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I’ve been around on this planet for quite a while now and I’ve never experienced a crazier time.

Uncertainty seems to be the biggest challenge, at a personal, work and global level, whether it’s war, climate change, the future of the New Zealand screen industry, or just being able to connect with family and friends in person.

I have a hobby that keeps me sane, allows me to put worries aside and just focus on something that both fully occupies my mind and gives me joy… for a while.

There is one thing that seems pretty certain though, and that is that we are going to be living with COVID. Numerous friends and colleagues have come down with it. I fortunately have not so far. Nor has anybody else at the Guild.

After a long period of online engagement, we are shifting our strategy around workshops, just as the Government is also changing the boundaries around events and gatherings. We’ll be holding them more regularly in person. We’ll use RAT tests as one means to help minimise spread, and stay abreast of COVID developments so that we can readjust rapidly again if necessary.

The NZFC is also looking to re-engage with the world in a shift to a new normal. They will people an office at the Cannes Film Festival and Market this May following a three-year ban on international travel. As well, NZFC CEO David Strong and some staff will take a marketing mission to LA shortly to leverage off the success of Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog, seeking to attract more international production to New Zealand.

The attractiveness of New Zealand to international productions relies in large part on the New Zealand Screen Production Grant incentive. And that incentive along with all other Government investment in the screen sector is up for review as I wrote about last newsletter. Please speak up when the times comes, so that Government hears your views.

Both international and domestic productions in New Zealand are now accustomed to living with COVID. Testing, crew replacement for illness, temporary shutdowns and other adaptive measures are all part of screen production life here. Thankfully, a new round of screen production recovery funding from MCH has become available, so that many NZ productions have a fallback or financial guarantee for production to go ahead—that nagging uncertainty at least for a time, in abeyance.

Many other things on our plate at the Guild remain in various states of flux, however. The interminable delay of the Copyright Act Review continues. The on-again off-again nature of the Screen Industry Workers Bill is… on-again for present. The Reform of Vocational Education on the industry side has slowed down while Toi Mai, the new Workforce Development Council whose responsibility includes the screen sector, finds its feet.

One thing we can be sure of, though, the TVNZ – RNZ merger will go ahead… maybe.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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Go back fifteen years and it was pretty easy to figure out what success was for screen content. For the small screen it was the Nielsen ratings. For the big screen it was the box office. The show that knocked it out of the ratings park or the film that pulled significant box office clearly indicated it had found a lot of eyeballs. These measures only account though in essence for popularity.

What about the Māori news or information programme on a Sunday morning that Māori loved? Or the arthouse feature that had its world premiere at the A-list festival in Berlin and then did well at the A and B-list festival circuit but only did $250k at the NZ box office. This content reached its intended audiences, but they were niche not broad.

We all recognised this, though. Figure out your audience, broad or niche, and target your content at them. Even for niche audiences, you could still learn whether or not you were successful.

Nowadays, however, in a fragmented market, it’s not so easy to identify what success really is.

A series intended for Free-to-Air that doesn’t rate could find a much bigger audience when it’s moved to On-Demand. A film that does average box office in New Zealand could end up selling or being licensed to a global streamer and potentially be seen by millions more people than was ever thought possible.

The old indicators still work, but it’s simplistic to use them as the only measures of success, especially when popularity is the only yardstick being championed.

The digital world of content distribution has changed the paradigm and complicated how to measure real success, especially when those who control the means of distribution. Netflix, for example, rarely reveal what the very accurate data they alone have access to indicates about audience specifics.

To define a new measurement for screen content success, New Zealand company Parrot Analytics developed a 360 measurement system to take into account multiple points of digital activity around the world. This system is used by, amongst others, TVNZ, CBS, Disney, Sky, and WarnerMedia. Without the data from the content platforms available, this would seem a very valuable service. Perhaps something NZ On Air might want to consider to support their funding decisions if they don’t already utilise it.

But film sits in a very difficult position amongst this digital measurement system. The shared theatrical experience is considered first and foremost for film, unless you are making a telefeature. Filmmakers want their films to go on the big screen before they find their way to the small. Look at the ructions Warner Bros. created when they decided to send their entire 2021 slate straight to HBO Max at the same time as the theatrical release.

Even with the NZFC playing in the series drama space, NZ film is very much its raison d’etre. But the audience for New Zealand film just isn’t there like it used to be. The writing was on the wall before COVID arrived.

NZ film has had a tropical vacation in theatres while Hollywood has been on hold due to COVID, but winter is coming with the onslaught of backed up blockbusters about to hit us.

