Issue date: 
Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Change and Challenge. New Zealand Film Commission CEO, Dave Gibson, talks about recent changes in the film business and suggests some challenges for the future.

The following is a transcript of Dave Gibson's speech given on Saturday, 30 September 2017 at the Big Screen Symposium, Auckland, New Zealand

"Tīhei Mauri ora
Ko Aoraki te maunga
Ko Mangahou te Awa
No Airani me Tenemāka oku waka
Ko Dave Gibson ahau
Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa

I have been in the television and film business for 40 years, mostly as a producer, until just under four years ago, when I took up the wero of leading the New Zealand Film Commission, Te Tumu Whakaata Taonga.

My film whakapapa has traces that we all share as we stand on the shoulders of our forebears - both Māori and Pakeha:

  • Ramai and Rudall Hayward
  • John O’Shea
  • Barry Barclay
  • Mereta Mita
  • Jim Booth
  • Don Selwyn

Tom Poata, and many others.

What is the most important thing in the world?
He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata.

Last year I talked about Risk
This year I’d like to talk about change, and throw out a couple of challenges.

I hope I tell you one thing you don't know, a couple of things you agree with, and at least one thing you disagree with.

Let's start by talking fairly broadly about what changes have been happening in the screen industry?

At a cursory glance it would appear that most of the change has occurred around the small screen:

  • The change in viewing patterns
  • The growth of Netflix, Amazon and Lightbox.
  • The drop in subscriber and viewing numbers for SKY and TVNZ
  • The drop in TVNZ staff numbers

And NZ on Air’s response to all of the above.

What about film and the big screen?

Domestically there's a demand from audiences and exhibitors for New Zealand films, which is good because we are making more of them.

Generally though, the sheer number of features being made means a theatrical window is no longer feasible, even for all the quality films – not even on the festival circuit. 

Last year, around 1,600 movies were produced in Europe. Unsurprisingly, not all of them played in cinemas.

But at the same time, there are more digital opportunities via platforms like Netflix and Amazon.

This has been good for New Zealand films outside New Zealand. We are seeing a number of our films, that previously would never have got a theatrical release or generated home entertainment income offshore, make sales to digital platforms that didn't exist previously.

So broadly speaking, revenue streams are improving for sensibly priced New Zealand films.

Through all of this, the movie theatre experience is still alive but exhibition simply can't play all the movies being produced.

Making cinemas a lot nicer, with better chairs, better concessions, food and alcohol, has helped. And increasing cinema’s appeal to, for example, the grey audience is also relevant, although not yet, in my opinion, fully targeted by kiwi filmmakers.

And the use of event cinema like Secret Cinema in the U.K. proves showmanship isn't dead.

But we can't afford to be complacent about the idea of “films in cinemas”. The minimal box office growth for cinema exhibition only really reflects inflation through raised ticket prices.

I would expect some real changes and disruption in the exhibition space in the next few years!

So what are some changes we have been involved in at the NZFC over the last few years?

First up, at the NZFC we have created with you a vision of what success looks like and why we do what we do, why we get up in the morning, what we’re about.

This will be the last time you hear about the planets from me, but I hope not the last time you hear about them. I think they are one of the best outcomes of the last few years.

Using them to bounce from, about what have we done together:

You have made more films.
And you have made a diversity of films.

As I have said previously it's a numbers game and I think we've been successful.

In the last four years we've financed, and you've made and/or released, around 60 films.

One way we've done this is to encourage films to be made for the right budget, and to attract other money. The amount of private money in our films has slowly risen, especially in the mid and higher budget films, which has allowed us to contribute significantly more to funding lower budget films.

And another thing: New Zealand films now have a strong domestic brand. Through both anecdotal and audience research we have discovered that people want to watch New Zealand films because they are New Zealand films.

Obviously there are some very high profile films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople that are big contributors to this brand, but the diversity of films being made also means that most New Zealanders can find a number of films to watch and enjoy.

Some of the Kiwi films that screened in the recent New Zealand International Film Festival and are either in release or soon to be are:

  • My Year with Helen
  • Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web
  • 100 Men
  • Meat
  • 6 Days
  • The Inland Road
  • Human Traces
  • Waru, and
  • Spookers

You should all take a bow for being part of the industry that made these recent, very diverse films.

