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John O’Shea on the NZ Film Commission’s 20th Anniversary:
"Latterly the Commission seems to have been diverted, losing its way, its nerve and its courage, failing to conjure up memories of its daring history. The last five years have drifted by without passion and purpose. Relapsing into short films leads mainly to disorder and early sorrow for young film-makers. Relying on television funds or foreign investment and making deals a priority swells the bureaucracy and 'makes work' on all aspects of production from script to screen. Television channels and overseas interests too easily hold the purse strings, countering the very reason the Film Commission was set up. Timidity rules."
Don't Let it Get You, Pg: 191.
My task here is to address the points 1-11 as stated in the terms of reference on the Ministry for Culture and Heritage website. I immediately note that ‘sustainability’, pertaining to ‘fiscal’ matters, is one of the first thoughts the paper offers up. It’s of immediate interest that money and funding are mentioned within these first 5 lines yet not a mention of ‘culture’ or ‘national identity’ - which moves easily into my initial thoughts on point 1. as we are invited to ‘face the challenges of the rapidly changing Domestic and International film industry’.
I can already detect a shift and a possible desire that the NZFC might want to be more aligned to the ‘blockbuster’ franchise than anything to do with 2nd 3rd or 4th cinema1.
Two distinct areas might become apparent during this review - these being ‘national cinema’ and ‘blockbuster’ and it would be a small step to see this as ‘national cinema’ vs blockbuster’? - versus suggests a competition of some sort with one or more of the outcomes having priority over the other: this indeed might be the case especially if ‘fiscal’ becomes the dominate force over creative decisions?
These 11 points seem to be steering the discussion to err on the side of funding and how the money might or might not flow rather than the concept of how NZFC might represent or encourage ‘story’ or ‘culture’ or for that matter ‘film making’.
Maybe it’s timely to proffer the concept that ‘box office’ returns are not necessarily the only measure of success that ‘national cinema’ should be judged by.
A REAL PURPOSE:
The concept of any country having a Film Commission is vital to the guardianship of that nations identity and culture and I don’t see our NZFC as any different or that they can renegotiate their role. I fear that after this review we could be competing for more than the funding …we could be competing for the right to see our own images and hear our own stories.
But I would be very surprised if ‘Blockbuster’ was not a consideration in this review as the concept of it seems to have recently become more of a focus. The desire for the NZFC to share in the ‘blockbuster’ phenomena is a logical evolution that can be directly attributed to the successes of Wingnut and Weta and their associates – these international achievements, based in Miramar, are of course extremely healthy for the economy and even more so the other filmmakers from offshore who are now here to reap the benefits. It’s an attractive deal - the exchange rate, experienced crews, our lack of strong unions and of course the low wages and tax incentives – very attractive - the crews benefit from the cash-flow and experience; the infrastructure makes expensive equipment and techniques available – its ideal for production – and though our ‘National Cinema’ might get lost for a moment, along with our ‘culture’ and ‘identity’, this is a temporary state and not actually a major problem as we can both co-habitat in the same town and be in the same core business - i.e. feature film making – but we shouldn’t get confused as to whom is doing which part of the job. It ‘s vital that the NZFC sees their core business as ‘National Cinema’ and leave the Hollywood franchise to the folk over there at Wellywood.
NGATI & THE BIG APE:
Entertainment, the voice of a nation, the Popcorn culture, the chase, the romance, the politics of community, thinly veiled political messages, arts and culture, archetypical characters? (and many more) - there are many moving parts to this beast we call ‘cinema’.
You can’t get further apart than lets say Ngati and King Kong - in Ngati the brown folk are the stars and writers and the makers of the movie – its their story, its our story, its who we are… in King Kong the brown folk are required to dance and go boogga-boogga whilst servicing the needs of a good old colonial yarn where cannibalism is still normal behaviour and feared in the white world of the explorer – its an international story - it’ll have you on the edge of your seat - especially when the beautiful-half-naked-blonde’s life is threatened by the big-chief-guy with the bone through his nose, then there’s the big Ape! – let’s capture it and take it to New York and be famous! – eh! - What were they thinking?
Ngati might evoke thoughts more spiritual and remind us of our pioneering past, you’ll be sat well back in your seat and have time to consider a timelessness, you might think of your own small town or your immediate family.
One is a small movie about a New Zealand community and the other is a matinee romp - they’re both love stories and they both fulfilled their role in the wider scheme of the movie business – New Zealand movie production can service both these type of movies but one type of production can’t be more dominant over the other.
This International driven success story of Wellywood doesn’t need the NZFC. But New Zealand stories do.
A CORPORATE CULTURE:
In a recent print interview Mr Mason (NZFC CEO) seemed quite aggressive in putting over his Internationalism as he spent the whole NZ Herald interview (27th April 2009) talking about the International film business and how he is connected; not a mention of ‘national cinema’ except the NZ Herald writers reference to the NZFC mission statement. This outwardly thinking approach could cloud his judgement in his role of CEO when it comes to issues involving New Zealand culture and Identity and how they might contribute to a more healthy society.
It’s fair to say that over the years the NZFC has drifted off into realms more worldly: this has been a gradual and logical conclusion bought about by the successful years of travel to the International film markets – its an exciting world of ‘deals’ and ‘glamour’.
The idea that the NZFC must evolve somehow because of the ‘international scene’ is possibly a flawed concept – not that we don’t already borrow style and form from the Europeans and the USA in our film making, and lets face it the osmosis is inevitable – but why should it become something of a studio structure or for that matter provide a product strictly for off shore consumption? - though we have heard the mantra from the previous head of marketing that ‘he can sell horror’ if we continue to looked at the world market in this way then we are missing the point of New Zealand made production – lets face it he could easily sell ‘pornography’ more successfully if money was intended as the one and only end result …and it would be a sad day to discover that this screenplay was chosen over that because one was ‘horror and the other wasn’t.
