Dave Gibson's Speech to the Big Screen Symposium 2016

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Following is a transcript of NZFC CEO Dave Gibson's 25 September presentation at the 2016 Big Screen Symposium.

Today I want to talk about and pose some questions around

In amongst this I want to talk about some things we are doing today and things we plan to do tomorrow and our desire to create a philosophy of how we work together.

Let's start with the theme of the BSS: Playing With Risk. Most of you probably see this discussion as being around the projects or films - what we choose to make and how we go about it.

You might imagine at the NZFC playing with risk would mean:

Deciding to fund a film about internet freedom vs piracy featuring Kim Dot Com;

Or a film about competitive endurance tickling where the subjects of the film turn up at screenings and threaten legal action.

Today I want to broaden the risk discussion out a bit more.

What's the real risk we face as an industry?

I think it is:

I'm probably one of the few people in the room who could load a film magazine.

This is a romantic but totally useless skill today.

The pace of change is accelerating.

Do we actually spend enough time thinking about and discussing the future, and not just the development, production and distribution of the particular film we are working on?

I believe we all need to lift our eyes up and think about the future.

And we all need to be part of that process, to work together on it.

To help this process we are introducing a small programme called GPS 2026.

It's being coordinated in a part time role by Roxane Gajadhar

The idea is to try and start a conversation between us all - about what things might look like in 2026.

We are not coming at this with a predetermined outcome.There's no paper being written.

What we want to do over the next 6 months or so is try and expose you to three or four provocative speakers and presentations about the future - what the future might look like and some things to think about.

Some of the topics we think could be interesting are:

Audience and reach in relationship to borderless consumption.

Platforms

Rainmakers and storytellers.

Diversity.

Innovation and technology

and Employment.

The sessions will be branded "GPS 2026".

We hope our first will be at the SPADA conference in November, with more in the new year.

As I've said we don't have an agenda. In the first instance, we just want to generate discussion and thought.

As part of thinking about risk and the future, and while writing this speech, I remembered a very good management book from my early career.

One of the chapters talked about an idea: If your company exploded, burnt down or somehow disappeared, would you rebuild it the same?

If not, then you should start making changes.

The NZFC was created in 1978. Nearly 40 years ago. If it didn't exist today would we build it the same?

What would be different?

You may have some thoughts?

If so, I'd be happy to make that a part of the GPS 2026 discussions.

My guess is that some of our goals, like the five planets, might well stay.

In some areas, such as our use of the phrase "eyeballs", we have been looking ahead and acknowledging that platforms are changing.

But how we go about achieving these goals as an agency needs to be looked at.

Boards don't do strategy once a year now. We do it at every meeting.

At the moment we are undertaking a review of our Early Development Fund.

It's been around a while.

Is it still the right mechanism? Does it need to be replaced or changed to be better? We have contracted Defrim Isai, to look into this. He's here today.

His background is as a producer and a production exec at South Australian Film Corp and Screen West.

He's also helping us set up a new $200,000 development fund for VR, AR and gaming. Which incidentally is not taking any money from EDF. It's new money.

And will be intended primarily for story development costs with a small allocation for design, prototyping and marketing so people can present strong IP to the market for financing.

We will not be involved in production financing for games, VR or AR.

But we acknowledge that these areas are an important contemporary medium for you as storytellers to reach new audiences.

More details will be available before Christmas.

Let's talk about another key platform for the future.

Here are a couple of quotes:

“Baby boomers have had a stranglehold on media for a generation. That stranglehold is finally being broken by a highly educated, ethnically diverse, global-thinking, hard-to-reach generation, and media is having a hard time adapting to this rapid change.”

And another quote:

“Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour - it's gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and - most important of all, - diversity of thought.”

Diversity is a key part of our future.

At the NZFC we have a simple diversity statement.

There are two reasons this is important to us.

1.     Because it's the right thing to do.

2.     Because the film industry thrives on fresh talent and ideas. And, as I will discuss shortly, films that are outside the norm and are fresh and risky are more likely to be successful coming from a small country like New Zealand.

So we need to cast the net as wide as we can. And that's why we talk about diverse voices and not just diversity.

Here are a couple of slides:

The first two columns show the difference between the film industry and general population demographics. You'll see there are some differences.

The third column shows that those under-represented groups today will grow significantly in the general population.

And in the fourth column that change will be even more marked in the age range 15 to 39.

Notice that non-European younger age group of Maori, Pasifika, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Africans will be in the majority.

And even today, a quarter of our population are born overseas.

A third of that group are born in Asia.

So, just before I talked about needing a diversity of voices behind and in front of the camera because it was right.

And because it is a way to get fresh talent and ideas.

But there's a third reason. As I hope I have just illustrated our population, and therefore our audience, is continuing to change.

The audience for our films here in Auckland today is very different from nearly 40 years ago when the NZFC was launched.

In a few years, the cinema audience in China will be bigger than in the US.

Another reason for us to embrace diversity.

