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There are a few key unresolved issues in our sector and we are sitting on our hands waiting for action. The transformation of TVNZ into a proper public broadcaster is one. Then there’s the Screen Industry Worker Bill that will allow contractors to engage in collective bargaining. Another, the underwriting insurance needed to get the domestic film industry up again.

I know there is an election on, but we are still some ways away from the transformational change needed to get going properly, as well as grasp the opportunities on offer in the new world we are in.

In the UK, the new Director General of the BBC is moving rapidly to address the challenges there. Amongst them the COVID-19 pandemic, lack of diverse representation, political pressure, pay disparity, technological disruption, the emergence of competing news outlets, a battle to maintain relevance and the threat to the licence fee. A number of his changes will undoubtedly prove unpopular as he drives the organisation to be leaner and more commercial as well.

Yet here we sit still waiting for the Government to address the public broadcaster issue. It was December last year when Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi proposed merging TVNZ and RNZ. In January, he presented a revised plan and was asked for a business case due last month. Meanwhile, streamers have become the new global studios, YouTube has become the most popular source of video content in New Zealand, and TVNZ continues to lose money. The only wait that’s been blessedly terminated is what’s happening to TV3. The good news is Discovery’s acquisition of some of Mediaworks assets including the network—perhaps the first time in the channel’s history that it’s going to have real money in the bank to draw on.

Starting in 2018, the Film Industry Working Group toiled for months to unanimously come up with recommendations to help shape the Screen Industry Worker Bill. This extended process together with the time to draft the Bill, the Select Committee submissions and the interruptions caused by COVID mean we have to accept there will be no passage of the bill into law prior to the election. We are now faced with its fate hanging on the election result. Even after all the Select Committee submissions were predominantly in support of the Bill, National continue to oppose it. They will throw it out if they come into power. Accepting the rejection of the Hobbit Law they were responsible for putting in place would obviously be too much for them.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for the industry right now is the lack of commitment from our Government to underwriting the local film industry, replacing the insurance companies who won’t insure for COVID. In June, the Australian Government put in place an AUD$50 million fund to provide financial guarantees because insurance companies are not providing coverage for COVID-19. In July the British government launched an emergency £500M (US$646M) film and TV coronavirus production insurance fund. NZFC and SPADA have already made representations to Government to underwrite local production. Nearly two months later and we still haven’t heard an answer.

I know that the New Zealand screen sector has received monies to address the impact of COVID. We are all thankful for that. But this underwriting is necessary if any new New Zealand films are going to get made. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too much longer to find out.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

 

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2020 is a watershed year in time for the screen industry because of COVID and the Level 4 lockdown we endured.

New Zealand On Air’s latest ‘Where Are The Audiences’ research was conducted during May and June, when we had come out of Level 4 and were in Levels 2 and 1.

Although potentially skewed because of COVID and possibly having an irreversible effect when it comes to content viewership that’s too early to truly gauge, the results make interesting reading, and potentially signal the writing is on the wall for free-to-air TV2 with its target audience of 18 – 49-year-olds.

Two’s popularity with all New Zealanders 15+ showed a continued decline from 27% in 2014 to 14% in 2020. More telling is that from 2018 when the survey was last conducted to now, The channel’s popularity declined by 7%, its biggest drop for the two-year periods across which the surveys have been conducted since 2014.

The research indicates that 2020 is the crossover point between traditional media and digital media for attracting the biggest daily audiences of New Zealanders overall with YouTube video now the most popular site, station or channel. But for 15 – 39-year-olds, a large part of Two’s audience, that crossover point occurred in 2018 or earlier.

Exacerbating the problem for Two is the increased adoption of digital media by those aged 40 – 59, containing the remaining chunk of the channel’s audience. This 40 – 59 age group is moving away from free-to-air TV and towards SVOD, OnDemand, and other digital options.

2020 would seem to be the cross over point for the 40 – 59 year-old shift from traditional to digital media.

