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Campbell: Peter Jackson’s Film Commission review

Gordon Campbell on Peter Jackson’s review of the Film Commission

peter jackson, new zealand film commission, hobbit feet

The selection of Peter Jackson to lead the ministerial review of the New Zealand Film Commission guarantees the review a prominence that no-one else in New Zealand could provide. Yet this appointment is not simply a public relations coup. As Arts Minister Chris Finlayson has pointed out, Jackson is the most successful director and producer in New Zealand film, and is someone who has achieved critical and commercial success in everything from DIY low-budget movies to record-setting international blockbusters.

During the process of conducting the review, Jackson will be working with David Court, Head of Screen Business at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School. They have been tasked to examine the Commission’s legislation and the constitution, function, powers and financial provisions it provides.

Jackson struck the right balance with his comments in the press release that announced his appointment, by describing the NZFC as ‘a vital and indispensable component” of the local film industry. Besides his own constructive suggestions, he and Court would be consulting with many local filmmakers. Therefore, “the review will reflect,” he indicated, “ the thoughts and opinions of the writers, producers and directors the Film Commission was created to support.” Both sides of the equation it seems, will get a fair hearing.

So far, so excellent. The full terms of reference are available here on the Ministry for Culture and Heritage website. Since the Film Commission is engaged at every point of the creative process ( in everything from funding promising scripts to marketing and distributing the finished films) the terms of reference range across the many roles the Commission is expected to perform. It also asks the review to address the adequacy of the NZFC’s guiding legislation, written back in 1978.

Well, we shall see how the review develops. Hopefully, the level of consultation envisaged will mean it will be a transparent process. A few initial points can be made :

1.Will the review be able to call for government to make more funds available to the Commission, to enable the industry to do more for the country? It is all very well for industry veteran John Barnett to complain – even during the last 24 hours – that some of the Commission’s decision–making has been ‘arbitrary’ in the past. Or for SPADA chief executive Penelope Borland to lament the extent to which the NZFC has been a ‘gatekeeper’ rather than working in ‘partnership’ with the industry. With respect, decisions often seem ‘arbitrary’ and lacking in ‘partnership’ qualities when one is acting as the steward of a limited and inadequate level of funds. Some people will inevitably miss out, and inevitably complain.

Just as easily, one can point pejoratively at the 1978 legislation and list the ways in which technology and movie-going and film-making habits have changed. One could equally question whether government support – in various forms, including tax relief – has kept pace with those changes. Whether the NZFC has an adequate legislative framework, good internal administration and excellent relationships with the players in the industry here and overseas will matter for very little if it has inadequate resources to do these good works properly. Yet I can’t see in the terms of reference where the reviewers have been asked to assess the adequacy of the current levels of funding.

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? Yes, we can’t have a structure that fails to manage those ‘future funding demands’ from the industry, and of government.

In passing, there are obvious examples of how the level of funding can impacts on the NZFC’s discharge of its duties. Should the Commission cast its net wide, and develop the widest possible pool of script writing and production talent? Or should it focus only on those few projects that right out of the gate, show potential for local and international commercial return? Should it put money solely into making films – an emphasis that the established industry players may prefer – or also into marketing them and distributing them, which emerging film-makers may require?

Moreover, it is all very well for item 2 in the terms of reference to glibly conflate the NZFC’s twin roles of cultural identity and commercial return. Yes, how can and should NZFC simultaneously ‘develop and produce high quality film projects that meet New Zealand cultural content objectives and reach a domestic and international audience?’

Fostering cultural content AND reaching a domestic audience AND reaching an international audience may not be goals that necessarily cancel each other out. Yet those multiple roles are no easier for NZFC to perform than they were for TVNZ to fulfil under its social charter. They go to the heart of the Commission’s role and how its work is to be assessed – and that role, I would argue, is not simply to dole out production subsidies to industry chieftains, within a framework where NZFC investments are mainly or solely evaluated on their box office returns. The NZFC exists after all, for the public good and to enhance the cultural life of the country, and not simply to function as a soup kitchen for the film industry. Luckily, Jackson’s early DIY experience should work in favour of a vision that sees value in funding the long term development of local talent.

2. How will any potential conflicts of interest be managed ? While Peter Jackson brings immense experience to the organization that he has been tasked with reviewing, item 3 of the terms of reference requires him to review and assess schemes that he has accessed in the past, and may well again in future.

In particular, item 3 asks : What impact has the introduction of the Large Budget Screen Production Grant Scheme and the Screen Production Incentive Fund had on the public funding environment and the role of the NZFC? What is the role of the NZFC in helping New Zealand production companies take advantage of these new incentives?