On a more prosaic level I would also like to congratulate you for embracing the new Health and Safety legislation and requirements. Thanks particularly to the Techos Guild and their Screen Safe initiative.

Everyone coming home safe after work is an admirable goal and after some initial grumbles and rumbles, it's been great to see how well we have done.

Congratulations also to those of you who have been involved in the push for diversity in the industry. I know that sometimes people don't like their particular group spoken about as part of a general diversity policy, but the idea of a broad policy where we look to reflect our society in front of and behind the camera is, I believe, not only long overdue, but also right.

Specifically for gender, I can today announce that the Film Commission has three new planks to add to the five that we announced back in 2015.

The five current planks are:

1. An annual award for women in the industry.

2. The NZFC would be open to specific proposals from Guilds and industry organisations to support and enhance their work in up-skilling women in the screen industry.

3. The talent development area of the NZFC would spend more time identifying and engaging with female filmmakers.

4. We would regularly publish gender statistics based on our funding information.

5. In the professional development area we set a target of 50% for women filmmakers (which we have achieved in feature and short films).

Our three new planks are:

6. We will encourage recipients of devolved funding to fund half of their projects with women writers and directors. And track and publish their success rates.

7. The NZFC itself will set an annual goal of 50% female funding for EDF (counted across attached writer, directors and producers) to be achieved by 2020.

8. The NZFC will measure female director participation in feature film investment offers on both an annual and a three-year rolling average. By the end of 2021/2022 we will aim to have 50% participation. This would mean achieving an average of 50 percent from 2019/2020.

While we are happy to take the lead in this area, it's important to emphasise that the responsibility doesn't only rest with the NZFC but with the Guilds and each of you.

Reflecting on the Treaty of Waitangi - we are well underway with a Māori strategy, which we will present to the Board in December.

We have recently held four Hui throughout the country, and we have a final one on October 8 as part of the Ngā Aho Whakaari Hui.

We're looking at a mission, a kaupapa and some strategies around:

  • capacity
  • representation, and
  • consultation

The NZFC Board will consider the strategy and associated initiatives at our December Board meeting. If they agree, we hope the initiatives will be implemented immediately.

Those of you living in Auckland may also be aware we are working hard to improve contact with our Asian communities and with millennials through the work of Nick Garrett and Raymond Suen who are part of our five strong Auckland office.

I want to touch now on something that you will perhaps be less aware of.

Because of my background, I have a reasonable personal knowledge of the work that has been done by our predecessors, some of whom I mentioned earlier in my speech, and of the films they made.

One of the first decisions I made at the NZFC, with the support of the Board, was to close down the sales agency. I won't canvass the reasons today, except to say that the sales agency was perceived to be an idea that had outlived its time. However, the actual closing down was not as simple as that earlier sentence implied.

For the last three and a half years we have been engaged in moving many of the films to a new entity called Te Ahi Kā, whereby the NZFC acts somewhat like a cross between a library and a rights manger on behalf of the owners of the films.

Some of these films will not generate great income. Whereas others will, and they have been placed with Hanway Select who now represents them to the international market. Some producers have chosen to take their films and place them with third party sales agents, and we are supportive of producers who want to do this.

And with recently produced films being placed with sales agents, we have offered Te Ahi Kā as an ultimate home, when the license period with their offshore sales agent ends in say ten or fifteen years.

Te Ahi Kā literally means the home fire, and having this library concept to help protect and enhance the heritage of the films for producers, we believe is a positive step. Medium term we plan to group these films for cultural festivals and events overseas. For example - “books to films”, “female directors” and “cult classics”.

While we accept that this is not commercially profitable for us, or you the filmmakers, all of these films are part of our heritage and deserve to be seen.

Te Ahi Kā doesn't own the films. As I said before, it's more like a library. ln theory it looks after the way older films are made available to audiences. But what we have become aware of as we try to deal with the original rights holders is that there are some real difficulties:

  • Rights holders moving overseas or hard to trace
  • Lack of paper trails
  • Production companies closed down
  • Rights holders have died and the rights are diluted through inheritance
  • Or there isn't even a will

And if we want to present Te Ahi Kā as that library of New Zealand films we need permission from, and to be able to talk to, the rights holder or their representative.