On the bright side for TVNZ, OnDemand popularity is increasing, rising from 7% in 2014 to 21% in 2020.

Coincidentally, the percentage increase in popularity of OnDemand is essentially the same as the decrease in popularity of TV2 at 6 – 7%.

The younger demographics are digital natives or early digital adopters and as time passes the older age groups are utilising digital more on more. While free-to-air viewing remains stable, you’ve got to wonder how much more of a decline Two can take with its core demographic before it becomes unsustainable for TVNZ, who are contributing to Two’s audience cannibalisation with TVNZ OnDemand.

We’ll likely know come the next survey results in 2022.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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I’ve had occasion to review the New Zealand Film Commission Act, more so recently. To understand the New Zealand Film Commission’s (NZFC) role, it’s really the source document to read. And from it, we can then see how they interpret it.

Taking a look at it here, the first thing you will notice is that there are more clauses that are repealed than there are clauses that comprise it. In comparison to the Broadcasting Act that governs New Zealand On Air, the NZFC gets off awfully lightly.

From a New Zealand screen creative’s perspective, in my view, there are only three areas that are of real relevance in the NZFC Act.

The first is in Section 2, Interpretation; the meaning of the word ‘film’:

film includes a photographic film, or a recording on magnetic tape or on any other material, from which a series of images, with or without associated sounds, may be produced

You can see that this interpretation applies, but is not limited to the meaning of film as we in the screen industry use it. In fact, it’s more akin to the interpretation of ‘film’ in the NZ Copyright Act:

film means a recording on any medium from which a moving image may by any means be produced

In other words, ‘film’ in the NZFC Act actually can be interpreted to mean audio-visual content.

The second pertinent part is, I believe, (1A) in Section 17, Functions of Commission:

to encourage and also to participate and assist in the making, promotion, distribution, and exhibition of films

The key word for me here is ‘exhibition’, but more appropriately the active verb ‘to exhibit’:

exhibit – to show something publicly

exhibition – an event at which objects such as paintings are shown to the public, a situation in which someone shows a particular skill or quality to the public, or the act of showing these things

We all think exhibition means theatrical exhibition in film, but the Cambridge Dictionary definition, which I think can be applied here, just means showing to the public. Again, how this is applied is open to interpretation.

The final area of real interest is Section 18, Content Of Films. There are a significant number of stipulations for this, but they essentially tell us that the film should have significant New Zealand content, and be made by New Zealanders in New Zealand, unless it’s an official co-production, which confers New Zealand status on the film.

That’s pretty much it. So, what does it all mean?

Well it pretty much means that the NZFC role is very open to interpretation. And the New Zealand Film Commission’s guidelines for everything it does are their interpretation as they see it, guided by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, who they report directly to, although the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has oversight for the International NZ Screen Production Grant and makes a contribution to international promotion of the NZ screen industry; both elements of economic development.

More than anything else, MCH want films to be seen by audiences—NZ first and then the world. Theatrical release is generally considered the most important way of delivering an audience. Watching a film on the big screen with other people delivers the cinematic experience that is meant to separate ‘film’ from TV.

Theatrical exhibition also delivers box office, which is an indicator of the commercial success—or not—of a film. Commercial success can provide funds for future investment into films. In reality, we all know that nine out of ten NZ films fail to deliver real Return On Investment (ROI), so whatever revenues come in are really only reducing the size of the loss of investment. But nowhere in the Film Commission Act does it say that films have to return investment. The International NZ Screen Production Grant overseen by MBIE is the only film-related investment where ROI is expected.

Let’s take a closer look at the interpretation of ‘film’.

Obviously, NZFC has gone for the wriggle room in the Act to take on premium TV drama as well as film: both audiovisual content. It’s clearly strayed into the domain of NZ On Air here, but by targeting internationally-focused NZ drama content, it’s not stepping on NZ On Air’s toes, which are firmly anchored in domestic terra filma.

How about the guidelines for NZ Content?

