A forty-five-second short horror film, garnering 16 million views online, propelled me into a dream I didn’t know I desired.

Life is a game of random chances. You put in the work and hope the universe aligns. For me, the creative professions were distant stars in the constellation of ‘What you could be when you grew up.’ For good reason. My parents grew up in extreme poverty. There were days when my father’s dinner consisted of just two mouthfuls of food. My mother studied under the light of a kerosene lamp. Surviving life in the thick political humidity of Malaysia, they rose above it all and won national scholarships that turned them into local beacons of hope, elevating their lives to the middle class. This was what made me resist committing to filmmaking for the longest time.

My first memory of watching a movie is time-stamped between the ages of two and five. Perched on my dad’s lap, tightly shutting my eyes and covering my ears in an attempt to shield myself from witnessing the eerie metamorphosis of a man to a werewolf.

My life was filled with any movies I could get my hands on: Hong Kong movies, Bollywood movies, Hollywood movies – I was agnostic. It didn’t matter whether it was good or bad; it was my escape from the stifling Malaysian life. I wondered about my sliding door moment if I never came to New Zealand. Because New Zealand is my enabler.

Hweiling directing on the set of ‘Vaspy’ / Photo: supplied

When Ant Timpson ran a competition for his ABCs of Death anthology. Our team, consisting of Peter Haynes, Johnathan Guest, and Nick Burridge, entered with T is for Talk, a horror concept that I came up with. This was my creative awakening. For the first time, I experienced what it was like to see something my brain cooked up translated to screen. And it was watched, ripped, re-uploaded by others. I believe the true viewership count is in the millions.

From this short film, three things happened almost simultaneously: we received Skip Ahead funding; CryptTV, a digital studio, reached out looking for short horror bites in under a minute; and I received the New Zealand Film Commission’s one-off Women’s Short Horror Film Fund.

We pitched ten ideas to CryptTV, and they selected the two I came up with. I knew nothing about directing and insisted that I needed to direct at least one of the short films we pitched to CryptTV. The Tattooist climbed to 16 million views within the first year.

Hweiling directing on the set of ‘Vaspy’ / Photo: supplied

Being a migrant in this country is challenging. Social nuances are different. I was still looking for my tribe. I had gotten so used to being on the outside. This is where I met my second enabler. A chance meeting with Mia Maramara, where she made me giggle about eyeballs floating in fish guts; we would cook up ideas and enable each other, propelling us into various places. We shared many values. Along the way, we combined forces with the amazing Morgan Leigh Stewart and created MHM Productions with a shared vision to work on genre films and collaborate with cool people.

Homebound 3.0 was another random chance encounter. When NZ On Air called for Asian Pacific web series, I rallied everyone I knew to apply. I had just come off directing Sam Wang in a play and he pitched his idea to me and I immediately saw its potential. It didn’t get into that initiative, but it won the SPADA big pitch 2019 and caught the attention of Kevin and Co. Empowered by friends, I asked to direct a couple of episodes, and thankfully, the team said yes.

Hweiling directing on ‘Vivie’, her latest short film selected to premiere at SXSW Sydney / Photo: supplied

Since then, I have been phenomenally grateful for all the opportunities that have come my way. With the support of the New Zealand Film Commission, I was able to direct and write my short films Vaspy (horror), ChengBeng (Unreal), and Vivie (Kopere Hou). I co-wrote and co-produced Albularyo with the MHM team, which was part of Beyond the Veil on TVNZ. I received the New Zealand Writers Guild Seed Grant and co-wrote the feature horror Grafted with Mia Maramara, set to release later this year. Additionally, I received another Seed Grant for a feature comedy about a nihilistic Asian grandmother.

 My advice to cut through the noise? Utilise the free online soapbox to your advantage. Popularity and external validation literally count. You will be asked what your voice is. And I challenge you to look for the uncomfortable truth within yourself, the one that makes you feel vulnerable. That is likely your authentic voice that people want to hear and see. And then ensure you are supported by a team of people (definitely do a background check no matter what their credits are – hahaha) who will care for that heart as you journey through baring your soul naked to the world.


