Wellington Scoop

Learning from the film festival

by Lindsay Shelton
One of the things we’ve learnt from Wellington’s annual film festival, which ends tonight, is that New Zealand film-makers are continuing to make films in spite of continuing to have trouble finding the money.

The local industry is now in the fourth decade of its resurgence, with a proud record of achievement. But local filmmakers are continuing to work as things were at the start – refusing to be stopped though the system doesn’t provide enough financing.

Almost all the 12 New Zealand features selected by this year’s film festival had some finance from the Film Commission or from television funds. But for almost all of them this finance was a minor part of their budgets. Which required their creators to work for little or nothing in order to complete the dreams which have been entertaining and informing the rest of us.

I thought of this today when Fergus Barrowman was tweeting from a screen industry conference in Auckland. At first he referred to “cinematic vision on a shoestring.” And, later: “It turns out micro is aspirational for most..young filmmakers.” But young film-makers with growing ambitions cannot survive for long on micro-budgets, or on shoestrings.

A film festival highlight was the premiere of a magnificently-restored and re-edited version of Geoff Murphy’s Utu, which was made 30 years ago with a budget of $3m. (The restoration was carried out with admirable participation by the miracle-workers at Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post Production.) The film tells a spectacular story of revenge, set in the time of the 1860s land wars. Geoff and his cinematographer Graham Cowley (who was producer on the restored version) told a panel at the film festival that it would cost $30m to make a similar film these days. And such a budget could not be found, unless changes to the story and to the casting – “name” stars from overseas – were made to suit international audiences. Which means that such historically-important local stories have no hope of being made any more. (Vincent Ward’s River Queen was the last one, and that was eight years ago. And it needed overseas stars. And problems thereby ensued.)

It was a National Government which set up the Film Commission in 1979, Investment from the Commission made local production possible. But the focus of the current government seems to be on encouraging other country’s productions.

This was particularly highlighted when during the festival the government announced a screen-financing review which moved more support into the area of international film-making, leaving the locals as the poor relatives. The government was embarrassingly clear about this when it announced the changes.

“We want more international screen productions to come to New Zealand and utilise our world-class expertise and scenery,” said Chris Finlayson.

“Attracting more TV production and investment in New Zealand will boost the economy and provide greater continuity of work for Kiwis and their families,” said Stephen Joyce.

The emphasis on enticing productions from other countries to come to New Zealand is nowhere clearer than in the description of new assistance for television productions:

We are creating a new TV-specific production incentive with a qualifying New Zealand expenditure threshold of $4 million (previous $15 million) and a rebate rate of 15 per cent on all qualifying expenditure. This reflects the TV production business model and will allow for studios producing television series pilot episodes, made-for-TV movies and mini-series to apply for the grant. Local TV productions will also be eligible for funding.

New Zealand production is relegated to one last sentence, tacked on at the end. Local stories? Only an afterthought.

Utu earned applause from its film festival audiences. As did the brave documentary by Annie Goldson and Kay Ellmers about New Zealand’s involvement with the war in Afghanistan. These two film-makers also worked with a budget that in no way covered all their costs. This was a fact of life in the 1980s, and it’s still a fact of life for New Zealand stories on film, in spite of the fact that the industry has grown enormously, thanks to the international successes of Peter Jackson and his top-grossing feature films. Sir Peter is wellknown for his generosity in enabling local film-makers to use his state-of-the-art facilities in Miramar. And he has set an admirable example of showing that you don’t have to leave home to achieve world-wide success.

But many of the local filmmakers at the film festival were talking about the impossible search for bigger budgets with which to tell more “big” local stories such as Utu, in order to compete with the “big” international productions that the government is so keen to attract here. Some were even harking back to the days of tax incentives – which became reviled by politicians, but which briefly enabled some great films to be made. Including Utu.

Lindsay Shelton was director of the Wellington Film Festival from 1972 till 1980. He was marketing director of the Film Commission from 1980 till 2001.