Issue date: 
Sunday, 28 September 2014

Following is NZFC CEO Dave Gibson's speech delivered on Sunday 28 September 2014 at the Big Screen Symposium in Auckland.

Challenges and Changes:  The challenges facing the film industry today and introducing changes the NZFC is planning

Earlier this year we suggested we would judge the success of the Film Commission by your success. We proposed a model of five planets in the night sky.

I have to say, not that many people engaged in a philosophical discussion with us about the concept but those that did were enthusiastic.  It is now formally included in our current statement of intent, and how we plan to benchmark ourselves...

Today I want to drill down a little bit into a few of these areas, and give you some more detail on changes we are instigating. And then, I will talk about a couple of challenges.

Briefly, before I start – there is one thing that is not a problem for the industry, and that's overall Government financial support.  The amounts of money that will be spent on the industry next year will, I believe, surprise you.

A combination of our discretionary funds and the Government incentives will almost certainly result in a higher level of broad production activity than we have seen for some time.

But this means we also have to deliver to the Government some great films, some economic growth and some strong audiences.

How will we all do that? And what are the challenges that we face in delivering?

I talked earlier in the year about pathways to feature film production and indicated I wasn't convinced that the way talented people moved towards feature production was as successful as it could be.

This includes writers, directors and producers.  Please be clear. I don't mean that people aren't talented.  We have plenty of talent, including writers.

Peter Jackson recently showed me a chart that indicated in the first 17 years of the Film Commission a lot more directors went on to have international careers than in the last 17 years. Around four times as many.

I know an international career is just one measure. And in this case it is defined by directing films without NZFC funding, and yes, there is a very good argument that a director like Taika Waititi could easily be shooting films in the US, rather than here.  So this is just A measure of success – but none-the-less, it is interesting.

Certainly the alumni from those early years are very impressive. And there are, correspondingly, some first-time feature film directors in the last 17 years whom we have not subsequently seen as much of.

And it begs the question...  If New Zealand rugby can turn out a consistent number of world-class competitors, why can't we?

I am not convinced that the pathways have been clear or open to new talent.  I am not convinced that we have been good at identifying that talent.  And I am not convinced that we have been able to help people move forward quickly and well.

We (and by that I mean all of us) want to identify the really talented people and make sure the right opportunities are made available to them.

As you know, we have established a Talent Development and Relationships department. The phrase we use is find, foster and connect outstanding New Zealand screen talent.

But what we have also started to do is concentrate on the ecosystem of the pathways that exist for people.  We see the pathways as a series of stepping-stones that people might use on their way towards becoming a producer, director or writer of a feature film.

The metaphor is a river that you cross to make feature films on the other side. We are developing this metaphor because we want people to be more aware of what we hope to promote as an ecosystem with multiple pathways,  rather than a large bridge or ladder labeled Film Commission support.

It is early days for this modeling exercise, but the key things to bring to your attention are:

  • Only some of these stepping-stones are NZFC fully funded and supervised stones.  Some stepping-stones are devolved and only partially funded by us, and other stepping-stones exist independently of us.
  • There are multiple pathways to the other side. People can move across the stepping-stones in a variety of ways and some may only use a couple of stepping-stones.

If you chart the early careers of Toa Fraser, Peter Jackson, Gaylene Preston, Roger Donaldson, Robin Scholes and John Barnett, you will see they each took different paths.

We have made some important changes in the stepping-stones the NZFC is involved with:

  • We have introduced He Ara - an initiative that empowers groups of largely Maori and Pasifika filmmakers to develop films in a more devolved, collaborative fashion.

    Three groups were announced earlier this year in June totaling $200,000 and we anticipate announcing another $200,000 worth of investment in November. 
  • We can announce today three new BDS companies:

    - Matthew Metcalfe's GFC Fighter Town;
    - Gibson Group in association with Catherine Fitzgerald's company Blueskin and Steve Barr;
    - And Field Theory – a new company that includes principals Phillippa Campbell, Fiona Copland and Tim Sanders.

    Each of these companies is developing feature films – some with new talent.

    And of course there are still companies like SPP spending money on development separately. We had hoped to have another BDS round this financial year but I think this is now highly unlikely, as we first want to see how successful the current groups are.
  • After industry consultation and internal discussion, I am also announcing today that there will be no more Premiere Shorts.

    That's six fewer short films normally receiving $90,000 each.   This decision may be contentious, but we believe it is the best way for us to go.

    The NZFC has been spending NZ$1million a year on shorts and while we acknowledge this is matched by massive contributions from the industry itself, it is the same amount we have been spending on direct script development for features.  Premiere Shorts is now around 14 years old, and we feel it's showing its age.

    Fresh 10 and Fresh 30 will continue and on Friday, we announced the successful teams and14 films receiving funding.
  • Up to $500,000 will now be available in a new fund called Premiere Pathways. 

