Speaker by Various Artists


Levelling the Playing Field

by Jonathan King

"If we match other countries’ subsidies we’ll save the film industry we’ve built over decades, keep 10,000+ people employed and allow us to continue tell our own stories on film."

That’s been the rallying for several months now and, as the someone who’s written / co-written or directed four local feature films, I’ve been thinking about the issue – and this proposed solution – a lot. The other day I tweeted about some factors that aren’t mentioned amidst the call for subsidy increases as a cure-all to film biz unemployment and dearth of local production; Russell asked me to expand on those thoughts in a post.

First of all, let me clear: I would love to see an appropriately-sized film industry that fairly and regularly employs its members – working on international productions, if they want to, and NZ ones if that’s their bag; it’s been mine.

A huge number of people are dependent on our industry returning to something like the size it did during the period that ran from Hercules in the 1990s to Spartacus / The Hobbit in the last couple of years. But I would urge caution in seeing increased subsidies as the sole answer to the problems our industry faces. There are, it seems to me, some other significant factors that mean things may never return to how they were, even if subsidies are increased. To that end, I think it’s urgent we have a wider conversation about what our industry is, what it wants to make, and how it’s sustained.

1. Moving image content has become drastically devalued.

There is 100 hours of new footage upload to YouTube every minute. They’re given that material for free. Viewers get to watch that for free. My TV will play me, I dunno, 65 or so channels of stuff for (effectively) free. As moving image content get cheaper to consume (i.e. for free online, on TV, cheap Warehouse DVDs and, yes, via piracy), there’s an expectation from distributors and broadcasters that they can acquire content more cheaply; the amount that anyone will pay to make this content must go down.

2. When once-specialised jobs (like DOP, editor, writer, visual effects -- and director!) can be done by kids at home, the amount that anyone will pay for those jobs crashes.

Operating a 35mm camera or a Steenbeck editing deck was technically difficult and used a hugely expensive raw material: film. There were long apprenticeships and rare, hard-earned opportunities to get hands-on experience. Now that anyone can shoot digital footage and practice filmmaking for, essentially, free, the craft becomes within the reach of anyone, and proficiency in the art follows (not overnight, for sure, but faster and wider than ever before). Add up the existing pros, scores of young people flooding out of film schools every year and talented kids who’ll do it for free and for fun – in NZ and abroad – and you have a collapse in what anyone will get paid for those services.

This, too, applies to once specialised and expensive equipment: you can shoot a (technically) releasable film on a stills camera, you can buy lights, steadicams, audio recorders for a hundreds of dollars; you can cut, grade, mix and do FX for your film on your desktop computer. This has exploded so quickly it’s a disaster for those who invested heavily in what was state of the art equipment only five or so years ago.

For all of us already in the industry, our skills and equipment are simply ‘worth’ less than they were just a few short years ago.

A consistent mantra has been that having crews busy on international productions will assist us to tell our own stories on screen too. I don’t necessarily believe that’s axiomatic.

3. The biggest problem facing local filmmakers is that our domestic audience is so small it can’t support our films. Even ‘hits’ lose money: for our domestic market, our films are already ‘too expensive’.

All of the factors above have crashed the already modest amount NZ films can make back here and abroad. The market tells us New Zealand films have to be made more cheaply than ever. Does subsidised international production help that happen?

When we were making Under the Mountain in Auckland in 2008 there were at least two other big productions going on in the city. We simply couldn’t find studio space to shoot in, so we ended up repurposing a tyre factory. There were some (I repeat only some) crew members who took a very hard-ball, market-forces approach to the rate they wanted to be paid to work on our film, comparing to what they could / would get on the other ‘shows’ in town. We lost an key actor to a longer running gig on a visiting TV show.

One could make the argument that this is a win-win for cast and crew and a market-forces wake-up call for local producers … but it’s those same market forces that are bearing down on us all now.

One could make the argument (I am not making this argument) that the best thing that could happen to boost local production would be for international production to go away, and for our industry to ‘correct itself’ to match the size of our local market.

I would argue that what is good for big Hollywood storytelling (as increased subsidies surely are) is not necessarily good for New Zealand storytelling.

You’d be doing well now to get a budget for a local film that’s a quarter to a half what Under the Mountain was made for five years ago. NZ filmmakers are saying the same things as international filmmakers: “how can we get this for less?”, because that’s what they are hearing down the whole chain from funders to buyers (and the starting point for ‘less’ these days is nothing).

Because of the size of our market we will always lose when market forces shape how or why we make New Zealand moving image content (or books, art, music). I think we need a much broader conversation about how we create, support, value and fund our local content and its creators. What is the natural / appropriate size of our film industry? What do people in that industry want to be working on? What do New Zealander audiences want from our filmmakers? Do New Zealanders want New Zealand films at all? What should people who create local content expect in terms of job security or a living, or should their eyes always be on stepping up into the international content industry? Or only dabbling as hobbyists?

Would increased subsidies bring back some work? I hope – for the sake of many good and talented people I know – it would. But as the rapacious ‘content’ juggernaut continues to devour everything in its path, I wouldn’t set much store in job security or improved remuneration for those making briquettes to shovel into its furnace. The ‘level playing field’ brings us at best on par with what Hollywood sees as a basic raw material it can get from anywhere to consume as it sees fit. Our key talent alone won’t bring them here – if they want a particular person they will (and do already) fly them to wherever the project is happening.

Films I’ve written or directed – with 100% New Zealand content – have spent more than $20 million on local cast, crew and services. I would love to be part of an industry that can continue to do that ... I don’t see it as my right, or as something that’s necessarily likely, but I think it will take something very different from simply increasing the subsidies for international film productions to shoot here for that to happen.

I hope we can find a way forward that isn’t about any one group’s self-interest, that isn’t about short term fixes to a broken or exploitative model and that would make, at least, everyone’s hard work worth more than just a paycheck. Not that there’s anything wrong with a paycheck. 

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