Amongst all the other changes needed at NZFC right now, defining success for NZ film is another thing that needs to go on the agenda. A paradigm shift in thinking is required because we can’t rely solely on box office numbers any more. Even more so because film is both art and business. There has to be room for both.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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Scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday to catch up on industry news, a Stuff article caught my eye. “Can Aotearoa make the screen the next primary industry?” the hook headline blared.

Diving into the article, I read that SIGANZ President Brendon Durey believes the “constrained” rebate doesn’t go far enough (the rebate offered to international productions shooting here) as other countries like the United Kingdom and Canada offer higher amounts. A white paper put together by educational outfits YooBee College of Design and UP Education calls for more Government money and resources to go into creativity education. And new Wellington outfit The Granary gets its marketing video promoting the use of LED technology backdrops showcased. Multiple handclaps to all three for getting their PR into Stuff.

My hat does go off to the educational outfits and The Granary, though, because they both promote the idea of local IP creation, with YouBee and Up giving a big plug to the possibilities with local stories and within the New Zealand gaming sector, while The Granary seeks to give Kiwi content creators a way to bring Hollywood tech pizazz to local production in an affordable manner.

One of the key reasons Aotearoa has a massive opportunity on its doorstep, journalist Andre Chumko tells us in the article, is that our sector “struggles to keep up with an unprecedented glut of production born from the Covid-19 pandemic.” I would suggest, however, that that glut isn’t going to continue unabated.

As the whole sector was wrestling during our first lock down with how to get back into production, I was having calls with the Directors Guild of America about what we were doing. NZ’s Screensafe COVID protocols were written up and out while the US guilds were still wondering what to do. Although slow to get their protocols in place, American production has for some time now been operating both domestically and internationally amidst the pandemic with strict guidelines that are keeping on-set infections low. Now, with the vaccine rolling out, the sleeping U.S. behemoth of backlogged productions and a year of new shows developed by showrunners and writers locked up in their homes is going to start hitting.

Will Aotearoa get a slice of that pie? Undoubtedly. As will Australia, which is seen as just as safe as New Zealand by Americans, but with more crew, facilities, and perhaps most importantly, onscreen talent that can pull international financing and audiences. Canada, Eastern Europe, and other countries will also benefit as the American juggernaut gets rolling.

The idea that we are going to be awash in streamer and other international production until the Apocalypse, however, is a little far-fetched in my view. A lot of American production will again take place in the U.S. and Canada, just like it always has. A strategic approach and well managed tactical implementation will I believe see New Zealand continue to benefit long term from production coming in from overseas. But the real opportunity I maintain lays in “constrained” local IP generation, and not just with identifiably Kiwi content.

Putting our culture on screen is vitally important, and we must continue to do so. Māori content cuts through in the global marketplace. Indisputable. But it’s the lack of investment in our screen content that is constraining us, whether it’s identifiably New Zealand or not.

NZ On Air, TMP and NZFC are still essentially operating on the same levels of funding they were receiving 10 years ago. COVID funding, though, has shone a spotlight on local IP.

Depending on which whisper you listen to, there were somewhere between 50 and 150 applications for the one-off $50 million Premium Fund. That’s a lot of local IP vying for, in the greater scheme of things, not a lot of money. There would definitely have been more than one pie-in-the-sky idea thrown in with no chance of success. But even if only 10 per cent of the proposals met a key criteria of being high-quality productions that tell New Zealand stories for global audiences at a scale and ambition not previously possible, that’s a clear indication of how much viable, untapped IP is out there.

Our local screen industry needs more investment to take advantage of global content opportunities:

  • More annual funding for NZ On Air, TMP and NZFC
  • An annual Premium Fund
  • More support for New Zealand’s gaming sector

A massively stimulated local industry will provide more than enough employment for current and future crew, and work for suppliers, with the added benefit of generating export dollars and actually creating and retaining IP here. International serviced production will then become a nice-to-have rather than a must-have for the New Zealand screen industry to survive and prosper.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

 

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With the vaccine within sight and just when we thought all we had to worry about was who was going to win the America’s Cup… here we go again.

It’s only through the news, our friends and other sources do we comprehend the horror of what COVID has perpetrated on many parts of the world. Our experience has been minor in comparison. The low numbers of check-ins using the COVID app has highlighted the nonchalance with which many Kiwis have treated the threat. And now here it is amongst us once more.

Fortunately, many productions schooled through our last lockdowns have maintained their vigilance and practices. A visit to Amazon’s Lord of the Rings studio locations highlighted that. Screensafe’s and SIGANZ’s considerable effort, with all the guilds and associations pitching in, means we have the resources and now the experience to provide the safest environment possible for production amidst a pandemic. Let’s hope we don’t have to rely on these for too long.