The Act is very prescriptive and NZFC adheres to them for local films. Official co-productions, though, allow for interpretation. More than one NZ film with a completely American setting has passed as New Zealand content, Slow West being a good example as a NZ – UK co-production.

What about exhibition?

The film commish has theatrical exhibition as a key requirement. And exhibition, for me, is where my main interest lies, because it’s at the heart of NZFC investment. In fact, like the meaning of ‘film’, it could be broadly interpreted but it’s not at this point, although COVID has thrown a spanner in the works with cinemas shut down during lockdown, and now suffering under renewed COVID outbreak. NZFC has made some temporary changes to adjust for this.

We can take traditional theatrical exhibition as a given for now, although COVID is certainly trying to push it into oblivion. But I think we could be looking at other interpretations as well.

A true public broadcaster in TVNZ could become a channel for exhibition of all New Zealand films. TVNZ OnDemand is an Advertising Video On Demand (AVOD) service. They may not get to be the first window for screening, but they could certainly be made to carry all NZFC-funded New Zealand films that wanted to sit there, with TVNZ making an in-kind contribution for promotion—trailer/promo and airtime—in return for getting the film for free. A Boosted campaign could generate funds for the filmmakers to use on marketing and promotion. Viewing statistics could be shared with NZFC so that they could gauge the film’s and the platform’s ability to deliver.

Of course, there’s no ROI here for NZFC, but does that really matter? Not if they fund these films 100% so there was no need to seek private investment. A budget cap for films of this type could make it feasible. This approach is probably suited to films that struggle to find commercial partners in distributors and sales agents or those who don’t want to go down the traditional path to market. But this doesn’t mean they don’t have an audience. It could well be niche, and there’s nothing wrong with that. OnDemand would find out.

Another approach to exhibition could be Transactional Video on Demand (TVOD). The New Zealand International Film Festival could provide its Online platform for NZ film TVOD, as it did for delivering films in the 2020 festival. This would essentially offer the same revenue generating experience as cinemas. The added advantages would be that NZIFF could clip the ticket, while distributors could be removed from the picture, increasing revenue flow back to the NZFC, investors and filmmakers.

Filmmakers who chose this path as their primary distribution channel should be able to access the NZFC Distribution and Marketing Fund to drive audiences to their film, with NZIFF opening its considerable database to them and providing additional marketing and promotion as theatres now do. Again, viewing statistics and other data could be made available so that marketing plans are adjusted and audience size and revenues determined.

A spin on the TVOD approach would be NZIFF Online becomes the Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) channel, in a Day and Date with New Zealand theatrical exhibition. Online revenue would likely have to be shared with the theatres, and a distributor would also be involved to get the film into cinemas (self-distribution an option, though), adding to the layers of revenue extraction on the way back to NZFC, investors and the filmmakers.

This approach is a revenue generating one and would likely have a sales agent already attached so international sales could help deliver an ROI. With NZ films struggling at the NZ Box Office, this I feel is a viable alternative to getting NZ audiences to watch NZ films. After the film has done it’s run using this approach, it could be put on TVNZ OnDemand so that it had an ongoing opportunity to get additional viewing.

What about the promotion of NZ culture you might well ask?

Well that doesn’t seem to be in the NZFC Act. It’s obviously a concern of MCH, though, and Section 18, Content of Films could be seen to cover it. But does significant New Zealand content equal New Zealand culture?

You’d hope so.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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While the world continues to reel from COVID-19, we sit in our smug little bubble wondering what the fuss is all about. So far, we’ve escaped relatively unscathed the medical turmoil associated with Corona, but are now facing up to the emotional, psychological and economic impact that will be with us for many years to come. Looking across the ditch at Victoria, we see how quickly it could all go pearshaped for us.

Production-wise, all of the offshore projects that were interrupted by COVID are now back. Local production that was shut down is returning as well. Local TV drama will hopefully get a shot in the arm from NZ On Air shortly. TV productions with funding and small crews seem mostly to be on their feet.