You all probably know the statistic that 10 of our top 20 box office films have Maori themes, content, actors or key creatives.

I could try and claim this was the result of the NZFC Māori policy. But we have never had one!  Although we are working on one.

For a variety of reasons, a reasonable number of Māori have been successful in front of and behind the camera.

But Māori women are completely absent as feature film directors.

We intend to work with Ngā Aho Whakaari to find ways for good female Māori directors to get their scripts to a strong production ready stage. We know there are talented Māori female directors...but so far they don't seem to be attached to market and production ready scripts.

On the broader question of gender.

We launched our gender initiative two years ago and we have had some success. First, by already hitting parity with all our talent and professional development grants.

But we were expecting narrative features to be a tougher goal.

However, here are some slides showing some rather surprising and positive results over the last financial year for narrative features. In comparison to the three previous years.

 

 

 

We have worked hard for these numbers and made a number of conscious decisions.

But even we are a bit stunned by these results and feel we need to say, this is just one year and let's keep an eye on the numbers for a couple of years.

We've awarded two gender scholarships, starting with the Jane Campion scholarship for cinematography.

Then this year, the Gaylene Preston scholarship for directors.

We will announce our third gender scholarship plan in approximately two weeks.

Now circling back to the broader area of diverse voices.

In a new initiative, we intend to add a part-time communications person, probably called a Community Manager,  versed in using social media to reach out to Asians, Pasifika and millennials on a more regular basis and in a more relevant way about opportunities for their involvement in the industry.

We will also engage, on a short-term contract, a person based in Auckland to actively engage and bring diverse talent into our industry. This person will work with educational and film institutes as well as NZFC staff and production companies.

There are Asian graduates from film schools and universities who are either returning to Asia or working in retail in Queen St. We need to get them into writers’ rooms and onto sets. They are a massive part of our potential audience but are currently not a big enough part of our industry

A part-time Community Manager and a contractor on diversity in Auckland may not sound earth shattering.

But we have to make some steps.

My sense is that Asian and Pasifka people don't currently see a role for themselves in our industry or feel connected with us. We need to start changing that perception.

If we are going to develop and grow a more diverse and reflective talent pool together, we need to sow some different seeds.

Last night at the drinks function, I was approached by a young woman who thanked the Film Commission, through me, for comments we made last year here about gender equality. She said it had made her lift her sights and change her course of study because she now believed it was possible she could have a different and better job in the industry.

To a different topic now.

Last year we gave you the top line feedback on our stakeholder survey.

Lots of good stuff, but a strong message to us that we need to communicate better.

Accessibility, fairness, timeliness, confidence in our expertise and industry knowledge were all areas you felt we could be better in.

This year's results have shown a marked improvement, the most significant improvement being " filmmakers are dealt with in a fair and open manner."

I'd like to pay tribute to our staff who embraced the challenge that you and I laid down for them.

We're out and about more, slowly expanding our Auckland presence and in the South Island more.

But we can still do better.

What our most recent survey showed, was that younger filmmakers feel less connected to us.

As mentioned just before, millennials along with our Asian and Pasifika push, will be priorities for this coming year.

What about the films ?

The reviews have been great.

They are being seen by more people here and overseas.

Our share of local box office is the highest ever and it's not all Wilderpeople.

Although that is of course, to be a bit repetitive, a majestical success!

Tickled and Hunt for the Wilderpeople are now technically in profit.

I believe our films continue to get better.

I think there are two simple reasons.

I think you have applied more rigour as film makers.

I think you have thought more about audience.

On the question of rigour, I'd like to quote from an unsolicited email I received recently from an experienced kiwi screenwriter who had this to say - it's on the topic of writer responsibility but it should be taken as a general comment:

“It’s our job to get better, get skilled, get honest about flaws and the importance of building a tribe.  We can’t expect producers or directors to fix or make flawed material.I think embracing rigour, creating a standard to which writers themselves know something isn’t ready, something isn’t researched, something hasn’t been built properly is really important. I don’t think, or at least, I didn’t fully value the critical process of which I am duty bound as a creator, to invest in before I expect others to invest in me. I thought I worked hard, but it turns out, writers working hard isn’t always working smart.”

To the writers in the room, I'm not reading this out to get at you. It's a good quote for me to read because it shows that a key creative person has got on board with the concept of rigour and of course that concept flows right through production and through the editing process - and it’s critical that everyone on a film embraces it. We still have directors and producers who want to lock a film because it's the scheduled date rather than continuing to try and get it right. We've got a few films at the moment that are taking longer in post than anticipated but we are fine with that.

On the question of audience.

The Vista marketing workshops for filmmaker teams have been great.

And producers and directors have embraced the test screening process, supervised by Jasmin McSweeney and Selina Joe.

Not all distributors are as engaged as much as I would like, but we are reaching out more to them and, for the first time ever, this year we had a speaking spot at the exhibitors conference, where we talked about how we can work more with distributors and exhibitors.