The fund NZFC and NZ On Air operates for COVID-hit productions has already been used by a large number of projects. How much money is still available has suddenly become a pressing issue. As will the availability of more if we are faced with a longer time in lockdown.

We got away almost unscathed from the Pullman outbreak. This looks much more serious with the UK variant of the virus confirmed in the community cases.

In the meantime, DEGNZ will continue to operate as we did through Levels 2, 3, and 4. We are all working from home, so office hours are essentially the same as usual. Once more we have to adjust our events to cope with the situation. We will be communicating with you about any workshop or event that was already on our calendar and that may be affected.

As always, the guild will be available to our director and editor members with advice or assistance, so do not hesitate to reach out. Hopefully, we will not have to take on a bigger picture role because of a prolonged lockdown period—having done a lot of work already, the screen sector is in a lot better shape than it was the first time around.

As I sit in front of my computer at home listening to the rain falling on a vege garden and property that welcomes it with open arms, and another sunny weekend just gone, I sincerely wish that all is over by midnight Wednesday. I will then be able to look forward to the coming weekend, which will hopefully deliver good surf so that I can try out my new surfboard lying untested in its bag in the carport.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

 

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With the Big Screen Symposium about to kick off tomorrow, it’s yet another recent event at which to be thankful for, for our Government’s response to COVID. We can gather in big numbers will little concern for the spread of the virus, while in many other places around the world the statistics of COVID sickness and death are horrific. I was extremely pleased to hear yesterday that our Trans-Tasman cousins can now travel interstate, relatively freely.

 

And talking of our Aussie cousins, we have a new head at the Australian Directors’ Guild in Alaric McCausland. Alaric has a screen executive background in Australia and internationally, bringing a slightly different focus over his last two predecessors. As always, DEGNZ seeks a strong relationship with the ADG, with my first call with Alaric cordial, informative and supportive.

 

NZFC, NZ On Air and TMP obviously got more feedback than they bargained for in regard to the Premium Productions for International Audiences Fund. They are now late in getting the final criteria out—perhaps they will show at BSS. I have to imagine the number of applications to the fund is going to be as voluminous as the feedback was.

 

I heard yesterday that TV3 is now officially in the hands of Discovery. A Stuff article here. Being run as an Australasian service, it will be interesting to see what opportunities come for local content makers in the trans-Tasman tie, with Discovery’s global network and the planned launch of a streaming service here making for exciting possibilities.

 

Over at Sky they’ve got a new CEO in Sophie Moloney. Martin Stewart wears the blood splashes of his restructuring as he heads back to the UK, and Moloney offers an experienced, friendly, female and kotahitanga approach as she takes Sky forward. Unity is certainly needed in an organisation reeling from job losses.

 

TVNZ’s GM Local Content Nevak Rogers came with Drama and Scripted Comedy Commissioner Steve Barr to talk to our Emerging Women Filmmakers participants at their fifth and final workshop. Nevak was pleased to tell me that TVNZ is now spending around $100 million on local content, which is besting the highest spend during the Charter years at TVNZ. For those not old enough to know what the charter was, this from Wikipedia:

 

The Labour Government introduced a “TVNZ Charter” in 2002. This was a list of objectives for TVNZ which specified it must broadcast a wide variety of New Zealand-made content; the broadcaster was given public responsibility to provide news, drama, documentaries and “promote understanding of the diversity of cultures”. In 2008 the Government announced that the broadcaster was to become “more public-service” like. TVNZ responded by launching two commercial free channels; TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7. By 2011 Prime Minister John Key announced the closure of these channels. 6 in 2011, and 7 in mid-2012, with much of their content put into TVNZ Heartland and TVNZ Kidzone24 which are only available behind a Sky TV paywall. The National Government abolished the Charter in 2011. Political opponents accused the Government of reducing TVNZ’s commitments as a public broadcaster.

 

Just this week at the NZ On Air end-of-year function, Broadcasting Minister Chris Faafoi reaffirmed his commitment to public broadcasting via a video address. Back in October, Faafoi announced that the TVNZ – RNZ merger discussion was back on the table. The partially completed and partially redacted PWC consultant’s report released in September, however, didn’t outline the benefits of combining the broadcasters into a single entity or state how TVNZ or RNZ’s services would change if the proposal was approved. Just what is going to happen and when seems entirely open to discussion. Dealing with COVID and its impacts provides wonderful cover for doing nothing for quite a while yet. Let’s hope something good comes of it sooner.

 

Finally, the DEGNZ Workflow Best Practice Guide, driven by board member and  long-time, drama and documentary editor Annie Collins, continues to win rave reviews. If you want to save your production time and money and yourself stress, become very familiar with the content, available on our website here.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director