Hard News by Russell Brown


The Commission, and creative risk

Whatever else you might say about Peter Jackson and David Court's long-awaited review of the New Zealand Film Commission, it contains few surprises for anyone familiar with Jackson's previous statements about the way the Commission works.

Jackson hankers after the kind of flexibility the commission was able to display when it helped him get his first two feature films away. In 1986, an individual decision from the Commission's executive director, Jim Booth, released the cash that let Jackson finish Bad Taste. Booth was moved to act by a personal belief in Jackson's talent – a belief that soon led him to leave his job and become Jackson's producer.

Hence, near the top of the review, the authors say:

A creatively successful film industry is as much about talent scouting as it is about training, and once a talented individual is found, they must be nurtured and supported. Variations on this theme are found at the heart of any meaningful film industry and especially within the Hollywood studio system.

And, more remarkably:

It’s unwise to greenlight a creative work if you are not fully engaged with the creative person or team – which requires you to believe in that person, or not. It’s about whether you trust in their vision for the story, what support they require, the value of what it is they’re doing and how much you should make it for. It’s a decision that should be at the very least, informed by a relationship with the creative party.

Essentially, the authors want the Commission's staff to back winners; even to unabashedly play favourites:

We spoke to an ex-NZFC staff member. That person’s comments go straight to the heart of a problem:

"There was something of a siege mentality amongst staff at the NZFC – ie, we mustn’t make any controversial decisions as everyone will blame us, we mustn’t look like we are pushing particular talent because we must be equal to all."

This is symptomatic of the heavily bureaucratised way that the NZFC conducts itself as a keeper of public funds. Unfortunately, it’s counter- productive to building a talent-based industry. Film making skill is so rare, and screenwriting talent even rarer, that anyone showing signs of potential ability must be targeted and supported. They should receive training, in the form of workshops, script courses and one-on-one tuition to either realise that potential, or move on.

It worked for Peter Jackson – but it might be difficult to apply as a model now. We live in an age of accountability and audit, and as we have been reminded this year, the combination of public money and personal actions – even the personal hunch – can be the trigger for unhappy times in the news cycle.

But Jackson already has some of what he wants: the balance of funding decisions has shifted towards staff, and away from the NZFC board, which is taking a more conventional governance role. And – although her name has been oddly absent from dispatches this past week – the former CEO, Ruth Harley, left before the review even began. Harley, now with Screen Australia, was in the job for ten and a half years, long enough for her management style to accrete into a culture at the Commission.

Harley's replacement, Graham Mason, will want the ironclad backing of his minister if the reforms are to go this way. The venom directed at individuals at NZ On Air in some discussions on this site illustrates the perils for funding bodies that are even perceived to get closer than arm's length. It was six years and three films before Booth's belief in Jackson's genius was widely shared – and Jackson's films actually made money from the start.

As Gordon Campbell puts it in a stern assessment of the review:

… the government funds the FC, which administers a limited amount of public money to a horde of applicants. And we should be surprised that they act like bureaucrats? Or that we have a result where much of the industry feels angry at the gatekeeper – who feels defensively thin-skinned or contemptuously thick-skinned in return?

As with TVNZ, the Film Commission is also expected to serve both cultural purposes and commercial ones, simultaneously. Again, no surprise if it sometimes veers between gambles that do not succeed commercially, and the recycling of genre conventions that do not offer much that’s new, creatively – or that it nervously tries to ‘micro-manage’ all of its outcomes. In this climate, urging the FC to be "more flexible" about its long term outcomes and more intelligent about its nurturing role is an inadequate diagnosis. Must try harder, must be more supportive of the kids, must listen more closely to what they’re saying in future…. Yeah, right.

Nonetheless, SPADA has declared itself "enthusiastic" about the review (noting especially the proposal that the NZFC's equity stake in productions should be handed to the producer after five years), and the Writers Guild is justifiably pleased that the Commission's policy of dealing only with producers, and not talent, seems destined to go.

There's what seems to me to be a blind spot in the review. Under Harley, the Commission was notoriously wary of the internet – which would seem to be a key platform, at least for marketing. But the word "internet" doesn't appear in the review, and (apart from the suggestion of an industry wiki) there's no attempt to engage with the observation of an industry stakeholder that the Commission "[doesn't] have a lot of engagement with the younger film making community – the online stuff, what’s actually happening."

Still, it seems likely that the Commission will be better for this review. How much better, and how close it gets to the authors' ideal of a public agency that embraces the same creative risks as a private-sector film studio, remains to be seen.

I'm sure we'll get a bit closer to the answers in this week's Media7, where we'll speak to Richard Fletcher, the associate producer of Boy, and Ant Timpson, whose 48 Hours competitions are namechecked twice in the review – and who wrote this open letter in response to it. We'll also have Vincent Ward – who fears there will be nothing to keep mature film-makers in the country – connecting from Avalon.

If you'd like to join us for tomorrow's recording, we'd need you at TVNZ between 5pm and 5.30, and have you away well before 7pm. Click 'Reply' to let me know and I'll give you the details.

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