The advertising sector, however, is still suffering from nervousness on the part of clients who don’t know if they have the marketing budget to spend or what to do with it and when, if they do.

NZ shorts and features that were interrupted are also getting up again but as mentioned in my last op-ed, without the insurance issue solved, we still have a problem with new productions, Houston.

The numbers of people continuing to take up our COVID-19 Membership Holiday offer tells us, though, that there is pain out there with directors and editors. The Guild would like to get a better fix on this. Within the next two weeks we will put out a short survey to ascertain more clearly what the employment situation is like for members and other directors and editors in the industry.

We ask that you please take the short time required to fill it out. Your responses will help us to better strategically and tactically respond in ways that are meaningful and useful.

It’s hard not to look around at the moment and think that we are in the eye of the storm. Everything is peaceful, calm and quiet, except on the political front. Hopefully we can move with the eye rather than stray out of it where we’ll get a lashing.

In the meantime, I would like to remind you all of the Vista Foundation/Home and Family Counselling offer, which is still available. Information on our website here. If you are having a particularly difficult time right now, please reach out and let us know and we’ll see if there’s anything we can do.

Stay safe, stay strong, be kind.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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Just when you thought we were all stuck in our ways, along came COVID-19. Now changes are flowing thick and fast to adapt to the brave new world this deadly virus has inflicted upon us.

The Resource Management Act is being given the flick to allow for shovel-ready infrastructure projects. Tourism operators are now having to give a toss about Kiwi tourists. (I’m surprised nobody has questioned yet whether we really want all those international tourists to return and put the strain back onto our environment and infrastructure.) The Australian and New Zealand governments are figuring out how to hold hands and sing kumbaya in a Trans-Tasman bubble. We might even have a new National Party leader by the end of the week.

Just look at the changes the NZ screen sector has gone through in two months. We have temporary Terms of Trade at NZFC that say, amongst other things, goodbye to the NZ theatrical distribution requirement and hello to a VOD platform. TVNZ is commissioning Maori and Pacific genre drama with its supernatural anthology RFP. Domestic production has all of a sudden become vitally important to crew.

South Pacific Pictures took the bit between its teeth and developed its own COVID Health & Safety (H&S) protocols signed off by WorkSafe to allow Shortland Street to get back up. We now have the WorkSafe-approved COVID Protocols and Standard thanks to the hard work of individuals from the Screen Industry Guild of Aotearoa (Techos), the NZ Advertising Producers Group and a number of others.

And the draft Screen Sector Strategy unleashed on us during the lockdown? Well after further ‘feedback’ it’s going through some additional ch-ch-changes as well.

But what’s happening out there in the big wide screen world? Iceland, South Korea and Sweden are already in production, with Iceland unveiling details on how international productions can get back up and running there with a special immigration channel and quarantine rules. Some Eastern European countries, which get a lot of US and UK runaway projects, are restarting with the Czech Republic and Poland leading the way.

The UK government is allowing film and TV production to restart. A coalition of Britain’s top platforms have published a guide for TV production, while The UK’s new protocols for film and high-end drama are expected at the end of May. In the US, though, production is still at a standstill. Directors Guild of America board member and Contagion director Steven Soderbergh has been put in charge of the guild’s efforts to address COVID. According to an article in the LA Times, it’s the guilds and the unions that will determine when production will start there.

Across the ditch, Neighbours is up and running and Wentworth is supposedly about to restart. The guilds there have been working hard on their COVID-19 H&S protocols and expect government sign off on them shortly.

Thankfully, Level 2 is allowing production in film and TV here to get going, so we’re in a good place. But there’s much further to go, and more changes that need to occur before we can have the New Zealand screen industry humming again. Each one of us has a part to play in making this happen, whether it’s helping to effect the changes necessary, or just washing our hands, maintaining social distance and staying home when sick.

As we head into this next phase of life under COVID, stay safe, stay well and remember you can call on us here at DEGNZ at any time. We will do our best to help you out.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director