On The Jackson Film Commission review

So the long awaited, year-in-the-making blockbuster review of the Film Commission has finally been delivered by Sir Peter Jackson and David Court, and is now available at a website near you.

The developmental arc of the review falls into three main parts: complaints, a short burst of diagnosis, and a shortlist of suggestions… with the suggestions tailing off into a round-up of recent issues (the Escalator fund, the Large Budget Screen Production Grants Scheme) that happened to be in the news earlier this year. Things do trail away, somewhat, towards the end… Structurally, the effect is a bit like jumping to random events in the Shire, before really resolving the big issues back in Mordor. Do that, and the Dark Lords of the Film Commission are almost certain to rise again.

The Arts Minister Chris Finlayson has summarised the review’s main findings as follows:

A more strategic long term vision which will allow for more flexibility;

The Commission should move towards being more “talent” focused than project-focused;

A larger development team within the Commission;

Bringing short film funding back to the Commission, and using short films as part of a more integrated strategy for developing feature film talent;

Relaxing the current reliance on producer-centred projects;

Continuing the Screen Production Incentive Fund.

Some of the diagnosis and suggestions relating to those points are worthwhile, as will be discussed later. Yet there is no firm indication in the review whether the changes it recommends will be cost neutral. Among other things, these changes include new incentive schemes (eg, for distributors) an increase in development staff at the Commission, and the introduction of short term, performance based contracts for Commission staff. If these initiatives are not cost neutral, would the government be willing to kick in more money? Is there in fact, any recognition by government that some of the dysfunctional relationships between the Commission and the industry cited in this review may be due to, or are being exacerbated by, chronic shortages in the funding available?

Unfortunately, the review begins – perhaps inevitably – with its weakest section, which summarises the existing perceptions of the Film Commission held by a range of people in the industry. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel. On paper, it amounts to little more than an extended round of the enduringly popular Wellington game of Bag the Bureaucrat.

I’m sure that the Film Commission is perceived negatively by many in the industry, and am equally sure the organisation does exhibit many of the defensive/ nitpicking/contemptuous responses attributed to it at length in this review. Unfortunately, the review makes precious little effort to analyse or explain why this situation has arisen. Instead – in a somewhat infantile way – it urges the FC to be more open and receptive to the passion that allegedly drives the nation’s film-makers. C’mon people – lets get together and love one another right now.

Sure, passion is a necessary part of any creative act. It can also be an over-rated trait, especially by the passionate. By and large, bureaucrats develop a siege mentality not because they’re passionless – surely we’ve outgrown that cliché about New Zealanders by now – but because they’re being asked to do too much, with too little. Invite film-makers to vent, and most of them will be more than ready to oblige – especially if they missed out on funding, or were asked to do another script rewrite or however the towering genius of their work is not being recognised by the bean counters down at the Commission.

While it devotes a good deal of uncritical space to the aggrieved, the review fails to address the responsibilities of either the government or the film-makers themselves for what they should be doing within the boundaries of an under-funded organisation that employs about 20 people, and yet that is expected to fulfil the expectations of an entire industry. Film funding is a triangle, not a one-way street.

Meaning: 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.

In the real world, the lack of effective tax breaks and other financing incentives for the private sector means that the Film Commission will always be central to how films get made in this country. New Zealand On Air plays the same role with respect to television production. For better or worse, New Zealand has for decades been reliant on state funding of its film and television industries – ever since the film and bloodstock tax dodges came to grief in the 1980s, and devedr since the Lord of the Rings enabling legislation was grandfathered out of existence nearly ten years ago.

Given that reality, it will not matter whether the FC has good internal administration and excellent relationships with the players in the industry if it has inadequate resources to do its good works properly. Unfortunately, as I pointed out last year, the review terms of reference (deliberately) didn’t invite Jackson and Court to assess the adequacy of the current levels of funding, and compare them rigorously with the situation in other countries :

Note for instance, that item 9 in the terms of reference asks: Are the NZFC’s structural, governance and management arrangements effective and similar to those of relevant national film bodies in other countries? Note how this sentence omits to ask whether the levels of resourcing – whether that be via direct funding or through other means of support – are similar to that available in other countries.

In fact, the review seems more about aligning best practice onto the Procrustean bed of current funding levels. Item 11 of the terms of reference for example, asks: ‘Are the NZFC’s strategic aims and objectives relevant to the current international and domestic environment and do they take account of the need to manage future funding demands?’ No, we can’t have a structure that fails to manage those ‘future funding demands’ from the industry, and of government.

What the review has come up with is inadequate, and somewhat contradictory. It asks the FC to cast the net far wider in future to discover the talented few – only 25-30 people in the entire country, the review says, have what it takes – but also asks it to narrow the range of projects that it supports. (Perhaps the Crown Research Institutes can be brought in to try and discern the Film-Making Genius Gene which, we told in the review, people are either born with, or not.)

Moreover, even though the review considers short films to be an inadequate and unreliable gauge of feature film-making potential, it then urges the FC to take the short film approval process back in-house, and to integrate it more closely with its talent fostering activities. Huh? Logically, that is going to make short films more – not less – of a pre-requisite for wider FC funding. So are short films a good or a bad platform for developing talent? The review offers statistics to prove that they aren’t – but then underlines their more integrated role in future as one of its main recommendations. Bizarre.

Even more bizarre for a document focussed on the future, the review virtually ignores digital film making. Its offers no fresh avenue for the development of digital film – which has been a vital, grassroots part of the local industry over the past 15 years, and which has flown under the Commission’s radar and largely without its help, beyond its disastrous dabbling with the Headstrong initiative a few years ago.