    This fund is for the creation of moving image materials, with a focus on getting feature films over the last part of the river and into production.

    Short films do qualify.  As do proof of concept reels, scenes from your feature script and teaser trailers.

    Applications will be sought probably three to four times a year, on dates soon to be advised.  The Talent Development and Relationships team will administer the fund.

    We are still determining the decision-making process, but it will most probably be a staff committee of three, comprising the CEO, a representative from Talent Development and Relationships and a representative from Development and Production. We have been considering using industry consultants versus more meetings and quicker turn round, and there may be some compromise on this.

    Applicants will need to have a feature film script the NZFC considers substantially developed.  At the very least it will be at second draft stage, but it doesn't have to have been developed with NZFC funds.

    And while it can be either a high-end short film (beyond Fresh 10 and Fresh 30), a proof of concept reel, a scene from your feature script or a teaser trailer – it must be part of a proposed pathway to getting your feature made.
  • To try and assist those people who sometimes slip below our radar, we are considering introducing a devolved fund.

    A yet to be finalised amount would be made available for highly-ranked and talented teams coming out of the 48HOURS competition, which have a feature project that can be assisted towards production. It can be an early stage feature project.

    Funding decisions will be made jointly with competition organizers, Ant Timpson and Tim Groendaal.
  • We are also going to be more flexible with the Fresh 10 and 30 budgets.

    There has been feedback that these arbitrary numbers need some elasticity and we will now occasionally grant an increased amount to a film when we believe it is warranted and will benefit the project.

We are trialing these new initiatives and looking much more at the ecosystem of pathways rather than just individual schemes.  Successful stepping-stones that need more resources will have them added at the expense of less successful one.

And we are very conscious that the NZFC is just one part of these ecosystems. For example, one of Gerard Johnstone's stepping-stones as a feature film director was the Escalator film, Housebound.

Peter Jackson watched the film and made some introductions offshore. Gerard is now likely to be directing a good-sized feature film largely funded from offshore.

Incidentally, the Screen Advisory Board members will work in particular areas of interest. Sir Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have identified early talent and connections as theirs. James Cameron and Jon Landau are keen to help with US connections and a push we hope to make into Los Angeles next year. Jane Campion is interested in gender equality.  Next year we hope to bring you more details of their work.

I want to talk now about feature film production.  Our stated aim is to support the production of 8 to twelve features a year with our discretionary funds.  But we would prefer even more.

Diversity is a key goal.  By budget, genre and audience appeal.

Ideally I would like to be at a party talking with a room full of diverse New Zealanders by age, ethnicity and other factors and they would all have seen an amazing New Zealand film in the last 12 months that they were blown away by.

The responsibility at our end to assist this range of films to get made falls on our development and production team.

We still see challenges around our stated aim of raising the bar and introducing more rigour at script and final cut stage, but we are reasonably happy with how things are progressing at the upper end of the budget range.

We have introduced letters of interest, which seem to be working well and which help support producers in the market.

We have a better introduction system for financiers and sales agents.

We are seeing the growth of private finance and crowd funding; so much so that a film like The Patriarch which struggled to close its financing after an initial NZFC offer a couple of years ago, is now very close to closing.

Today we are introducing a new funding option at the lower budget end.

We are inviting filmmaking teams with lower budget screenplays (budgeted as achievable for NZ$250-500k) in an advanced stage of development, looking to move towards production, to apply on our normal board application dates.

We hope to see 3 to 5 lower budget films produced each year and assist them into worldwide and New Zealand distribution through market partnerships.

Please note that the key driver of this opportunity is to enable the production of more films and increase the number of opportunities for filmmakers and performers.  It is not designed to undermine existing pay and conditions across the sector but intended to increase the overall health of the industry. 

These films need to be genuinely lower budget in scope and methodology to be viable candidates for funding. This is not about making a bigger budget film for less money or cutting corners at the expense of cast, crew and industry partners. 

We would need a compelling proposal that shows how and why the budget is entirely realistic.  Deferrals because of low pay will be discouraged.

We are looking for projects with strong scripts and audience prospects, from exciting teams.

This lower budget opportunity has a number of aims:

  • To increase the number of New Zealand feature films produced each year.
  • To increase the development opportunities for the next generation of talent both behind and in front of the camera.
  • To increase the quality of low budget films through exposure to overseas attachments.
  • To build relationships for filmmakers.