Separately from the NZFC and Te Ahi Kā we came to realise that older filmmakers might like to feel there was a place that would look after the underlying legal rights - the Taonga of their films. On or just before their death, they could leave their films to say, an industry trust and ask the trust to manage the underlying rights on behalf of their estate.

Fortuitously, at the same time we became aware that the NZ Film Fund had been considering how best it could deal with - or augment - its role as a stakeholder in the films in which it invested in.

Some of you may remember The New Zealand Film Fund, which was established in June 2000. It was an initiative of the Labour Government and formed part of its Art Recovery Package.

Its purpose and functions were much the same as those of the New Zealand Film Commission, but it was intended to have more of a commercial remit, investing in larger-budget New Zealand Films with second or third time feature directors - films such as The World’s Fastest Indian. The Fund made investments in ten films, the last being The Dead Lands in 2013.

The Film Fund has now effectively run its course.  It still has equity rights in respect of all but one of the films it invested in, and there are still occasional returns from some of those nine films.

What if the Film Fund was renamed and repurposed as The New Zealand Film Heritage Trust – Te Puna Ataata?

It could continue to hold its existing investments in its nine films, but it could accept outright ownership of rights for other film owners wishing to transfer them into its care. 

Or it could manage films on behalf of the owners, accounting to them for income, on an agreed basis, where film owners don’t wish to fully transfer ownership of their films to the trust.

The New Zealand Film Heritage Trust will be publicly launched in November. The Trust is managed by a Board of five Trustees including two members of the film industry, initially Whetu Fala and John Barnett, two independent Trustees and one Trustee who is a NZFC representative. The Film Fund’s Chair will be Sir David Gascoigne.

Te Puna Ataata is working closely with Te Ahi Kā, concentrating initially on very old films. At the launch in November, the Trust intends to announce some significant films and collections that have already, or will soon, come into its care.

I should stress that neither Te Puna Ataata nor Te Ahi Kā will physically store or look after films. Their concern is with the films being seen and the intellectual property and Taonga of the films.

The Trust may well join the NZFC in funding the digitisation of films in its care and in ensuring films are stored well, and we expect the partnership between the Trust, the NZFC and Ngā Taonga as the physical archivist of the master negative to be positive.

For example, with one of my early films The Silent One, the master negatives are held at Ngā Taonga. The film is one of around 80 shorts and features digitised as part of the Te Ahi Kā process.  Te Ahi Kā will look after screening and distribution opportunities and Te Puna Ataata will look after the intellectual property management.

It may seem to you that I have spent a disproportionate amount of my speech time on the care and preservation of old films, and the emphasis is intentional.

We didn't make many films in the old days, but the situation surrounding many of those films in terms of rights, ownership and physical care has not been ideal. We need to sort it out.

And, equally importantly, we need to have systems and processes in place now for the films you are making today and tomorrow. Because as I said earlier, you are making way more films now, and what happens to the films you are making today will matter to you in 40 years' time.

It is not enough, as I said earlier in my speech, to just acknowledge our ancestors.  We must take steps to ensure that their and your films will not fade or dissolve.

In ten days' time, we are opening a screening room, in the Wellington offices of the NZFC, called the Hayward Cinema.

This is available for us to watch your rushes and films in a proper environment, and for filmmakers and overseas festival programmers to use.

Turning now to today’s films.

Can they be better? As a generalisation films can always be better, and we should always be trying to make them better.

As I think I said last year, Hunt for the Wilderpeople wasn't good by accident. One of the main reasons was the people involved set a high bar, and kept working on the film to reach the bar.

I’d like to share now a few apparently random observations from being on the other side of things and round the edges of around 60 films over the last few years:

Aim Higher. Don't accept second best.

Make sure everyone is making the same film. This sounds so basic, but in the last couple of years I have seen several examples where the key triangle of writer, director and producer have different visions for the type of film they are making, and who will watch it where.

There’s a price that a film should cost. And it's not always what the budget says.
Sometimes the market just doesn't see the value as being the same as you do and it will be incredibly hard to finance it.
And I've seen a few good scripts not get made because even after the NZFC commits its maximum amount, the producer can't raise the balance.

And sometimes the budget could be higher because if you get some name cast or get really good music you might really enhance your market opportunities.

