The Times, They Are A Changin’

I’ve had an incredibly busy time these last few weeks attending industry gatherings, and if there’s one thing certain, it’s that change is coming.

New Zealand On Air held a drama day recently with more than 130 industry people who intersect with drama. As most of you will know, there has been a large amount of criticism levelled at current NZ scripted content, primarily by The Spinoff’s Duncan Grieve. He has a low opinion of the high-end drama that is currently being made, and he is supportive of the idea that those operating in the self-funded and low-budget digital realm—including himself—should be given more money and opportunity. His complaints have resonated with a lot of people.

Also, we at DEGNZ and the NZ Writers Guild have been particularly vocal about the appalling exploitation of creators by online platforms, some of whom are doing it with NZ On Air funding attached. (Look out for our upcoming Young Creators events.) After a day-long talk fest that was productive, NZ On Air has published a summary that identified four areas of focus for them:

  1. Development
  2. Diversity
  3. Innovation
  4. Newer platforms

They are currently working on developing a drama strategy that will take these into account. In the meantime, they have suspended funding for any new drama development funding. It’s likely that it won’t be until the first quarter of 2018 that their new strategy will come through in their operations, but there’s definitely some change on the way. Read the summary from the Drama Day here.

A week later, I attended a presentation by streamer Lightbox, who announced their first commissions. After showing us the multi-million dollar per episode US dramas and multi-hundred thousand dollar per episode NZ On Air funded reruns they stream, Lightbox announced the funding of new digital content from, you guessed it, Duncan Grieve and the web series makers behind High Road. While Lightbox were breathless about their low-budget commissions, there was a collective silent sigh in the room from those who didn’t already know that Lightbox wasn’t coming with Netflix-style commissioning budgets.

Still, it’s better than nothing, which is what had been happening in the paywall streaming space with commissions (that is public knowledge) until this point in New Zealand. Lightbox assured us that they had money to spend. If so, it’s a pity that didn’t make the bold move that everyone is craving for, rather than low-risk ones.

With Netflix committed to spending $500 million in original programming in Canada next year, we can only hope that they will spread some of their largess around here sooner rather than later or we’re all going to die from anticipation.

On the Friday before the Big Screen Symposium (BSS), DEGNZ brought the other guilds and associations together to discuss the concept of a Code of Ethics for the screen industry. As I have written about repeatedly, we are extremely concerned about the terms and conditions being offered in commercial transactions by platforms/producers for scripted web series.

The worst offender is NZME, although there are others who aren’t too far behind. With one of a number of projects I am aware of, the content creator ended up getting approximately $10.00 per hour to create and produce a web series, has no right to revenue share and retains no IP whatsoever in the project. These are just some of the issues with the contracting for this particular show.

Opportunity for eyeballs, future work, blah, blah, blah are the big carrots that entice creators to take on these projects. But in the Guild’s view the platforms are exploiting creators for their own commercial ends—this we believe is unethical behaviour.

DEGNZ feels we need a Code of Ethics for all in the screen industry—funders, platforms, broadcasters, screen industry practitioners—to protect the rights of writers, directors, producers, cast and crew, particularly in the brave new world of no-budget and low-budget screen content creation. After considerable discussion, all of the guilds and associations have agreed to raise the idea with their memberships, and in the first instance, get feedback as to what people are experiencing at the coal face.

DEGNZ is determined to bring about change to help ensure sustainable careers not just for directors and editors, but also for all screen industry practitioners. Our President, Howard Taylor, is the instigator and main driving force behind this initiative. We will update you on this as we go.

At the BSS, current CEO of the NZ Film Commission Dave Gibson gave his valedictory speech entitled ‘Change and Challenge’. The biggest change coming with NZFC is who will replace Dave after he finishes up in December. We wait with bated breath and should find out soon.

In his speech, however, Dave spoke to the changes that have and are occurring in the small screen, and many of those he wrought in relation to our big screen. Some key points he made were around the introduction of a further three planks of NZFC affirmative action to address gender inequity, and some significant time spent on explaining the structure of the New Zealand film library Te Ahi Kaa, and the establishment of the New Zealand film rights management entity Te Pun Ataata. Both are intended to help preserve and provide access to New Zealand’s film history. He also hinted at the Māori Strategy, which has been in development at NZFC for two years. You can read Dave’s full speech here.

Then on the Monday after the BSS, I attended a day-long Industry Summit that brought together all of the funders, guilds and associations to discuss industry issues. Each participant was asked to speak briefly to three topics that most concerned them. I spoke about:

  1. Copyright
  2. Code of Ethics
  3. Quality versus Quantity, i.e. less productions, more money per production

With 21 attendees there were a range of issues. What was most encouraging from our perspective was that Jane Wrightson of NZ On Air identified with our thoughts on a Code of Ethics. What was clear was that the screen industry till now has not had an effective, unified voice to talk particularly to government with.

It may well be that Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett who facilitated the discussion and who is developing a ‘Next Step’ plan for us, will identify this as one area of focus. There will be more to come on this, which we will keep you appraised of. Thanks have to go to Brian Kassler of Showtools who organized this event.

And finally, the weekend after BSS I attended the Ngā Aho Whakaari Hui-ā-Tau two-day conference. I was asked to speak to our work around the Code of Ethics and was also invited to sit on the panel for the short film pitches. But staying with the theme of change, we heard in oblique detail from NZFC CEO Dave Gibson more on the Māori Strategy, which they hope to have confirmed at the board meeting this week. There is a considerable shakeup coming with how NZFC deals with and funds Māori.

A lot of the initiatives Dave will leave behind will be fait accompli for the new CEO Anabelle Sheehan, but she will undoubtedly  have some of her own changes in mind she’ll want to bring about. Let’s hope that they are good ones.

Preceding all of the above was a three-day NZFC workshop I attended as part of my ongoing professional development. I think I need a cup of tea and a lie-down.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director