Things you need to know:

  • There will be no genre restrictions – all feature-length films, whether fiction or documentary, will be eligible.
  • Strong audience appeal will be a crucial factor.
  • International market attachment will be a significant part of the financing which the NZFC will assist with, when not available. Realistically, this is the situation for many emerging filmmakers.
  • There are two different over-arching offshore distribution/financing arrangements available to these films. Essentially, if we like the project we will broker your connection with these parties. If they come on board with finance we will match their contribution. Their range will be between $125 to $250k, which means the budget range of the films would be around $250 to $500k
  • Formal NZ distributor attachment is not a requirement but may also be facilitated. Ideally we would expect a well-developed connection plan for the New Zealand audience and we will assist with introductions and suggestions.
  • An experienced executive producer/s will be attached on success of application.
  • Further development may be required prior to production.

Applications requirements:

  • A great feature film script.
  • Overview of the idea that you feel best represents your project.  Start thinking about what would make the NZFC and the NZ and international markets want to contribute funding.
  • Information about who your audience is, why they would want to see your film and ideas about how you would connect with them
  • Any visual materials that may be useful in supporting your application.
  • An initial budget and methodology outlining how you intend to achieve the film for the proposed budget.

As mentioned earlier, normal board deadlines will apply (six per year), but NZFC staff will process applications.  What's likely to happen initially is you will get either a no or a maybe.

The maybes will then begin the market engagement process, which is where the other half of the money comes from. How well that goes will determine when and if your film goes into production.

Incidentally, you don't need to use this option if it doesn't appeal and would prefer to come to the NZFC via our traditional board application process. But the reason we like this option is that we believe it will help filmmakers engage with distributors and think about audiences more.

It does raise the question of what happens to films in the $500k to a million dollar range.

We have been seeing a few applications for films at just under a million dollars, and generally they are dark art-house films, with low to moderate audience appeal.

The previous NZFC policy for projects below a million dollars was that a sales agent was not mandatory, though a credible domestic distribution plan was.

We are now looking at this statement..

On all feature film budgets over half a million dollars we expect to see an audience engagement plan for NZ AND overseas that reflects the script, the subject matter, the associated talent, the budget and the ask from the NZFC. The higher the budget and ask... the higher the engagement.

On feature films with budgets below half a million dollars we expect to see an audience engagement plan for NZ that reflects the script, the subject matter, the associated talent, the budget and the ask from the NZFC. And a willingness to engage in meaningful discussions around overseas audiences and financing.

If you are asking for $2million for something you are telling us will be a very popular and commercial film, we expect strong and definite market attachments in NZ and offshore.

If you are asking for $100k for an experimental artistic film, we expect an appropriate audience engagement plan but we certainly wouldn't expect an advance from a sales agent or distributor.

Unless you are asleep, you will have noticed this year our increasing emphasis on eyeballs on films, which is also reflected in these announcements today. You will have noticed that the Joint Documentary Fund is now Doc Connect.

On Thursday, we will announce in conjunction with NZOA, the three successful feature docs.  The successful films met the criteria of being compelling, interesting, film concepts with an audience connection plan and ideally an attachment.  Which I have to say, most of the applications did not.

What else are we doing at the NZFC to help you make these audience connections?

We are working to connect producers with the international marketplace through our Talent Development and Relationships department, and the Marketing Department.

As part of connecting sales agents with producers, this year in Cannes we introduced a sales agents lunch, which we will do again next year.

Domestically we have met with local distributors and engaged in terms of trade discussions with them around the P& A grants and things like the virtual print fee.

There are now four distribution grants available rather than the one.  Details are on our website.

One grant of particular interest is the Innovation Grant which we trialled for Everything we Love when the film was released day and date VOD with the New Zealand Film Festival.

History teaches us things. As you sit here today you may not be aware of how many first time directors and writers have NOT gone on to successful careers after their early films failed to find audiences. Some them had good filmmaking skills.... but their projects did not connect with audiences and subsequently they had trouble raising finance for their next projects.

The involvement of the market place from idea, through to script, production and into post is as critical as it is in release.  Not just because of the use of taxpayers money but for your own future individual careers.

If you take feature film investment from us, you are now required to pause for three weeks around fine cut and discuss the cut with us, your sales agent and distributor and to take part in a test screening. This is for the film itself and to allow time to discuss and plan marketing campaigns. Over time we expect this test screening data to become very valuable for comparisons.

We have appointed Selina Joe as Strategy and Insights Advisor, and she is working closely with the marketing department on this initiative. She is also heavily involved with her main research project: who is watching NZ films and where.

Next year we will begin to provide audience research reports, which will help us identify, build and connect with the potential audiences for our films.

Selina has incidentally also provided the industry with some relevant statistics on gender imbalance which are going up on our website today. We hope to improve these statistics following consultation and engagement with WIFT, the Writers Guild and the Directors and Editors Guild. As always our preference is to have these engagements with the relevant guilds rather than individuals.

But back to audiences.

Producers will be aware that much of the marketing and business affairs department's time this year has been spent on the transition from the sales agency to Te Ahi Ka, which translates as The Home Fires.