I don't think many people are thinking about these things and I urge you to do so. The price of a film should not just be the result of the script and the schedule and the budget. The price can sometimes be something that you work towards, because you know what the film should cost.

In Australia at the moment there are a number of films being made at around $6 to $8 million dollars that are just not getting audiences or making sales. And there's a sense that the high level of government support with Screen Australia and the incentives for these particular films is unsustainable.

One of the reasons we have introduced the phrase for the New Zealand Incentives “the level of the grant should be commensurate with the size of the audience” is to avoid this potential problem.

Don't lose focus. There's a critical time in the last couple of months before the shoot that is underestimated, if a film is having trouble with finance or casting and the close is delayed. The producer can then be distracted at a time when a lot of key creative decisions are being made.

Never underestimate the complexity of the contracting involved in closing a film. We recently had an experienced producer tell us, they could be shooting two weeks after our board decision. That will not happen.

If necessary, consider involving an Executive Producer to help (in spite of what I said last year about too many producers on films).

Embrace feedback. Be it from test audiences or colleagues. And don't take it personally - I've only seen one film get worse as a result of feedback. Sure, keep your vision, but shoot the script and cut the film.

Producer/Director Respect. I've been pretty disappointed in a lot of the producer/director relationships I've seen in the last few years. Mostly there's either not enough respect between them, or too much.

Good open honest relationships where each respects the skills and strengths of the other have been rare.

Directors occasionally don't realise there's a better film in the footage they shot than the one they set out to make years before and don't allow their editors to experiment and play.

Overall I feel there's a real lack of understanding of people's roles. Some of this is coming from films schools around the country where, for example, the role of producer seems to be described more like a production manager. Producers themselves are generally under-capitalised, not strategic enough, survive from fees on a project-by-project basis and are a, with few exceptions, unable to develop any real slate or company scale. We are still predominantly a cottage industry.

Yet right now, given the strength of our brand, it feels like the ideal time to make that step up as an industry.

We've been trying to help with the A to Z course in terms of up-skilling producers and other Guilds like SPADA and the Directors Guild and WIFT are involved in these attempts to up-skill practioners as well.

On the question of Guilds - I've been a bit surprised at the difference between them. A couple are proactive in terms of reaching out to members and running things, and a couple are somewhat less active. And my observation is that the cooperation between Guilds has generally been average.

I was pleased to hear there was a Guild event yesterday and I look forward to the event on Monday where 20 industry organizations will spend the day together, but it's interesting that it's being largely coordinated by an individual, not SINZ - an organisation set up to create a Guild voice - but largely invisible and unheard.

Generally, in situations where groups of people have worked together, there's been success. For example, Kumeu Studios, which is a partnership between Universal, ATEED, the NZFC and a private developer.

It's interesting how we accept that filmmaking is a group activity, but outside of the actual making of the films we don't seem to cooperate all that much.

Which brings me to how we tell our story about us and how successful we are to the general public and the politicians

Earlier this year, the government put up $350 million dollars for the screen Incentives for international and domestic film and TV production. This didn't just happen.
There were some intense discussions and some horse-trading.

Subsequently, I believe there was some pressures at the cabinet table as to the perceived value of this spend, and so the two relevant Ministers brought forward an evaluation they had planned for next year, to this year. And that's happening now.

The NZFC is not running that evaluation. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage are running it.

But separately with some other partners we have been working on our own evaluation - an ongoing robust piece of work around the economic and cultural value of government support for screen, because we've never had a solid ongoing piece of work like this.

The industry has a history of lurching from crisis to crisis - when things aren't so good we grizzle and commission a quickly put together and expensive piece of work and we do some lobbying. So far this approach has worked but it's meant periods of instability.

The last few years have been relatively stable and prosperous, but we could find ourselves back in 2013, even the late 80’s or the late 70’s.

We have to make and screen great films that connect with audiences - that's a bottom line- but we also need to get better at telling the story of how successful the industry is and why it's so important culturally and economically.

We are doing our part at the NZFC. We will publish in October the economic and audience information piece, I mentioned earlier, that we believe will tell a good part of that story. Then we are committed to spending money each year to add to this piece of work and update it so that at any stage in the future, at the drop of a hat, we can produce an up-to-date piece of work to make the case for continued Government support.