Unfortunately, the review ignores the debate on whether digital feature film making might offer a far more relevant and cost effective training ground than short films, when it comes to fostering the disciplines involved in making full length features. Nor, in the midst of the digital revolution, is there much discussion of alternative distribution systems. In this respect, the review seems a quite conservative document.

Should the FC fund fewer projects? The review says so. Yet the FC currently supports a wide range of scripts and projects precisely because talent is not self evident, and initially, the many are supported in order that the few can be found, and developed. By recommending the FC support fewer projects, Jackson and Court are ensuring the capture of the available funds by the anointed few smiled upon by the Commission – and to many outsiders, that tendency is the main problem with the Film Commission, and is certainly not the solution. All we are offered in the review to help us discern talent worth supporting is “passion”. Well, as Yeats once noted, the worst can be chockfull of passionate intensity, while the best may lack all conviction about their talent. That’s why the process is called ‘nurturing.’

So what is positive and useful about the contents of the review? Well, the reviewers do recommend a strict separation between the Commission’s Board and its staff, especially when it comes to making decisions on funding approvals. This is a welcome goal – one that, ideally, would make better use of the expertise within the organisation, and clarify the lines of accountrability.

However, the mechanism promoted by the review seems highly bureaucratic. The reviewers suggest creating two boards to run an organisation of about 20 people – an Executive Board that meets weekly and is focussed on talent scouting and funding approvals and a Non-Executive Board (ie, the current ) focussed externally, on promoting the industry.

The review offers further ideas on staff structure. Namely, that the FC development staff component be made larger and more accountable, by dint of having shorter term, performance based and renewable contracts of say, four years’ duration. Hire ‘em, give them the decision-making room to perform, and fire ‘em if they don’t. It sounds quite snappy, and very business-like. Logically though, the trade-off for racheting up accountability and decreasing the job security of staff is that you will need to pay them more. Will that be achievable within current funding levels?

Having said what’s wrong with the current structure, Jackson and Court do find a lot to support about it. The review rightly supports the Screen Production Incentive Fund. It also – and I think this comes directly from Jackson – offers a realistic and timely defence of the Large Budget Screen Production Grant Scheme, which came under attack last month in this moronic article in the New Zealand Herald, and which was politically attacked by the Greens, who would like to see a cap on the scheme introduced. (Besides everything else, a cap on individual films would be an accounting nightmare – since simultaneously, some of the same items would, and wouldn’t qualify. And a cap on the scheme overall would mean that if a project like Avatar arrived late in the funding year, New Zealand would have to say sorry mate, come back early next financial year. I can just see James Cameron nodding sympathetically and embracing that one.)

As the review points out, the 2005 Treasury advice on the LBSPG scheme is wrong when it asserts that major overseas projects would still come here for reasons ( eg low labour costs and locations) that would still prevail, without the LBSPG incentives. As the review says, this is simply “untrue”. Thanks to the subsidy, a flow of major projects continues to be attracted here, and the contribution to our skills base and government revenue continues to be beneficial to this country.

Inevitably so, given that the structure of the LBSPG guarantees that vastly more revenue accrues to our economy than we ever pay out in grants – and that’s why the Greens’ call for a cap on this process is so nonsensical. Yet, as the review also says, New Zealand needs to ensure that such incentives remain globally competitive – and that again, will be a test for the government in future, and not for the Film Commission. ( With a list of reservations, the review also supports the Escalator scheme launched earlier this year.)

Now that the Jackson review is finally on the table, the process of sifting through what should be picked up from it can begin. A culture change at the FC would be nice – but this seems unlikely, given that the main cause for the testy relationship between the FC and the industry (ie scarce funds) seems an untouchable subject, politically. The idea of letting projects proceed down the funding chain without a producer already being attached seems well worth supporting, since – as the review argues – this would give more flexibility and protection to the applicant. In practice though, the benefits are likely to accrue mainly to film-makers with an established track record. Untried film-makers would, in all likelihood, still be asked to show they have a producer attached, if only to lessen the risks involved in taking a punt on them.

Some increase in development staff can probably be achieved by a decrease in the role of the FC’s sales and marketing division, as the review recommends. The bigger, more commercially promising films will doubtless find other ways to the market, but the smaller, more festival focussed fare would sorely miss the support shown by the sales and marketing division. That’s one reason why the division tends to make less than it spends – because it plays something of a public service role for some film-makers. Because of our geographical isolation, sales and marketing support is both necessary and expensive.

Individual suggestions of merit aside, the general thrust of the review recommendations run the risk of making the existing problems that the industry has with the FC even worse. The report, for instance, makes a distinction between the ‘amateurs’ and the ‘professionals’ when it comes to film-making – and it explicltly likens this situation in the film industry to the performance levels within amateur and professional sport.

This is a pretty shoddy comparison – given that the emergence of professional sporting talent very much depends on the health of sport at the grassroots. Genius talent may well be born, not made – but we’re talking about the fostering of an industry here, and this cannot be reliant on born geniuses to be occasionally found under a rock, or await it to come knocking on the door and ask for admission.

In sum, the urging of a funding focus on a smaller pool of projects and the tighter integration of short films within the approval process will only (a) increase the sense of entitlement for a favoured few, and (b) exacerbate the sense of exclusion felt by many – not all of whom can be written off as “mediocre” in the way this review chooses to do. Such elitism seems an unlikely way of improving the attitudinal climate towards the Film Commission.

Basically, the review has missed the opportunity to embrace the more democratic, low cost routes to fostering talent, and/or encouraging a diversity of film making styles, genres, and distribution systems. Even on its own narrow terms, the need for substantially more funds is the elephant in the room – and it is a safe bet that it will continue to be ignored.


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