About Hweiling Ow

Upon arriving in New Zealand, Hweiling Ow was bitten by a radioactive Weta that made her fall stupendously in love with film-making. She has since developed muti-hyphenated skills in the areas of producing, writing, directing and acting, and has been taking the world by storm with her online digital series and short horror films that have garnered millions of views. She has also successfully received New Zealand funding for numerous local productions. Like a moth drawn to a flame thrower, she is attracted to telling genre stories with a migrant twist. Her quirky cheery view of the world influences the type of projects she is captivated by. She is the recipient of the 2020 WIFT Women to Watch and participated in DEGANZ’s Women’s Filmmaker Incubator in 2021. She is currently one-third of MHM, a collaborative production company between her and fellow creatives Mia Maramara and Morgan Leigh Stewart.

How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out. Get in touch with admin@deganz.co.nz if you’re a member and would like to share your story.

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I watched Loren Taylor’s directorial debut The Moon Is Upside Down the other night. For me, it’s a well-crafted film with quirky characters, very smart dialogue (both scripted and improvised), and comedy and depth in abundance, woven into an intriguing story.

It was a 125 film, being a film financed at $1.25 million through an initiative for female filmmakers instigated by former NZFC CEO Annabelle Sheehan, and funded as part of an initiative to celebrate New Zealand’s 125 years of universal suffrage.

This kind of film is extremely difficult to get financed these days. There are no A-list stars although Jemaine Clement, Rachel House, and now Robyn Malcolm who appear in the film amongst other stellar cast have excellent international profiles.

It’s a quintessentially Kiwi film with a very European sensibility—understandable when Loren cites Before the Rain by Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski and German director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann amongst her inspirations.  It’s no wonder then that Moon was selected for the highly regarded Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia, where Loren won Best First Feature. But it wasn’t easy getting it produced.

One of the things that allowed the film to be made according to producer Philippa Campbell, who was in the Q & A after the screening, was that Moon didn’t have the typical NZFC requirement on it to have an international sales agent who was putting up some funding through a minimum guarantee.

Finding a sales agent willing to put up money today for a New Zealand film is a difficult thing to do. They don’t want drama unless you’ve got A-List international stars. And even then it can be tough. But they do want genre. Or something like a name director or an indigenous story, preferably with genre elements, that elevates the film above the myriad out there clamouring for funding. The international market is exceedingly tough for indie films, and all NZ films are considered indie, no matter the genre.

Moon is a genre film in that it’s categorised a comedy on IMDB, although it’s a comedy drama in my view as it’s a comedy with heart and soul, more akin to an art house film than something like the slapstick Cocaine Bear. And it’s in art-house film where NZ has excelled in the past, whether it’s Christine Jeff’s Rain, our last film to get into Cannes, or the high hopes held for the recent New Zealand – Australia coproduction Went Up The Hill, directed by ex-pat Kiwi Samuel Van Grinsven, which has been positioned as a horror/thriller with seemingly arthouse smackings. We have in the past, and do now, though, have genre chops, too.

NZFC CEO Annie Murray has praised Went Up The Hill as a film deserving of NZFC investment. She has said that NZFC won’t look just at box office potential when deciding to fund films—films with A-list festival potential are also worthy of NZFC funding. She’s also told us that market interest, being distributors and sales agents (and maybe streamers) who are willing to put up money because of potential commercial returns will have a key role in deciding which films get funded. And she’s highlighted the importance of audience eyeballs on our films. There’s a seeming dichotomy here, so I look forward to the funding model being revealed that allows for a breadth of New Zealand screen storytelling that can generate critical acclaim, box office success, or both.

In the meantime, I’ll relish the experience of having watched The Moon Is Upside Down, because it tells me at least that New Zealand film is alive and well.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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With the Youth-focused funding announced yesterday by NZ On Air, and the joint announcement of Scripted funding by NZ On Air and Te Māngai Pāho to a combined total of over $15 million dollars, there was an audible sigh of relief heard on the bleak New Zealand media landscape.

This is an injection of revenue into our domestic production base that will deliver more work to New Zealand businesses and screen workers, amidst a lowering in production funding from two of our three main funding bodies being NZ On Air and NZFC, while TMP’s funding for the moment remains unchanged.

I wanted to focus in on the Youth-focused funding announcement as it’s a telling signal for a number of reasons.

NZ On Air in its press release said: “The Within My Reach call for proposals was a response to the 2022 Where Are the Youth Audiences research which showed a social media-first approach would be needed to reach 15-24 year old audiences.”

More simply and bluntly put, 15 – 24 year old audiences don’t watch NZ free to air broadcast any more. Every parent knows this.