This isn't easy, especially around the cultural value of films. In the piece of work we will publish in a few weeks, we will use a form of economic modeling, which will look at what would happen if the Screen Incentives were removed. I think it tells a compelling story and will be helpful in Wellington.

But, ironically, the cultural arguments are harder to elucidate in a contemporary way, so we are commissioning a new piece of work in that specific area.

But this story telling doesn't just belong to the Film Commission. We were successful early this year, but Governments and Ministers can change, and they need to hear more than one voice.

Advocacy. I really think if there's one question that I'd like you to ask yourself, it's this:

If I've received either directly or indirectly some money that comes from the tax payer via the Government, have I spent time giving back in some way, or investing in the future of the Industry? Am I an active member of a Guild? Do I talk at training events? Do I positively advocate for this industry on a regular basis?

Or do I just take the money and think it will keep coming because the Government loves us more than hip-operations or child poverty?

I acknowledge that keeping the money flowing is one of the Film Commission’s key jobs - from the government, from platforms and distributors, and from private investors. But we are all in this together, and we need to work together.

Much of what you know as the industry today, exists because of the work of the baby boomers - much maligned in the recent elections - the people to whom you will shortly be paying pensions.

As well as making some fantastic early films and TV shows, most of the baby boomers were politically active. They were part of the group that lobbied for the setting up of the NZFC; for NZOA to give money directly to producers and to get backend income.

They took the Australian Government to court with Project Blue Sky and won access for our television shows (a reason that 800 Words can be made here and be substantially paid for by Channel 7). They lobbied for the Incentives, set up by a Labour Government and then extended by a National Government.

We owe a lot of what we have to people I mentioned earlier and to people still alive like John Barnett, Ian Mune, Gaylene Preston, Roger Donaldson, Vincent Burke, and many more like John Reid and Arthur Baysting who gave speeches, appeared on TV and trudged up to parliament to lobby.

I’m not getting at you if you're a millennial.  To be honest I don't think we've reached out and encouraged you enough to be part of our industry. Our anecdotal research tells us that most millennials hardly know the mainstream industry and the Film Commission exists, let alone feel a part of it. It's early days for you.

But Generation X - my big challenge today is to you. You're making great films and content, however I’m not sure that enough of you have stepped up politically.

Get involved. All of us are part of an industry that on the one hand is mature, yet is looking at disruption.

On the one hand, has economic credentials yet receives significant government assistance.

On the one hand, tells fantastic cultural stories like Wilderpeople to audiences, but on the other hand can't articulate consistently why it should receive the financial assistance that it needs to do so.

If I'm making you a little defensive and annoyed, then I’m not sorry.

As the number of screens grows, as the number of people working in the industry grows, as disruption continues, there's a real risk that we are not a cohesive group of content makers. That we will become increasingly isolated from each other.

One of the reasons I mentioned the Screen Safe initiative earlier was because I went to some meetings around the country where filmmakers gathered together for a common purpose, and achieved a result.

We need to do that more, and we need to do it as an industry.

As I did three years ago in my first speech to you, I urge you to contribute to this industry, I urge you to belong to a Guild, and I urge the Guilds to work together on two main areas - the shape of the industry as it confronts opportunities and issues around platforms and monetisation; and telling its cultural and economic story to Government and taxpayers as part of keeping and growing their support.

I have enjoyed my four years as the CEO of the New Zealand Film Commission. I'd like to thank 95% of you for your support. And 5% of you for energizing me.

To the staff you have been fantastic. Kia Ora. Please come forward so people know who to talk to, over the next day and a half.

And thanks to the Board - the Board who hired me and the now completely different new Board. Thank you Dame Patsy and Chairperson Kerry Prendergast.

The new CEO will be announced by the Board in a few weeks.

I look forward to meeting with them and passing the baton marked “change and challenge”.

But my wero is also to you – Step Up.

Together we have all made some real changes in the last few years. You have made some great films. But there are challenges around our cohesion and how we present ourselves. Please Step up.

In a slight variation of a Jewish saying: “It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither may we refrain from continuing it.”

Nāku te rourou, nau te rourou ka ora ai te iwi
With your food basket and my food basket, the people will thrive."

Last updated: 
Thursday, 5 October 2017