I strongly believe this review should be wary of being seduced by the needs of the new world and the drive for the dollar as this can distort the actual requirements that our society and community needs. The stories of ‘who we are’ and ‘where we are going’ and ‘why we are who we are’ just might still be the responsibility of the NZFC as the Hollywood franchise is not going to be immediately helpful in locally conceived stories.
THE HEART OF A NATION:
In Pt.9 you are asking whether we should be somehow aligned with other ‘similar national film bodies’ – why does New Zealand need to be like the Spanish or the Mexicans or them like us …surely any crossing of borders and conformity would merely dilute what each other has. Surely the purpose of worldwide film commission type bodies is a deliberate desire to reflect that nations spirit and deeply personal uniqueness.
Pt 2. could be the most significant point in the scheme of things here – ‘how can NZFC most effectively act – facilitative role – high quality film projects – cultural content objectives’. This is the nub of it all… forget the gazing outwards to the promised lands – Peter Jackson and his class act is doing that just fine, so lets be the NZFC - its not that we want to repel the Hollywood invasion its just more about keeping a firm hand on our uniqueness and being clear about what the role of the NZFC is …and by doing that we will have a chance of making high quality films that are not only relevant to New Zealand Cinema but relevant to the world - a tricky business indeed but something that only the NZFC can fulfil. Identity and culture is constantly evolving as our society changes with the shifts in the world and the shifts within the demographic of our communities – when it comes to showing who we are we must robustly defend the high ground of OUR CULTURE.
The NZFC has grown in many directions over these first 30 years but there is still a certain conflict of priorities at the core of the organisation – for instance a career bureaucrat is not a filmmaker – but there are government and taxpayer funds to be managed – what to do? – the Producers present one argument within the management discussions and the Directors another, the Writers wait patiently for something to happen but at the core of this is the question of ‘do we need to be managed?’ – the funding may need a bit of management but do the creative people need this management imposed on them for the sake of control. This is not healthy.
For a creative bureaucracy to function well you must have input from outside – but controlling the type of input to its perceived specific needs isn’t all that visionary either – in the last 10 years there’s been a ‘paint by numbers’ approach that the NZFC have imposed on the industry. The results haven’t been that great.
The void between film maker and bureaucrat has got bigger and its hard not to take this stuff personally where things have to be reduced to right or wrong rather than the thought of ‘lets have an adult discussion’. Why this continued ‘us and them’ approach. To discuss production funding is immediately presented with a point of non-negotiation that ‘local production would not happen, could not happen, will not happen these days without off shore money included in the mix’ – I don’t think this point should be so categorical – what about the 1.8million Kiwi flick’ – what about the handy-cam approach to a blinder of a story? – production value doesn’t sell a movie per se.
It would be fair to say in the not too distant past that we did at times feel like we were being used to justify jobs and justify a budget (especially when trapped in development hell) when we were in fact supplying the creative energy to the place - for little or no monetary gain – the NZFC gained fulltime staffing numbers as we sought secondary employment to stay in the business of feature film making – not an ideal situation and not the NZFC we thought we were setting up in the late 1970’s.
I believe the development process has become deeply flawed – the staff who administer it are mostly not film makers or recognised practitioners of the film craft – they may have got a degree in some university but this doesn’t make them qualified to speak directly to my work or any one else’s – they have no right or ability to endorse or reject my work as they don’t have the experience.
I have a bit to do with the next generation of filmmakers and they openly avoid the idea of this film commission – they perceive the processes as meddling in their work and the outcomes appear to involve too much compromise (their words not mine) - they also mention the unhealthy hold that presently the Producers have on the NZFC.
MUTANT NINJA PRODUCERS:
I’ve become acutely aware over the years that the country we live in seems to have little respect for the Artists of our community - but I don’t quite get the concept of ‘arts management’ when all its managed to create is a Producer driven industry which has become exploitive and doesn’t lend itself to a healthy creative process – its also a miss-guided and unfair way to distribute funds… it also suggests to the creative workers (rightly or wrongly) that there is little respect for their creative work from the funding body.
We used to put the politics in our work (in our films) and now the politics is in our lives in such a way as we must argue to be included in our own industry and for our very existence – our energy and creative endeavours are dissipated now with the requirements of bureaucracy.
Does it come down to ‘blockbuster’ vs ‘national cinema’?
There’s a suggestion that we are being asked to perceive ourselves in the ‘international setting’? Maybe we don’t have to perceive ourselves in this international setting – we could remain local and provincial and parochial and proceed quite happily from there.
Are there more ways to judge success than just the financial returns from the box office?
We should explore the notion that ‘the requirements of a Film Commission might not have to be necessarily dollar driven’ to fulfil their mandate this could lead to stories that are uniquely ours and are not tainted by needs of International expectations… the unique stories just might be the selling point.
The producers have become the dominant voice – they have organised themselves to influence the decision making processes at the NZFC – this is maybe not a bad thing if it is deemed to be the way to get the best work, but then maybe its not a good thing either? - their voice shouldn’t be seen as the only voice or perceived as the best way to get ‘high quality films made’ – it may work to put the filmmakers into the mix also.
If massive change is the hidden point that we are negotiating here and if this review does come down to a renegotiation of who were are and where we are going we have to be clear as to why we are evolving and for what reasons.
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