000.00 $21,855.00 $0.03
20 We Need to Talk About A.I.** $1,044,783.00 $1,044,783.00 No NZ Release
19 Capital in the Twenty  First Century $804,224.00 $2,010,560.00 $2,814,784.00 $85,458.00 $0.03
19 Herbs: Songs of Freedom $824,897.00 N/A $824,897.00 $97,015.00 $0.12
19 For My Father’s Kingdom $385,543.00 N/A $385,543.00 $63,762.00 $0.17
19 The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillips $600,000.00 N/A $600,000.00 $73,157.00 $0.12
18 Merata Mita: How Mum Decolonised The Screen $129,999.00 N/A $129,999.00 $39,039.00 $0.30
18 Maui’s Hook $100,000.00 N/A $100,000.00 $23,376.00 $0.23
18 She Shears $220,302.00 N/A $220,302.00 $133,474.00 $0.61
18 Born Racer $1,087,136.00 $2,717,839.00 $3,804,975.00 $155,588.00 $0.04
18 The Heart Dances – The Journey of The Piano: The Ballet $437,500.00 N/A $437,500.00 $33,502.00 $0.08
18 Wayne $574,980.00 $1,437,449.00 $2,012,429.00 $22,164.00 $0.01
17 McLaren $1,426,397.00 $3,565,992.00 $4,992,389.00 $768,248.00 $0.15
18 Yellow Is Forbidden $338,631.00 N/A $338,631.00 $46,716.00 $0.14
17 My Year With Helen $446,000.00 N.A. $446,000.00 $281,949.00 $0.63
17 Kim Dotcom: Caught In the Web** $1,010,628.00 N/A $1,010,628.00 N/A
17 Pecking Order $200,000.00 N/A $200,000.00 $538,378.00 $2.69


Chasing Great $1,026,678.00 $2,566,697.00 $3,593,375.00 $1,828,941.00 $0.51
16 The Free Man (AKA Welcome to the Thrill) $1,024,086.00 $2,560,216.00 $3,584,302.00 $18,817.00 $0.01
16 Poi E: The Story Of A Song $921,984.00 N/A $921,984.00 $1,199,830.00 $1.30
15 25-Apr $1,783,348.00 $4,458,369.00 $6,241,717.00 $19,390.00 $0.0031
*Still in theatres
  **No mainstream theatrical release



16 1 Chasing Great (NZSPG) $3,593,735.00 $1,828,941.00
09 2 Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls(SPIF) ($1,900,000.00*) $1,820,000.00
16 3 Poi E: The Story of Our Song $921,984.00 $1,199,830.00
13 4 Beyond the Edge (SPIF) $3,799,385.00 $884,743.00
11 5 Billy T – Te Movie $1,000,000.00 $794,816.00
17 6 McLaren (NZSPG) $4,992,389.00 $768,248.00
17 7 Pecking Order $200,000.00 $538,378.00
21 8 Six60 – Till the Lights Go Out $580,000.00 $535,402.00
21 9 James & Isey $365,345.00 $529,270.00
13 10 Gardening with Soul $15,000.00 $489,931.00

*SPIF figure not available for this film so NZFC Equity Investment only.


Of course, the first question in examining the success or not of any film is “Did it reach its target audience?” And the next question could be: “How much was spent in doing so?” Target audiences can vary from niche small audiences to mainstream large audiences but budget level is generally meant to be reflective of expected audience reach. Looking at funding investment and ROI only, NZFC hasn’t done well with its documentary funding decisions over the last six years—One more thing on the list the new NZFC CEO could turn his head to when he arrives.

And for TV, lobbying NZ On Air to fund one-off documentary would obviously help—something ourselves and others are intent on doing.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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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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As Minister of Broadcasting Kris Faafoi gets set to decide the New Zealand broadcasting industry’s future with hopefully sound advice that includes a note that the industry is more than just News and Current Affairs, I postulate further on possible answers to our dilemma to stimulate further debate and discussion.

Countries with strong public broadcasters are those with compulsory broadcast licence fees. In Denmark, with a population of just over five million, the licence fee of €332 (NZ$579) generates €4.4 billion (NZ$7,671,308,423). Danish public broadcaster DR operates six TV channels and eight radio channels with this revenue. Norway, which has a similar population to Denmark, has a licence fee of €315. Its public broadaster NRK runs three national TV channels and three national radio channels. Countries that still have licence fees include the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands and South Korea.

A licence fee in New Zealand of just NZ$125 applied to the estimated 1,765,100 households in the country would generate nearly $220 million dollars annually. This would cover the costs to fund Radio NZ ($35 million) and Māori Television ($45 million), administer the licence fee (est. $20 million) and leave $120 million.

If the $120 million were combined with Radio NZ’s $35 mil., a newly created public broadcaster would have $155 million of muscle. This entity could deliver quality News and Current Affairs (est. $50 mil.) and would have $105 million—almost the same level of funding NZ On Air has after the ring-fenced Radio NZ funding is deducted—to create a Public Broadcaster Fund to make great factual and scripted programming for both domestic use and international sales. To help secure the independent production sector’s future, this broadcaster could be required to outsource for factual and scripted ideas and their production. Sales revenue could go back to the broadcaster and the independents to contribute towards their sustainability.

In an added approach, the Government could continue to fund NZ On Air the annual $115 million it now receives. This NZ On Air Fund could be contestable and exclusively for the commercial channels and platforms, both Free-to-Air and those with paywalls. Once again, independent producers could pitch on this contestable fund with a percentage, say 75%, being ring-fenced for the independent sector.

The commercial channels and platforms could be required to pay a commercially appropriate licence fee for this content that acknowledges the real value that local NZ content would bring to them. After all, they are commercial with the Free-to-Airs able to scoop up any advertising revenue going, while the SVODs would get the subscription revenues. Funding levels would be determined by the quality of the idea, the scale of the proposed production and the audience size.

A means to extract revenues from streamers and international serviced productions coming here would need to be found to decrease and hopefully eventually eliminate Government funding in the NZ On Air Fund.

The Public Broadcaster Fund and the NZ On Air Fund should allow for access to the New Zealand Screen Production Grant (NZSPG) so that producers can more easily pitch and finance shows that have truly global potential. The NZ On Air Fund should retain the current NZSPG requirements of 25% or more of non-NZ production funding and a minimum of 10% market money to ensure the shows have real international appeal. And while we are at it, the NZSPG’s Qualifying New Zealand Production Expenditure (QNZPE) minimum should be reduced from $2.5 million to $500k so that films with lower budgets can access NZSPG. Some thought may well have to be given to the QNZPE for TV as well.

The above could potentially solve a number of issues:

  1. Give us a well funded public broadcaster.
  2. Ensure that the independent production community would still exist and be able to make the most of opportunities both domestically and internationally.
  3. Allow the commercial broadcasters and platforms to live to fight another day with all the advertising revenue available while giving them valuable local content.
  4. Make the streamers and international productions contribute to the growth of local IP and production.

All that’s needed for this to occur would be for the NZ public to buy into the need to pay a licence fee.

I would.

Would you and everyone else?

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director