I thought, however, that its more revealing to look at the funding slightly differently:

 Int’l PlatformsInt’l + NZ Platforms Funding
Scripted   
First Place, 5 x 12′YouTube, Facebook, InstagramThe Coconet TV, TVNZ+ $  970,000.00
Literally Dead, 8 x 8′YouTube $  526,990.00
Bloke Of The Apocalypse, 6 x 6′YouTube $  472,368.00
The Sender, 17 x 2′Instagram Reel, TikTok, YouTube $  375,000.00
Non-Fiction
The Regions, 5 x 7’YouTube, Instagram, Facebook,Re:, TVNZ+ $  505,115.00
Beyond The Beat, 5 x 8 – 12′, and 50 x 15 – 60”, 1 x music videoYouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook $  500,000.00
Pā Life, 5 x 10’YouTube, Facebook, InstagramTVNZ+ $  463,788.00
Kaputī With The Cuzzies, 10 x 20′YouTube $  194,311.00
Sight Unseen, 5 x 5-10’YouTube, TikTok, InstagramAble.co.nz $  186,767.00
What Sex Ed Didn’t Teach You, 15 x 90”YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and TikTokRe: $  178,550.00
The Gender AgendaYouTube$  395,115.00
d8talk, 230 x 1’Instagram Reels, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube $  149,386.00
 $2,613,170.00  $2,304,220.00

 

What this tells us is that International Platforms get $2.6 million in funded content from NZ On Air with no contribution to the funding as far as I can tell. In other words, free funded programming with NZ content hooks to wrap advertising around, to take advertising dollars away from NZ businesses like TVNZ. Not only that, they also get a bite of the pie going to the local platforms, too. More importantly for the international platforms, though, they still are not required to contribute to local NZ production via mechanisms like the previous government’s proposed Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill, a streamer levy, quota or such like, to make them ante up. At least a small sigh of relief from them, I’d think.

The other clear indicator here is that half the funding went to projects with no broadcast commitment. Free to air, yes, but via digital platforms.

Now you can’t blame NZ On Air for enabling the international platforms. They have a requirement to serve local eyeballs. With 18 – 24 year-old Kiwis not watching linear and getting most of their screen content from the international platforms, they have to go there—this in the hope that young Kiwis will discover and watch that NZ content amongst the global offerings. And that NZ content might find international eyeballs in sufficient numbers to stimulate a positive response.

Example: one of our member directors, Victoria Boult, created TikTok series Noob funded by a NZ On Air, Screen Australia AND TikTok initiative that she turned into a half-hour TV series, which she wrote and directed on. It’s in post now and will play out on Warner Bros. Discovery here.

From a $53,000 TikTok series to a $1.5 million local TV show is definitely a positive for all concerned.

We all know the game has changed in our business. Forever. There’s a new reality.

Global media entities now exert far greater influence on us than ever before. Significant government action is required NOW if we are to have even a small chance of surviving the onslaught. Should that happen, there would be a collective sigh of relief from us all… for awhile.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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The current fight to protect employee jobs going on at TVNZ by union E tū highlights the importance of unions in the New Zealand screen industry, and the importance of the Screen Industry Workers Act (SIWA) for screen contractors, who until SIWA came along in December 2023 had essentially no protections.

TVNZ is one of the few screen businesses to have a significant number of employees. Those employees have the protections of the Employment Relations Act. Screen contractors now have the protections of SIWA.

The employees at TVNZ who are journalists and media workers and members of E tū have a collective agreement.

We at DEGANZ together with the Writers Guild of New Zealand, Equity New Zealand and some other guilds, are currently seeking to put a collective agreement in place with the Screen Production and Development Association (SPADA).

With collective agreements in place, we will have negotiated minimum pay rates and terms and conditions for screen contractors that will provide some certainty for us all.

And with collective agreements, we will be able to fight much more effectively for our members when those negotiated agreements aren’t adhered to.

If you have been following the developments at TVNZ you are most likely aware that E tū is going to file a claim with the Employment Relations Authority against TVNZ. It’s the union’s view that the company did not follow its consultation requirements, as guaranteed for workers in their collective agreement.

The Employment Relations Authority is a Tribunal established under the Employment Relations Act. Members of the Authority help to resolve employment relationship problems.

Under SIWA, the Employment Relations Authority will also help to resolve contractor relationship problems, should a screen guild seek to file a claim against a producer or production company on behalf of one or more contractors who are members.