As an aside I would like to say that if you want to see someone who epitomises rigour and a desire to engage with audiences you need look no further than Taika Waititi.

A man who also, by the way, plays with risk.

We are just managing to keep the production pipeline busy. Last year I said we had 21 films between pre and post. This year the number is 17.

Some in post now were in pre then, but as an indication of busyness it's useful. And we have several conditional offers out, where the producers are trying to find other money.

As I have said several times before, to some extent it's a numbers game and if we want to keep our current  diversity of films and the success in the local cinemas we have to keep a pipeline.

We could and should be making more films...

In my time at the NZFC I do not believe we have ever turned down a good idea from good people because of a lack of money.

And I have also never felt that we have enough good projects in active advanced development.

I know that Leanne agrees with me.

However, if you take one message away from my speech today can it be this?

Be more adventurous.

Take more risks.

Make something different.

Very few sales agents or distributors are looking for another traditional coming of age or dark drama. Nor are the audiences.

Apart from how well it's been made and marketed, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an oddball, offbeat, idiosyncratic, feel-good film that takes creative risks.

Tickled is, to also quote the critics, freakish, quirky, unexpected, weird and controversial:

Last year I talked about how surprised I was at the low level of interest from  filmmakers in taking part in our joint funded partnership with MPI for films under half a million dollars.

Tickled has been a massive success since it's Sundance launch.

As I mentioned, it's in profit and its return on investment is one the highest we've seen.

The next film we pitched to MPI for joint funding is called 100 Men. It's a documentary about a gay male filmmaker going back and interviewing men from his list of 100 memorable bonks. It's also an examination of attitudes to gay life and gay relationships over 40 years.

MPI said yes to the pitch over dinner.

Every overseas festival and distributor we have talked to about this film is intrigued and engaged.

It's about something.

And it's got an edge. It's risky and risqué.

As an ex-producer, I've been privileged for the last two and a half years to have had a lot of exposure to sales agents and distributors.

They want fresh, risky, unusual ideas and scripts.

So do their audiences

And so do we.

We will keep funding a few darker pieces.

But we'd like to be funding some more upbeat films.

So please, keep those applications coming into Leanne Saunders’ Development and Production team.

On the international and co-production side, courtesy of the NZ Screen Production Grant - which we administer - things have continued to be busy, with Pete’s Dragon and Ghost in the Shell in Wellington, Rob Tapert's Ash vs Evil Dead and SPP's season 2 of 800 Words here in Auckland.

We've also got Meg starting at AFS and Kumeu, and Rebecca Gibney's Wanted in the south all helping employment, infrastructure and the honing of skills.

And mostly recently, The Luminaries has announced seven episodes shooting next year.

Also, continuing our very successful relationship with Disney, off the back of Pete’s Dragon they will be bringing part of a new feature to New Zealand over the summer, shooting at several South Island locations. 

A Wrinkle in Time will be directed by Ava DuVernay.

We are hoping to persuade her to give a couple of GPS2026 seminars. As well as being an African American woman directing a major studio picture, Ava is a new technology proponent.

In CG, animation and post work, Mechanic Animation have hit 42 staff with Marvel and other work. And Weta Digital of course, continue to grow. Beast of Burden is underway as an official co-pro with China and we are currently in the middle of a season of delegations from Shanghai Media Group, China Film Group and Guangdong.

Two years ago when I stood here, I introduced our five planets.

The intention was to talk about how we would judge success and what our goals as an agency were.

To judge our success by your success.

 I feel these planets have been helpful to us and to our stakeholders.

But now we want to concentrate more on our way of working; the philosophical way we approach our goals and how we work with you.

I did try to sell the NZFC staff a phrase we could use: " More than the money.” I wasn't successful but it's still a big idea in my mind.

Test screening, Vista marketing workshop, a new mentoring and workshop approach to shorts, missions to markets - there is a lot we can do together, that's more than just writing cheques for films.

Our new chair Kerry Prendergast is with us today.

When I've been talking with her about what the NZFC does, she's been surprised at the breadth and complexity of the activity we are involved in.

As you know, that includes the functions of Film New Zealand, now fully merged in to the NZFC.

As part of these discussions about the breadth of our activities, we've been looking for a meaningful way to express how we can partner with you.

That's all of you. Our very, very diverse stakeholders:

  • Short filmmakers
  • Feature filmmakers
  • Writers, directors, producers, crew, actors
  • Regional councils and agencies
  • Central government
  • Post houses
  • International studios and financiers in LA, China and Europe

We feel we need a way to embrace this diversity with a phrase that talks about how we want to work as an agency.

We will still have our 5 planets as goals.

We still see ourselves as your champion.

But as we talk about the future, about risks, about diversity in our industry, and obviously still a lot about projects and their audiences.

We have a new philosophy, one that we hope you will embrace:

My food basket

Your food basket

Be splendid

All of us.

Together we can do amazing things. 

I hope you agree.