What Are You Worth?

17 April 2015

On Tuesday evening the DEGNZ board debated the effect that low-budget filmmaking has had on the pay rates of members.

When the Escalator low-budget feature film scheme was introduced by the NZFC, it formalised for features the methodology used by producers to get short films made—beg, borrow and steal (metaphorically), and get as many people as possible to work for nothing or next to. NZFC sought to counter this by contractually obligating producers to pay a minimum wage and come up with a points system as a further reward for cast and crew. Generally, that minimum wage was a flat rate for everyone of around $200 per day.

Short films were often seen by those with major experience who assisted directors and producers to get them made as a means to get real, paying work when those above-the-line creatives moved on to reasonably financed features. For crew with little or no experience, they add the credit to their resumes to help secure real paying work when the opportunity comes along. And for most writers, directors and producers on a low-budget feature, it’s the credit that’s paramount as well as of course the creative satisfaction.

Escalator was felt by many techos as undermining the opportunities to get well paid work on features—Low-budget features were being institutionalised. Although the Escalator scheme at $250k per feature was wound down, the new $500k initiative at NZFC is up and running. Further, with first time feature directors likely limited to budgets under $1.5 million, an ambitious feature film can only get made with pay rates at the lower end of the scale. Films planned well to work on such budgets have a little more latitude to pay appropriately. Thanks God for the Screen Production Grant and the five percent uplift, many techos undoubtedly cry.

But where does that leave directors and editors? Is TV the answer?

Telefeatures have regularly been made for $2 – 3 million; a budget figure that debut feature film directors can now only dream about. The documentaries that still get to air, the series and the drama that NZ on Air funds have reasonable budgets that generate fair rates of pay. But a look at Māori Television’s (MTS) latest programme initiative doesn’t paint a rosy a picture.

It’s no secret that MTS budgets and production company margins with Te Māngai Pāho (TMP) funding are generally lower than those that production companies usually achieve through NZ on Air. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the production staff work for lower rates as a consequence.

Although MTS has sought to do drama on and off for quite a while, one of the key factors that has kept them from pursuing it has been the cost. Take a look at recent drama funding to see why: Brokenwood Mysteries at just over $500k per broadcast hour, Filthy Rich at just over $400k per broadcast hour, Harry at just under $600k per broadcast hour.

But things have changed. And without Te Māngai Pāho, it would seem.

Yesterday, I attended the Maori Television content strategy briefing by Mike Rehu, the new Head of Content. Mike comes to MTS after 20 years in Singapore, many of those with Fox Television brands. He well knows the real cost of content. As part of Mike’s presentation he laid down a challenge to those producers present – MTS wants two x 10 half hour scripted drama series to be made at a maximum of $45k per episode—that’s $45k per half hour, or $90k per hour—approximately 18 percent of the per hour cost of NZ on Air funded TV drama. My immediate thought was that the challenge was how to get as many aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and colleagues to work for very low or no rates of pay, while trying to craft some semblance of a quality show—a strategy that MTS has employed relatively successfully with the independent production community making other programming for them for the last ten years. Of course MTS is open to producers going out to get additional revenue for the drama production from somewhere else. That’s certainly a challenge, too.

DEGNZ is concerned about pay rates for directors and editors across the entire screen industry. We plan to undertake a survey of directors and editors in the near future to gain a clear picture of what the statistics are before we seek to address the issues. When the survey arrives in your Inbox, we would greatly appreciate it if you would take the time to respond.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director