On Trevor Mallard’s big day, and the Film Commission’s new low budget film scheme

Normally, Trevor Mallard is not renowned for his subtlety, yet his stealth attack on Education Minister yesterday in the House was a stone classic. First, there was a feint with the generalized question, then an innocuous sounding follow up – did she actually know how inter-school moderation of literacy worked ? ‘Yes’ – a further question, and then a circle back for the kill. So, given her reply to the question before last, could she now explain to the House how inter-school moderation of literacy worked?

Well no, Tolley couldn’t. Struggle as Gerry Brownlee did to intervene and run a bogus procedural argument that the question wasn’t germane to the initial question, Speaker Lockwood Smith pointed out that Tolley had in fact said that she knew how the procedure worked, so the invitation to explain it was quite in order. The sight of Tolley floundering to not answer the question in the face of Mallard’s amused insistence – she tried to give the House a lecture about national standards instead – was not a pretty one. Sample of the gibberish:

I say to the member he is concerned about inter-school moderation, but, actually, the national standards, at their heart, are to address inter-school moderation. Currently a large number of assessment tools are used by schools, and no one standard applies across them. That is what national standards are. So the existing assessment tools will remain in place, and the national standards will go right across all those tools, so that it will not matter which school a child goes to, or which assessment tool a particular school uses, because there will be a standard that is national. That is the essence of national standards, so the inter-school moderation is exactly that. Parents will know, whichever school their children attend— Well, it just shows that you do not understand— It just shows that you do not understand what national standards are—

To which Mallard could quite reasonably and quietly insist that the question hadn’t been about national standards, but about how inter-school moderation of literacy will work. We were left none the wiser by a Minister who is plainly out of her depth. In the next question, the government fared even worse. Annette King began by asking about the Maori Party’s Whanau Ora pet scheme of welfare delivery, and read out a jargon riddled but uplifting description and asked Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett if this was Whanau Ora, and did she support such a system of helping families in need – and if not, why not?

Bennett said yes, she did. At which point, King revealed that the description had actually been of Labour’s six year old Strengthening Families initiative – and if Bennett couldn’t tell the difference, why was she touting an existing scheme created by Labour as if it was a new initiative, and thus trying to deceive the public that the government cared about vulnerable families in need?

Again, Brownlee tried to run a procedural cover for an inadequate Minister. Bennett, by this time in high dudgeon, had launched into a tirade – only to be brought up by the Speaker to address the question. This time, Brownlee got more traction with his procedural quibbling. Yet what the episode had done was expose the government’s frailty in the House, and its inability to justify policy in anything much beyond slogans and bullet points. Once you get past John Key and Bill English, the talent looks mighty thin on the ground.

On the vulnerability issue, Frogblog recently carried an item on a subject that used to be one of Sue Bradford’s prime concerns. Supposedly the Temporary Additional Support (TAS) scheme exists as a welfare safety net for those in dire emergency need. Since 2006, the TAS has replaced the grandparented system of Special Benefits, which the Labour government abolished – largely because it allowed too much discretion to departmental staff as to who got it. The less generous, more tightly targeted TAS imposed an eligibility formula that took away much of that discretion – with the obvious risk that genuine needs would go unmet.

Well, as Frogblog points out, departmental figures show that at the end of 2009, the TAS was not going to many of the people who do meet even the set of tighter and meaner criteria.

There were 34,641 beneficiaries who, according to information already held by Work and Income, met the formula assessment for TAS / Special Benefit at the end of last year but were not receiving it. Around four out of every ten beneficiaries who are entitled to it miss out. In most cases I suspect they are not even told they can apply.

The Maori Party should be concerned with this dimension of the story:

The ethnic breakdown is disturbing too. If you are a Pakeha beneficiary, you are around 20% more likely to get your full and correct entitlement than if you are of Pasifika ethnicity. It seems that institutional racism is still alive and well at Work and Income.

Congratulations to veteran NGO welfare worker Graham Howell for bringing this state of affairs to light. I also liked Frogblog’s killer conclusion as well – that Paula Bennett needs to focus a little less on the few beneficiaries who are ripping off the system, and a lot more on the many whom the system is ripping off.


Escalator to the Scaffold

Since the funds available to almost all state agencies will (at best) be held at current levels in the May Budget, you’d think the bureaucrats would be feeling the pressure about how they spend the monies remaining at their disposal. Especially, you would think, within arts organizations – which already have enough critics who regard arts funding as a luxury, given how many New Zealanders are struggling to make ends meet.