The employees at TVNZ have for decades helped create the news, current affairs shows, and other programmes much loved by New Zealand audiences. Following the news of yesterday, Sunday, and the Midday and Tonight Bulletins are gone, and Fair Go significantly reduced, with about 70 job losses.  Over at Warner Bros. Discovery, Newshub staff found out that just under 300 jobs will go there.

We all know that it’s not just news and current affairs programmes that will be affected.

SPADA in a press release yesterday that you can read here, estimates that up to $50 million is coming out of our sector and that there is uncertainty around big popular shows like Shortland Street, Celebrity Treasure Island, The Traitors NZ, Married at First Sight NZ, food shows, home shows, and more.

If ever there was a time for every screen worker in New Zealand to come together as members of their guilds and for us to negotiate collective agreements, it’s right now.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

 

When I started back in 1986 (my first official job was as Director’s assistant on ‘Starlight Hotel’) the only ‘filmmaking’ courses in NZ were a Masters in Broadcasting at the University of Auckland and a newly established Broadcasting school in Christchurch. So my only option was writing letters to film producers asking for jobs on productions. Even though I’d trained at Radio NZ as a studio operator, none of the producers or production managers were interested in my ‘sound engineering’ skills. But when I said I could type, they couldn’t hire me quickly enough.

I was obsessed with films – filmmakers, arthouse films, foreign films, the history of films etc. I went to the Film Society, and the festival was my yearly indulgence. I read the local industry trades so I knew the names of crew members and what they had all worked on. I look back now and realise I was a bit of a ‘trainspotter’, but knowing all this information meant I stood out as someone who really wanted to be in the industry. I continued to work in production for the next decade as a Producer’s Assistant, Director’s Assistant, Production Coordinator, Production Manager, 1st AD, and 2nd AD. But I also made short films of my own and was happiest when editing them. This was where the magic happened, where films were truly made. It was time to switch roles in the industry and learn how to edit.

At the time, TV3 allowed people to train for free in their newsroom (I don’t think it was official, it was a word-of-mouth thing – it would never fly today!!). You could cut news stories during the very quiet times of the day, and then when you felt confident or they felt confident in you, they could offer you a job. All this time, I was working as a waitress at night, and continued this for many years as I got my freelance career on track.

Cushla cutting ‘The Justice of Bunny King’ in Kauaeranga Valley, Thames.

I look back now and realise I was instinctively obsessed with story: how we told stories, why we told stories, how other cultures told stories, why some films moved me, and why others didn’t. I loved going to the movies and I LOVED being moved to tears, to joy. And that’s why editing is the best place for someone like me, as the editor is the conduit between the audience and the material the director brings to the edit room.

All these obsessions and developing skills came together one day when director/actor Harry Sinclair approached me to edit a TV series idea he had called Topless Women Talk About Their Lives. I’d never edited drama before (except my own short films) but we clicked. My instinct for storytelling made up for my lack of technical experience, and this TV series morphed into a feature film. Two years later I received an editing award for my work on that film, and this stroke of luck meant people saw me as an editor. 

My advice to anyone wanting to break into the NZ film industry is to use the tools at your fingertips to learn who is who, what they have done before, and be really clear about what kind of films you love and why. For editors, the key is to understand storytelling and the huge scope of how we can tell stories. For me, screen stories are constantly pushing the boundaries of how stories are told, and I include documentary when I talk about storytelling.

But also, I believe working in our industry is a privilege we have to earn, as all artists do. So it requires the right balance of ego and humility, madness and caution. There is nothing wrong with being passionate about what one does, but at the end of the day, we are just storytellers and part of a team, so we must prove we are team players as well.


About Cushla Dillon

Cushla Dillon has played key roles in the NZ film industry for several decades, most notably as an award-winning feature film editor of drama and documentary (The Justice of Bunny King 2020, The Price of Peace 2014, Pictures of Susan 2012), but also as a production manager, development manager, screenwriter, script editor and most recently as co-director and editor of the 2023 NZIFF festival sellout King Loser. She has been awarded Best NZ Film Editor on four occasions (Snakeskin 2001, Topless Women Talk About Their Lives 1991, Beautiful Machine 2012, Orphans & Kingdoms 2014) and nominated four times.

How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out. Get in touch with admin@deganz.co.nz if you’re a member and would like to share your story.