You would think 28 days in lockdown would give you plenty of time to think. For me, it hasn’t as I have been extremely preoccupied along with a number of other industry people in the Pan-Sector COVID-19 Action Group, working on how to get the industry back into work. I can tell you that the weekends, and in particular Easter, were very welcome.
But as we head towards the fateful Day 28 of Wednesday—which could very well pale into insignificance at 4pm today—I would like to reflect right now on what it was like before and what it will be like after Coronavirus.
I’m a Boomer. I’ve never known war, although my brother and his friends did have to give some thought to how to avoid ending up in Vietnam. The closest I’ve gotten to a bomb was when I arrived at my Soho hotel in London the day after the nail bombing of the nearby Admiral Duncan pub by a Neo-Nazi. I was living in Tokyo though when Shoko Asahara and his Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 and injuring thousands of others—I got to report it, not experience it, luckily.
Still, none of this compares to the devastation that COVID-19 has wrought on the world. Some have referred to it as the World War of the 21st Century without a visible enemy. Sure, we’ve had to queue for food like they used to during World War II, but we can still choose between a Savvie, a Chardie or a Pinot. Hardship? Not in this sense, to be truthful. But economically, a definite “Yes!”
Of course, like many people I’ve had financially difficult times in my past, but it’s always been up to me to get out of them and it was always possible to do so—the economic environment even during the GFC was never as bad as it is now for all of us.
Most of us in the screen industry, myself included, are contractors. I’m fortunate in that the Guild still has paid work for me to do, albeit on reduced hours that I voluntarily instituted to help out (I’m still working fulltime, though). My wife’s small business has gone from a comfortable sole trader income to almost zero. Many of you have no income right now except for the Wage Subsidy. I hope that you have all applied for and received it. And if you were declined, please ensure you entered the correct IRD number and are classified as a sole trader and not an employee. One of these could be the reason why you were declined.
Can we go back to the old normal? Even with a vaccine, it doesn’t seem possible. So what’s in store for us all in the screen industry in the new normal?
It’s clear now that the world is suffering from a lack of content. Broadcasters, streamers, cable, AVOD, TVOD—they all need it. From Israel to Bulgaria, the UK and the U.S. to Argentina, Australia and to a minor extent New Zealand, development is in overdrive and everyone is getting ready for new production to feed the Content Beast that’s starving.
Andrew Shaw, General Manager Commissioning and Production at TVNZ recently told me that internationally, existing content that had been passed on before is being re-examined in a new light. This means opportunities for sales offshore that producers might not have been able to secure previously. Then there is also produced material that hadn’t yet gone to market. All this will run out in quick time, however, and reruns are reruns no matter how you look at it.
As I’ve said before in this column: With great change comes great opportunity. But you’ve got to grasp it with both hands. Everybody internationally is gearing up to do so.
Jeffrey Katzenberg has grabbed the opportunity with Quibi, the new short-form content platform that’s just launched. Katzenberg took big risk in founding the successful Dreamworks with Spielberg and Geffen when it was considered insane to start a studio without an archive. Prior to that he took a massive punt with Roger Rabbit when he was Chairman of Walt Disney Studios. As a former professional gambler, Katzenberg was used to betting the bank. Being a card counter, you can understand that he always had a strategy to win. So, what about the New Zealand strategy to grasp all the opportunity and win in the screen industry?
Well, one was mooted before COVID-19 hit. And we have it now in the draft strategy released two weeks ago. Granted, it was formulated prior to COVID-19, so it should be measured upon that. And I’m happy to do so.
My personal opinion—and, I am at pains to point out, NOT DEGNZ’s position—is that it’s a document lacking in vision and the independent spirit of the New Zealand screen industry, being full of bureaucratic intentions rather than specific, entrepreneurial action plans needed to truly move the industry forward. The advent of COVID-19 means it now must be rewritten. And we have once again been provided an opportunity to feed back, which I encourage every single person to take.
So what might the New Normal look like that we need to strategise about?
On the film side, which is so dependent on theatrical exhibition, it’s a changed world. Sales agents are making sales but no longer paying Minimum Guarantees for films—essentially deposits that were used to help finance features, and producers were required to have.
Distributors are selling to streamers, broadcasters and others, but as Elizabeth Trotman of Studio Canal said in a Screen Producers Australia (SPA) interview two weeks ago, they were really dependent on blockbusters to make money because independent film didn’t pay. How to move from that old business model and into the new environment is something StudioCanal are thinking hard about. Paul Wiegard, co-founder of Australasian distributor Madman, said last week in another SPA interview that they are in a fortunate position because they have their own streaming platforms in DocPlay and AnimeLab, and other diversified revenue streams. While passionate about narrative feature film, Wiegard was more optimistic about documentary. In the end, he was clearly uncertain about theatrical exhibition for narrative features at this point.
The future of theatrical exhibition is decidedly unclear, with many exhibitors headed towards bankruptcy. Social distancing won’t help theatrical survivors to persuade customers back into theatres, and it certainly won’t deliver the box office they, the distributors and the studios will need. Independent film—and that is all New Zealand film—has a decidedly sketchy future for the foreseeable future unless it can find a home on a digital platform, pay channel or free-to-air broadcaster. And the NZFC requirement for theatrical release to get financing will obviously have to change.
On the television side, we will likely see a merged TVNZ and RNZ sooner rather than later. It’s clear public broadcasters have an unrivalled position when it comes to News and Current Affairs when the chips are down. And TVNZ did a very good job in building TVNZ OnDemand, a platform they can monetise, and HeiHei in partnership with NZ On Air. They are in a good spot. Let’s hope the Government gets the mix right. Our futures as television makers depend on it.
NZ platforms though are suffering a lack of content, just like their international counterparts. There’s only so much self-isolating content we can all take. With a transition to Level 2, we will likely see an increase in documentary and unscripted first, then drama as we find ways and means to operate safely in larger numbers. The stimulus package for the NZ screen sector now being talked about will absolutely be needed if we are to climb our way out of the hole we are in and back into production.
Private, free-to-air broadcasters and media organisations are struggling with the massive decrease in advertising, although SKY’s subscriber platforms are helping them to weather the storm. Private media is looking to the Government to rescue them and they should hear about their package soon.
Production for the international market in New Zealand is one of the tougher nuts to crack. On the one side, for serviced production we have to get the international talent into the country to complete projects and to start new ones. On the other side, we don’t have sufficient talent here for local production of internationally-focused shows. And the opportunity for locally-produced global shows seems to be rapidly closing. We don’t yet have the funding and processes from our funding bodies to really take advantage of the international opportunities. Hopefully, we will see changes soon enough for New Zealand producers to exploit.
The big problem facing us all is cost and how that’s paid for. Increased Health & Safety should mean new line items to the budget and increased shooting days, not greater demands on directors and editors (and other crew) to do more for less. The funding bodies understand this, and are looking to ask for more. But in an environment when every sector needs assistance, there’s only so much largess the Government can provide. Meanwhile we are back where we were a few short years ago when DEGNZ with the NZ Writers Guild waged a battle against digital platforms and producers working with measly budgets and grabbing all rights.
So here we all are, sitting with bated breath waiting for a Government announcement that will decide our immediate fate and shape our long-term future. It’s not all grim. As Queen Elizabeth said in her address, “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return.”
For all of us, I’m sure that those better days can’t come soon enough.