It’s interesting putting pen to paper to write this, close to a year to the day from when I started in my role as Executive Director at the Directors & Editors Guild of NZ. I took over from Fiona Copland who quickly stepped into an interim position following the unfortunate passing of the highly regarded long time ED Anna Cahill.
With my first year basically up, the Big Screen Symposium nearly upon us again, and our Annual General Meeting about to run this Saturday, I thought I would reflect a little on what has gone before, the role of professional development in assisting to build careers and contribute to our international reputation as a skilled and professional Film & TV workforce, and on what’s happening generally.
All of the guilds had been through turmoil the year before I started following former New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) CEO Graeme Mason’s decision to pull professional development funding to all the guilds and to create a contestable pool. Thankfully, there was an about-turn and we were able to put up a good case for delivering professional development for directors and editors across a three-year period. Two of the three years have now passed. All the guilds will be sitting down shortly to hear current NZFC CEO Dave Gibson’s take on where to if anywhere from here.
I was recently listening to film critic Elvis Mitchell interview American actor Sam Elliot about his roles in Grandma, The Big Lebowski and Justified and amongst other topics his professional development…or lack of it. Sam related how he never went to acting school, learning what he knows on the job.
I have always been a big proponent of on-the-job learning. Give me someone with a great attitude, work ethic and talent and put them to work has been my view. It’s hard though to find anybody now who wants to get into film and TV who hasn’t forked over thousands of dollars to an educational institution for the privilege. I am not disparaging of industry education, though. Personally, and as the ED of the guild, I am involved in many of the professional development opportunities out there. I have garnered enormous benefit through industry courses, workshops, seminars and discussions. And in helping to deliver professional development to others, I see how beneficial it can be to increase knowledge, skill and craft. It is with some bemusement, however, that I observe the disparity of numbers particularly in film between those who say they want to be a filmmaker, and those taking the opportunities to improve their chances of becoming one through professional development. There are a core group of people who make the most of the offerings and use it to advance themselves and their projects. Of course, there are also plenty of people just doing it as Sam Elliot did – he is after all a working actor and reasonably successful at it. Professional development from my perspective, however, plays a crucial role in helping identify talent, support it, and move it up. Thus, it is critical I feel that there is a broad and significant professional development offering across all the screen creative sectors to find and grow the talented content creators of the future. Professional development is a core activity for us at DEGNZ and we are dedicated to continuing to provide it.
One element of professional development that we are particularly proud of right now is the DEGNZ TV Drama Director Attachment Initiative. It has so far seen Matthew Saville attached to Screentime’s Bombshell, and Aidee Walker to SPP’s Westside 2. It took us many months to get this financially small but highly significant initiative signed off by NZ On Air. It was the very first professional development initiative NZ On Air had undertaken, and it helped prompt the introduction of their Industry Development Fund. Our thanks go out firstly to the Australian Directors Guild (ADG) whose programme and experience we drew on. Also, to Jane Wrightson at NZ On Air who shepherded it through, and to NZ On Air and the production companies that support it with their own financing.
Meanwhile, digital disruption continues uninterrupted. It is interesting to note in this regard the quiet arrival of Tugg, the online theatrical audience sourcing and booking service for independent film. https://tugg.nz/.
As everyone knows, the Internet and digital distribution is responsible for the diminution of cinema, and the shift towards high-end, long arc TV drama. Offshore, auteur directors have moved with the flow into the realm of the showrunner, and there is an interesting dynamic occurring with the unrivalled power of the showrunner being pushed by the cinematic approach film auteur directors are bringing with them. In Filmmaker magazine producer Mike S Ryan said of Cary Fukunaga that “…it took a real director to recognize that the True Detective scripts were both banal and absurd and he needed to transcend them through his direction of actors, tone and camera. The second series had a director that took the scripts at face value and was not able to rise above their rote banality.” Whether you agree with Ryan or not, it is certainly true that TV drama is the place to be—and always has been—if you wanted better odds on a career directing dramatic narrative. But there’s now a bane and a boon in this. As auteur directors are brought in to direct whole series to make them more cinematic, episodic block TV directors are getting pushed out to make way. This development provides both challenges and opportunities for those writers and directors long immersed in TV drama land.
While we are a little ways off from creating and producing the high-end drama so many of us are streaming now, coproductions in TV are aiding NZ’s small screen drama opportunities. SPP and Channel 7’s 800 Words is getting good reviews out of Australia, while Goalpost Pictures and Pukeko Pictures are putting the finishing touches to the Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell directed Cleverman, which has sold to SundanceTV. The WIFT Coproduction Summit coming up in November is geared towards furthering Australia – NZ coproduction as well as throwing Denmark in to the mix. I am betting it won’t be long before we see a New Zealand-originated TV drama series going straight to the major international markets, bypassing NZ On Air funding and likely to be bought by local broadcasters as an international show.