We will shortly announce that 41 of those films will be represented from Te Ahi Ka via a major well-known sales agent for television sales worldwide.

This year we have also reached out to Lotto, who are the major funder of our films, and established an improved relationship with them. In the short term this has meant their heavy involvement in promotions for The Dark Horse and Hip-Hoperation.

As part of this, The Dark Horse producer Tom Hern and I went to Gisborne recently for a function with the Lotto Board and local retailers. The relationship definitely went to another level.

Coming up we have another ambitious joint venture with them, although we can't release details just yet.

Next year we are planning to introduce a local distribution workshop for feature film teams where they can work over a series of weekends on their audience connection plans with experts in local distribution.

The workshop will have a careful worked out curriculum on all aspects of local distribution and be led by John Barnett, with support from the local distribution industry. If it's successful it will be annual occurrence and be open to teams in mid and late feature film development.

Those of you with on-set experience will know that for many years crews have not been particularly sympathetic to the role of the stills photographer. They didn't seem to realise that these stills help sell the film and hopefully generate income to make more films to employ more crew.

It is better now, but we still need more understanding of the role of marketing and we need to have more people in our industry with more expertise, actually doing it.

Ideally, we need a bigger proportion of you to not just be in the production industry.

Using the 5% uplift on international productions, we have been looking for attachments to the marketing teams of these bigger international companies, and more domestic and international market engagement generally.

In the same way that we assist filmmakers to travel, we are beginning to do the same for people working in marketing and distribution.

We helped Jill McNab from Vendetta attend the Marketing and International Distribution course in Spain, run through the Media Business School.

Looking further ahead I would like to mention some challenges that will also require changes. Some of these changes are not things that the Film Commission alone can affect. They are deeper.

  • We want to see more rigour in script and production.
  • Great ideas and great scripts.  Just about every industry conference in the last 20 or 30 years will have had someone bemoan the quality of screen writing talent. I don't intend to do that. I believe firmly the talent is here.

    I think sometimes we waste time on ideas that aren't that great or don't have a decent-sized audience.  So we want to put more emphasis on the core idea or the story at the initial stage. Then we would like to see more rigour late in the script stage and in the edit.
  • Producers are another area that we are shining the light on.

    Not enough drive and hunger and energy.
    Not enough rigour.
    Not enough "what else can I do to make this film bloody good"?

    There are a few high quality energetic driven producers with strong slates who are connected with creatives, crews and the marketplace. And correspondingly there are producers who do not exhibit the wide skill set required today across script development, financing, physical production and the marketplace.

    Consequently we see projects coming to us with several producers and or exec producers attached (all with fees) in an attempt to plug holes. Ironically sometimes producers are attaching other producers who don't actually plug the gap that they have, while doubling the fees.

    What can be done?

    If we wanted to be inflammatory we could consider a limit on the total fees we will accept where there are several producers. I jest! 

    More needs to rest on the industry I feel. Writers and directors with projects should seriously start looking at whom they take projects to. Are they real producers who get things made? Or people who just spend time with them in coffee shops, blaming the funding system.

    And producers could start limiting the size of their producer support crew and up skill themselves a bit.
  • Training and Resources - we have two issues here I believe:

    First...we are concerned there are perhaps too many entry level training courses sending out too many graduates who are unlikely to find a job.

    Second and upcoming.  I think the industry is going to seriously heat up in 2015 and we will be short of many key, experienced people, who have left the country or the industry. And this probably also applies to equipment and infrastructure.

    Through your guilds we are keen to explore the first issue of entry-level training, which we would then hope to address with the Government.

    The second issue is more complex and probably concerning in the short term. If we don't adequately service the expected immediate increase in production, the films will not be as good as they should be and our reputation will suffer and then no amount of government incentive will help us.

    I think it is good that we have flexible immigration into this country as we will need it shortly, and you should all encourage crews who have relocated to be ready to come back next year.

If we go back to the five planets in the sky and look ahead to next year, I think we can feel reasonably optimistic about economic growth. It will be important that we concentrate on making it sustainable though.

This economic growth should help us with our career aspirations, provided we can solve the training issue over the next few years.

I think we can be optimistic that if we continue the rigour that we have begun and keep concentrating on our audience connections, we will get more eyeballs on our films.

But the big two planets to work on with enthusiasm and rigour are the films themselves.

  • We want to see a wide range of films across genre and budget.
  • We want to see culturally significant films.
  • We want to see amazing original exciting films.
  • But. And it's a big BUT…
  • We can only fund from the projects that come in the door.
  • We are working hard at the Film. Commission to be a:
    - flexible
    - responsive
    - helpful agency

Help us by bringing us exciting projects please.

Last updated: 
Friday, 3 October 2014