I don’t regard arts funding as a luxury. Yet there are so many things wrong with Escalator, the New Zealand Film Commission’s latest attempt at engaging with low budget film-making…even before the Peter Jackson review delivers its verdict on the Film Commission, these people really are their own worst enemies.

The criteria for the Escalator scheme are available here.

Briefly, the model for this low budget exercise appears to be the 48 Hour film marathon – which bears about the same relationship to good feature film making as the T20 game does to test cricket. To qualify for Escalator assistance, film-makers will have to work in teams of two or more, and rush their proposals into shape within three months – and then if they’re lucky, a select number will then get picked for a boot camp where a further weeding out will occur, before the four prizes on offer bestow $NZ250,000 each on the winners to make a feature. This proposal was unveiled last week, via a masterclass featuring a couple of British film-makers. In the FC’s inimitable words:

In the first stage teams will be asked to submit 3 ideas, each as a one page synopsis, along with a one page CV for each member of the team. From these applications 12 teams will be selected to move through to the next stage.

The second stage is the boot camp, beginning in as early as June 2010. Call this the Donald Trump “You’re Fired!” approach to fostering the creative process:

Up to 3 members from each team will spend 3 days immersed in an intense workshop on every aspect of the low-budget mindset. Local and international industry professionals will discuss key topics and will work with teams to help them refine and focus their ideas. After the bootcamp teams will have three months to work on ONE of their ideas and then submit a second stage application. These applications will go to an independent panel made up of 4 filmmakers and 1 NZFC representative. This panel will select the 4 teams that will each receive up to $250,000 to make their film.

The ‘low budget mindset’? Spare me. Lets go through what else is wrong with this approach. Low budget film-making of any creative worth is not some kind of lark where teams slam together concepts to meet an artificial deadline in a daggy Survivor-type boot camp setting. People who make films may not be team players at all. Hopefully, they will have a singular vision. They may only require a small amount of film financing to complete their scripts, shoot their film, pay for a film transfer, stump up the funds for an overseas film festival entrance fee, etc etc.

In other words, supporting low budget film requires flexibility about the range of things that limited funds can support – and don’t even get me started on Escalator’s lack of attention to a distribution network, so that any worthwhile film projects thrown up by this exercise might actually find an audience, once the boot camp fun is over. As the FC confess, it’s then a case of good luck sport, you’re on your own:

NZ Film will not be able to distribute the finished films but teams will be offered advice and support to develop their own festival and distribution plan

Having ignored and/or mangled key elements at one end of the process, the Film Commission has over-egged it at the other end. $250,000 a film is not, in the world of low budget film-making, a low budget. It is certainly not a micro-budget. Through this formula, the Film Commission is pissing away a million dollars of taxpayer funds that could support a whole array of activities – from script development right through to paying the entry fees to the kind of international festivals that showcase low budget films – that low budget film makers have struggled to finance, for over a decade.

Disclosure : about six years ago, I co-authored a proposal to the Film Commission to create a Digital Film Completion Fund that offered to create – for the princely sum of $100,000 a year – a system of micro-financing to help complete 10-20 low budget digital features a year, while making a start on pulling together a new distribution system (in cafes, museums, schools and art galleries) to ensure that the finished films get to be seen by an audience. This still seems like a better grassroots approach than the hare-brained – are we having fun yet? – Escalator scheme.

One truly objectionable aspect of the Escalator scheme is the way it patronises the people it hopes will stump up with the goods. Speed film-making in teams – as the 48 Hour process shows – leans heavily upon existing genre conventions. It isn’t kind to experimental cinema. Experience can be valuable. Yet what this scheme is saying is that if new film-makers are willing to pay heed to the guidance and mentoring wisdom of the industry pros, some of these amateurs might one day be selected to ascend the hierarchy,and be allowed to make the kind of movies that currently fit into the Film Commission’s comfort zone. This is more like a recipe for perpetuating mediocrity.

What it underlines is that the Film Commission hasn’t a clue about how to engage on equal terms with creative film makers who don’t want to learn at the feet of the masters. The best will want to overthrow the hacks, and get on with finishing/making their scripts and movies – without having to jump through the inane procedures that the Film Commission has devised for them.

Finally, did I mention that the Escalator scheme was launched via a masterclass with two British film-makers talking about their experience with the British funding and distribution scene? Why couldn’t the Film Commission have paid the bucks involved to a few local low budget film makers to talk about their experiences of the hurdles they’ve faced in New Zealand ? Oh that’s right – because every local low budget film maker would have stories to tell about how often the Film Commission is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.


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