It is a matter of record that Jackson received $48.65 million under the Large Budget Screen Production Grant Scheme for King Kong alone, on qualifying expenditure of $389.22 million. The point here is a general one. There is no suggestion or inference that Jackson would not scrupulously evaluate the LBSPGS – and indeed, any local film director or producer conducting such a review could well come up against a similar potential for conflict of interest, given their actual or potential use of either or both those schemes. But Jackson is being asked to find ways to help the NZFC to help film-makers to take advantage of the scheme. The potential for a perception at least, of a conflict of interest, is obvious.

The question is one for Arts Minister Chris Finlayson – how will any potential conflict of interest be managed in the evaluation of these two schemes, given that the reviewer in this case is a person who has accessed one of these schemes substantially in the past, and could presumably do so again in future?

Moreover, how can these schemes be fully and properly evaluated without access to confidential information, and shouldn’t such an evaluation be carried out by someone such as the Auditor-General, if we are truly intent on discovering the net worth of these schemes to the New Zealand economy – rather than simply their ‘impact’ on the ‘public funding environment,’ whatever that means. (Reportedly, in the past, the net worth of the LBSPGS has been assessed as being somewhere between a $33 million gain, and a $38 million loss.) Arguably, the evaluation of the two incentive schemes in question should be taken right out of the current review.

3. Are tax incentives for the film industry back on the table, or not ? Item 8 in the terms of reference asks the review to Examine the relationship between the NZFC, private investors, filmmakers and the international industry with a particular focus on roles in raising finance, developing, producing and marketing New Zealand films. Are there areas where greater collaboration would be desirable and if so how might this be achieved?

Overseas, the relationship between national film bodies, film-makers and the international industry in raising finance has often involved kindly consideration of tax breaks as a way of raising capital, and attracting projects and joint ventures. It is a reasonable conjecture. Item 9 in the terms of reference after all, does seek to benchmark NZFC’s “structural” arrangements in future, to existing practice overseas.

Currently, New Zealand offers grants – under the LBSPGS - in the wake of qualifying expenditure, and does not offer tax breaks to private investors. In the past, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was the beneficiary of a major tax provision, now no longer available – and he has also been in the past, an advocate of tax breaks for New Zealand films.

Again, this is a question not for Jackson, but for the government. Can Finlayson say categorically at the outset, that this review will not be evaluating the costs and benefits of re-introducing tax breaks for local and foreign film productions in this country?

Finally, it has to be said that Jackson brings immense value to this review, in experience and ability at the topmost reaches of the industry. Some reports have cited occasions in the past when he has been in conflict with the NZFC, with some pointing to a 1997 magazine article by him by that contained some criticisms of the NZFC, and to ancient conflict dating from the time of Meet the Feebles.

Again, I can’t think of hardly any creative person in the film industry worth their salt who hasn’t at some point, had occasion to be critical of the Film Commission. Bagging the Commission and in turn, having the Commission staff get offside with some of the industry’s testier personalities is virtually par for the course.

More recently, there was a conflict between the NZFC and Jackson, that had to do with the bills left unpaid after the collapse of Larry Parr’s Kahukura film company. The Film Commission, quite rightly IMHO, did not feel obliged to pick up some of the tab, which included amounts owed to a facility owned by Jackson. Rightly or wrongly, the conflict dragged on for some time, and NZFC CEO Barrie Everard was pointedly not invited to the premiere of one of the LOTR films.

This incident got blown up out of proportion, and few of the participants behaved impeccably. Yet to the onlooker, it seemed indicative of the fractious relationship I mentioned at the outset. In a small country, a film industry body that is tasked with dispensing limited funds and offerring support to a body of strong minded creatives convinced of the overwhelming merits of their own projects, is bound to involve friction.

For that reason it is a bit ingenuous for item four in the terms of reference to ask - Are there tensions between the NZFC’s own interests and the interests of filmmakers and third party investors in marketing and selling New Zealand films domestically and internationally? Answer : of course there are, and there should be.

That is because NZFC’s prime allegiance is or should be, to the taxpayers, and not to the industry chieftains and private investors who may co-finance their films. That’s why, frankly, I think there is a related danger in item 10 of the terms of reference - which asks the NZFC not only to be responsive to the needs of New Zealand film-makers ( that’s perfectly desirable ) but also seeks the NZFC to ‘ensure’ that ‘active industry professionals are involved in setting its strategic direction?’ Is that really such a good idea? It sounds more like a recipe for capture.

Sorry, but film-makers shouldn’t be setting the ‘strategic direction’ of the taxpayer body that helps fund their creative endeavours. Aren’t they more likely to divert the direction, and stifle creative competition? Over the last decade for instance have our established ‘film-makers’ done much to endorse and support a ‘strategic direction’ that would have included substantial NZFC funding for digital film-makers likely to threaten the cost structure of their own projects? Not much.

Sure, by all means, the NZFC should listen to the existing players in the industry. But let’s hope that the review will treat some of the existing film-makers as being part of the problem, as well as being part of the solution. Because it is not only the bureaucrats who need shaking up.


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