Thanks to the Doc Edge Festival, I was able to attend their opening night film The 7 Years of Lukas Graham, a story about Danish pop sensation Lukas Graham’s lead singer Lukas Forchhammer’s wrestle with fame. It got me thinking about the woeful state of documentary in New Zealand, something the guild identified at the 2019 NZ On Air Factual Summit in 2019 and sought to generate conversation about. COVID unfortunately disrupted our plans, but it’s back on our agenda.
One-off documentary internationally is in a strong place, although former Amazon Studios film head Ted Hope cautioned at the Danish doc fest, CPH:DOX, recently that the big players prefer documentary with mass appeal. Hope did go on to say however that with the proliferation of niche platforms catering to specialised audiences, there are greater opportunities for more distinct fare.
From Variety’s article:
One of the key things to recognize is the streamers’ need for a “targeted audience at a low price point,” [HOPE] stressed. “That’s basically the equation for efficiency. The most valuable type of audience member for a streamer is the new audience member. How do you attract new people to the platform? People that are not only passionate about something but have actually displayed their passion in a predictable way, are ripe precisely for that acquisition.”
Hope emphasized how different the business goals of streamers are from the world of exhibition. “It’s not profit and loss so much as customer acquisition. Drilling down to what that means I think reveals a lot.”
New Zealand documentary however is meant to target New Zealand audiences first, although with NZFC its international appeal is also taken into account when funding decisions are made.
In taking a look at the TV market for one-off documentary in New Zealand it’s pretty easy to see… there really isn’t one. NZ broadcasters on the whole aren’t interested in one-off documentary as they often tell us, although Māori Television does occasionally commission them.
Feature-length documentary suffers pretty much the same fate with the channels. While short form doco. has found its place with platforms and does attract NZ On Air funding, there’s nothing longer format for these documentary makers to go onto in TV, so they have to turn their heads to theatrical documentary features if they want to move to longer form.
Reviewing the latest figures/films available for NZFC-funded documentary feature for the NZSPG/SPIF* and non-NZSPG/SPIF documentary films back to 2015 provides some interesting insights.
Please note: The funding totals are for NZFC administered funds only and do not take into account ‘market money’—Distributor/Sales Agent MGs, private investment, broadcast/platform fees or other non-NZFC investment. The box office totals are for NZ only and do not take into account Australia or Rest of World revenues.
In these latest stats:
- NZSPG/SPIF films with higher budgets and commensurate marketing spend and screen numbers tend not to reach NZ theatrical audiences well, Chasing Great aside.
- Non-NZSPG/SPIF films in general deliver a better Return on Investment (NZ B.O./TTL NZFC FUNDING) for every NZFC-administered dollar than NZSPG films in the NZ theatrical market.
- Although the ROI of NZSPG/SPIF films is generally not great, the top two NZ documentaries by box office are NZSPG films, and four are in the top 10.
*NZSPG – NZ Screen Production Grant SPIF – Screen Production Incentive Fund
NZFC FUNDED DOCUMENTARY FEATURES RELEASED 2015 – 2021
|YR||TITLE (In alphabetical order)||NZFC EQUITY||NZSPG/|
|TTL NZFC FUNDING||NZ B.O.||ROI|
|21||James and Isey*||$365,345.00||N/A||$365,345.00||$522,101.00||$1.43|
|20||Six60 Till The Lights Go Out||$580,000.00||N/A||$580,000.00||$535,402.00||$0.92|
|20||The Girl On The Bridge||$690,000.00||N/A||$690,000.00||$21,855.00||$0.03|
|20||We Need to Talk About A.I.**||–||$1,044,783.00||$1,044,783.00||No NZ Release||–|
|19||Capital in the Twenty First Century||$804,224.00||$2,010,560.00||$2,814,784.00||$85,458.00||$0.03|
|19||Herbs: Songs of Freedom||$824,897.00||N/A||$824,897.00||$97,015.00||$0.12|
|19||For My Father’s Kingdom||$385,543.00||N/A||$385,543.00||$63,762.00||$0.17|
|19||The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillips||$600,000.00||N/A||$600,000.00||$73,157.00||$0.12|
|18||Merata Mita: How Mum Decolonised The Screen||$129,999.00||N/A||$129,999.00||$39,039.00||$0.30|
|18||The Heart Dances – The Journey of The Piano: The Ballet||$437,500.00||N/A||$437,500.00||$33,502.00||$0.08|
|18||Yellow Is Forbidden||$338,631.00||N/A||$338,631.00||$46,716.00||$0.14|
|17||My Year With Helen||$446,000.00||N.A.||$446,000.00||$281,949.00||$0.63|
|17||Kim Dotcom: Caught In the Web**||$1,010,628.00||N/A||$1,010,628.00||N/A||–|
|16||The Free Man (AKA Welcome to the Thrill)||$1,024,086.00||$2,560,216.00||$3,584,302.00||$18,817.00||$0.01|
|16||Poi E: The Story Of A Song||$921,984.00||N/A||$921,984.00||$1,199,830.00||$1.30|
|*Still in theatres|
|**No mainstream theatrical release|
TOP 10 NZ DOCOS TO 2021
|YR||RANK||TITLE||TTL NZFC FUNDING||NZ B.O.|
|16||1||Chasing Great (NZSPG)||$3,593,735.00||$1,828,941.00|
|09||2||Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls(SPIF)||($1,900,000.00*)||$1,820,000.00|
|16||3||Poi E: The Story of Our Song||$921,984.00||$1,199,830.00|
|13||4||Beyond the Edge (SPIF)||$3,799,385.00||$884,743.00|
|11||5||Billy T – Te Movie||$1,000,000.00||$794,816.00|
|21||8||Six60 – Till the Lights Go Out||$580,000.00||$535,402.00|
|21||9||James & Isey||$365,345.00||$529,270.00|
|13||10||Gardening with Soul||$15,000.00||$489,931.00|
*SPIF figure not available for this film so NZFC Equity Investment only.
Of course, the first question in examining the success or not of any film is “Did it reach its target audience?” And the next question could be: “How much was spent in doing so?” Target audiences can vary from niche small audiences to mainstream large audiences but budget level is generally meant to be reflective of expected audience reach. Looking at funding investment and ROI only, NZFC hasn’t done well with its documentary funding decisions over the last six years—One more thing on the list the new NZFC CEO could turn his head to when he arrives.
And for TV, lobbying NZ On Air to fund one-off documentary would obviously help—something ourselves and others are intent on doing.