On the film side, a quick look at the MPDA’s weekend box office report has Tammy Davis’s film Born to Dance at $253,000 in its first weekend. This is encouraging, but doesn’t reflect the tough environment New Zealand film finds itself in, with tens of thousands of films competing globally for attention, fewer getting theatrical release and those that do finding themselves turfed out of the cinema in quick fashion to make way for the onslaught of the latest Hollywood tentpole. Digital distribution is still not the panacea everyone hopes for to save film. Still, Kiwi films are finding Kiwi audiences as The Dark Horse and What We Do In The Shadows can attest. Here’s hoping future releases find similar success.
Born to Dance offers another insight into digital disruption and that is the distributor-as-producer scenario that sees independent distributor Vendetta Films involved. Sales agents and distributors are struggling to survive in the upended distribution landscape. At the same time, producers are exploring in the new paradigm how to reduce the number of middlemen so they can get closer to the money. Talking with a bunch of Aussies a short while ago, a major issue for producers there is that every distributor they go to for distribution wants to get in on a piece of the production action. At the Big Screen Symposium, Producer Jon Landau and publicity success story Anna Dean are the likeliest to offer insight into the continued shakeup brought about by digital.
Bigger picture, at the guild we have been preparing at a strategic level to input into Broadcasting Minister Amy Adam’s Green Paper on Digital Convergence, which has gotten everyone scrambling. The minister’s a proponent of the new digital landscape and we need to ensure that the government is aware of our thoughts and concerns, particularly as review of the Copyright Act is mooted.
It was encouraging the other night to see how effectively We Create (former Copyright Council) who we belong to is repositioning the importance of copyright as a significant contributor to the New Zealand economy at the presentation of the PWC Employment and National GDP impacts of music, publishing and film and television in New Zealand. The news: the creative industries add $3.848 billion to the New Zealand economy, with Film & TV making up a $2,829 million impact on GDP and providing a total of 31,416 Full Time Equivalent jobs. Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Paul Goldsmith who spoke seems to recognise the value that content creators bring, both culturally and economically. Let us hope he can help us convince others in national government.
At local level, I have taken up a seat on the Film Auckland board at what is a very crucial time. The introduction of the NZ Screen Production Grant and the Five Percent Uplift transformed the morose international production sector almost overnight. It’s buoyant again with Ash vs. Evil Dead, Shannara, and Ghost in the Shell amongst the international films and TV series accessing the incentives. Auckland however lacks in studio infrastructure. Film Auckland has been driving the move to see part of the Hobsonville Airbase become a film studio campus. As long as the incentives remain attractive, Auckland will suffer by not having purpose built studios that can cater to more than one international production at a time. Turn this around and there will be more employment for directors, editors and everyone else, and that $2,829 million impact on GDP I wrote of earlier will grow faster.
As some of you are aware, I am also a member of the Ngā Aho Whakaari (NAW) Māori in Film & Television board. I have written previously here about the disparity in budgets and incomes around Māori Television programming and Te Māngai Pāho funding. Just over a month ago, NAW released preliminary survey findings that confirmed poor working conditions and wages in the Māori production sector. It caused an uproar. With final results due shortly, expect aftershocks. Pay rates for directors and editors in all areas of the screen industry are a key focus here at the guild.
On the home front, DEGNZ is in a good place right now. Our board is stable, dedicated and hardworking. We are fiscally sound. We have a solid membership but we’d like it to grow and ask you to encourage your colleagues to join if they don’t already belong. We believe there is real value in what we offer and what we do.
At the Big Screen Symposium you will find DEGNZ at the booth we are sharing with the Writers Guild, so swing by for a chat, to connect, have a meeting or just hang out until the next session.
With Christmas fast approaching we have some final workshops for the year to complete. Rehearsal Room in Wellington is three weeks away. Following that in the capital city is the Drama Editing Workshop with Michael Horton and Jonathan Woodford Robinson. The deadline for final applications is next Monday. We have just confirmed that Peter Burger will run a two-day Directors Toolkit Workshop in Auckland in late November. A call will go out for it shortly. And finally in November, Equity New Zealand is holding its biannual Casting Hothouse, with international and local casting directors coming in to demystify the process. Directors are welcome to attend to observe. Contact us if you would like to do so. Then it will be party time at the Guilds Xmas Party.
As I look to the year ahead I do so with excitement. We’ve got some big issues to tackle at the guild on all fronts and that makes it interesting. And there are existing and hopefully new initiatives to roll out.