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I am a screenwriter and producer. I have had two short films funded from the short film fund and am in the process of negotiating feature film development funding with the Commission. I have an MA in Film and Television Studies from University of Auckland. I am a member of the screenwriters’ guild.
I welcome the review of the commission and would like to make the following suggestions regarding the future of the Film Commission.
The standard of New Zealand feature films is not actually that high and the successes have been over-stated. Our number one aim must be to make the very best films we can and to work constantly at raising the standard of feature films. To help this happen the commission needs to reassess its criteria for assessing the overall aesthetic and dramatic quality of the feature films it develops and funds. Popularity and revenue is only one way to judge a film’s success. Raising standards is also about building, long-term, a culture of innovation and originality in filmmaking. The present emphasis on revenue above all other criteria for success is not helping or encouraging the industry to understand its successes and failures. Our feature films rarely win major awards other than audience choice awards. The commission has been tasked with promoting New Zealand films and promoting their successes but this has created a culture within the organisation (and within the news media) that has too often over stated the quality and success of New Zealand films. There is a sense that the commission has come to believe its own publicity and is not honestly looking at where its films are failing.
New Zealand must compete against France, Japan and Korea and other national film industries and be seen as leading the way in world cinema. At present the commission exists to promote New Zealand stories so as to ensure that overseas film industries and overseas films do not dominate our screens. This is important given the dominance of Hollywood in our market. However, story-telling in cinema is not just about the content of the film. It is also about the form that a film takes. In particular, it is about cinematography, editing, lighting and story structure. While all our films are New Zealand stories in content, very few of them are doing anything to develop and encourage our own unique ways of telling cinematic stories. Screenwriting in particular is being developed in ways that promote traditional Hollywood influenced three-act story structure. If the industry is to be seen as unique and innovative then we must develop more a more sophisticated understanding among filmmakers as to the relationship between form and content. A more sophisticated film culture in general. The Film commission must be open to alternative story structures and more innovative technical work. Winning critical awards must become a more important measure of the industries success.
An advisory group of film academics, film makers and film reviewers should be established to identify strengths and weaknesses in each film. It should have no role in the development or production of films but should instead report to the commission on the quality of films being produced. The group should identify areas of concern and point to where a film did not meet the standards being aimed for. This ‘audit process’ will, if managed well, build a better critical culture within the industry. The group can be funded by the commission or it can remain independent; for example, an initiative established by the various professional bodies. Either way it should aim to achieve the same thing. A film might look great but be poorly written. It might suffer from a poor soundtrack or it may simply have suffered production problems due to weather or poor planning. For whatever reason a film must be analysed in a way that identifies the causes of its strengths and weaknesses? This will help the commission and filmmakers to think about and improve the overall standard of film making. For example, In My Fathers Den is a very good film. It is exemplary in so many ways. Yet there are still areas where it could have been better. The role of the advisory group will not be to admonish film makers and be overly pedantic or critical. It will be to promote a far more objective assessment of any film’s quality. What ever happened to The Ferryman? It went straight to DVD and has quickly been forgotten about. What went wrong? Why is it not a good film and how can we learn from these mistakes? Sweeping failures under the carpet does not help us improve.
Feature film funding may benefit from a competitive Executive Producer model similar to that used to organise the Short Film Fund. Competing teams or executive producers may help raise the standard of the films being developed. Competitive development within the commission would encourage diversity and allow the success of different feature film development models to be measured in the long term. The review should investigate this model of funding and adopt it in order to assess its value to the New Zealand industry.
The majorities of filmmakers are in Auckland. Professional organisations such as SPADA and the Writers Guild are based in Auckland. It is important that the Film Commission stay in Wellington to balance this, however, opening an office in Auckland, with a staff member specifically appointed to assist Auckland filmmakers, would improve the relationship between the commission and the industry. It will also allow Auckland filmmakers to meet more regularly with commission staff whenever staff visit Auckland. The office should be a focal point for the film making industry in Auckland.
Particular attention must be paid to avoiding conflicts of interest and ensuring all decision making is transparent. There are close links between filmmakers and many film commission staff. Many of the filmmakers that apply to the commission for funding are close friends and colleagues/former co-workers of commission staff. In some cases commission staff have had their own projects funded while working at the commission. While this is largely unavoidable in a small industry like New Zealand’s it is of pivotal importance that clear procedures are put in place to avoid any conflicts of interest. It is too easy for unsuccessful filmmakers to feel aggrieved about not being funded and too easy for them to dismiss their rejection as the being the result of nepotism and favoritism. In order to avoid this, the commission must demonstrate that all its procedures are transparent and open to review. Disgruntled filmmakers can become (and indeed have become) disengaged and overly critical of the commission and this detracts from the overall culture of excellence needed. Fairness and the demonstration of fairness must be central to the aims of the commission.
A similar review to this one should be held at regular intervals. The industry changes quickly and the commission must remain responsive to the industry and the demands of the global market. The current review is too short a time to adequately deal with all the issues around improving the commission. A six week review period would work better if it were held on a regular basis. A suggested time period for reviews would be every three to five years.
Thank you for taking the time to read my suggestions.
I look forward to reading the reviews findings.
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