Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: The Commission, and creative risk

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  • Bart Janssen,

    but it's a bloody tough sell to Treasury. And, if anything goes wrong, to a news media only too happy to make an issue of it.

    and

    Well, it should be a bloody tough sell to everyone. I'm sorry if this makes me the in-house philistine, but no matter how you cut it, film and television production is enormously speculative and I'm not inclined to sneer at anyone who finds that a much harder sell that putting money into a new surgical suite at their local hospital.

    Nope that doesn't make you a philistine. But the real question is not if it should be a hard sell, the real question is which funding model produces better results.

    My experience of treasury (limited and removed) is that despite banging on incessantly about accountability they are extremely reluctant to answer the question "does their funding model work".

    All too often treasury have enforced changes with the mantra of accountability but eschewed any responsibility for long term results. Not surprising since most of them think 5 years is a long time in a job.

    I wouldn't care if all the accountability actually produced better results but very often all it does is produce endless freaking reports and milestone summaries. The actual aim of the funding seems to be irrelevant to treasury so long as they get their reports and can fill in their spreadsheets.

    What Jackson is saying (I think) is that educated and experienced people with hunches work better than open transparent accountable scorable funding systems for the creative art of the film industry. That's something I can believe.

    That may not sit well with MBA graduates in treasury but if it is real then logic dictates that any money we spend on our culture (or science or medicine) be spent in the way that produces the best results, long term.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3346 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    What Jackson is saying (I think) is that educated and experienced people with hunches work better than open transparent accountable scorable funding systems for the creative art of the film industry. That's something I can believe.

    Not just the film industry. I'm actually yet to find the business which functions well using that kind of management. I'd say fund-management, but the events of the last 4 years suggest that they're the worst managed of all.

    Problem is - rather like the "machine model of mind" - there aren't any particularly popular alternatives. The "purity" of the "management via accounting" model appeals to our scientific minds because it can easily be comprehended. Which gives the illusion that we can broadly comprehend how management as a business works, that good management can be engineered. It suggests that anyone can understand anyone else's business, at least in broad sweep, just by getting the right kind of reporting structure in place. It's very hard to accept the idea that every business might function under very different rules, indeed every human might. Getting the best out of people is a very tricky task indeed, a very piecemeal one, a product of years of experience, and is often not transferable between businesses, or even between different teams in the same business.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8494 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    We have some responses back from Chris Finlayson's office (he would have been keen to join us, but has another engagement) and this part seems relevant:

    Many of the recommendations may make sense creatively, but they fall outside the established accountability practices for public agencies. To what extent are they "do-able"?

    It depends on your point of comparison. For example, it would be most unusual in the case of ACC if the Board was assessing applications for accident compensation, rather than focusing on longer term strategic direction and supervision of management staff. This system of accountability that Sir Peter Jackson has suggested is one where staff are accountable for decisions they make through their results, rather than by whether they have completed a checklist. The board is accountable for its long term strategic direction setting under which staff operate. That is actually the standard model for Crown entity accountability.

    Staff need flexibility within that strategic vision set by the Board, but that is what they will ultimately be assessed against. It is not a matter of choosing between a tick-box checklist and a free-for-all.

    Are there good, accountable models that can be drawn on for change?

    The review lists a number of possible models, from within the public and private sectors. Again, I don’t think the accountability model proposed in the report is a million miles away from Crown entity practice.

    How great a degree of change to business as usual does the review propose?

    The suggestions are unlikely to require legislative change. But yes, if every proposal were adopted immediately, that would be a shake-up for any agency. But in a sense, the Commission has already had a shake-up with its new Chair and new CEO. They are bringing in new ways of doing things. The review, in some ways, proposes less of a change from business as usual under the current team than it did under the previous team.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18837 posts Report Reply

  • Shay Lambert,

    Yeah, what a bloody tragic failure of vision. Here we are in the middle of really the first technical revolution in filmmaking since the invention of the movie camera, and neither the Commission nor Jackson & Court seem to have recognised the once-in-a-lifetime chance to democratise filmmaking, and thus cast a much wider net over the possible talent.

    I'm not sure we need more democratising of film - look at the dozens (hundreds?) of no-budget features being churned out with cheap digital technology by aspiring filmmakers hoping to get noticed. Setting aside value judgements on whether any of these films are good, none get seen by an actual audience, largely because low-budget indies (apart form horror and porn) are not what audiences want.

    As for being risk averse because of limited funds, Hollywood studios spend the equivalent of the GDP of a small country every year making movies but are extraordinarily risk averse - they are only interested in something that will pull in millions of 13-yr-old boys worldwide on opening weekend.

    I believe the UK recently went through similar navel gazing over their NZFC equivalent. But publicly funded studios like Film 4 and BBC Films seem to have an impressive hit rate for commercial success and artistic/ culturally relevant output, while fostering new talent as well as old pros like Mike Leigh/ Danny Boyle etc. Be interesting to know what their funding model is.

    Auckland • Since May 2009 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • 3410,

    I'm going to stab at some other things that have been somewhat revolutionary - colour, digital manipulation/CGI, the addition of sound tracks to movies.

    Quite so. What I meant to say was the first revolution in the affordability of filmmaking.

    Auckland • Since Jan 2007 • 2618 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    As for being risk averse because of limited funds, Hollywood studios spend the equivalent of the GDP of a small country every year making movies but are extraordinarily risk averse - they are only interested in something that will pull in millions of 13-yr-old boys worldwide on opening weekend.

    The kind of risk aversion that leads to slow death. But they don't have to be that way, and they haven't always been that way. Nor does having limited funds force risk aversion. It's just a very understandable stance.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8494 posts Report Reply

  • 3410,

    Setting aside value judgements on whether any of these films are good, none get seen by an actual audience, largely because low-budget indies (apart form horror and porn) are not what audiences want.

    That doesn't matter. Encouraging more cheap digital features both teaches people how to make films that work, so that when they do get a $6m budget for a 35mm feature the mistakes have already been cheaply made, and it provides a greater pool from which to notice the real talent.

    And, frankly, it saves money, in the long run. The Commission has produced some real stinkers (no, I won't name them). The budget of any one of them could've made a dozen cheap digital features and odds-on, one of them would've been really good (quite apart from the benefits mentioned above).

    Auckland • Since Jan 2007 • 2618 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    But big entertainment companies do also take risks -- that's where the profit is. It was a bloody big risk for Bob Shaye to green-light Peter Jackson to make three LOTR films, but it worked out pretty well.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18837 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    But publicly funded studios like Film 4 and BBC Films seem to have an impressive hit rate for commercial success and artistic/ culturally relevant output, while fostering new talent as well as old pros like Mike Leigh/ Danny Boyle

    Interestingly, Film 4 is singled out as a model for the kind of practice Jackson would like to see.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18837 posts Report Reply

  • Shay Lambert,

    Hollywood follows the money, and they have money to throw around - look at the proliferation of "Indie" divisions of the big studios in the 90s and their willingness to throw out dozens of low-to-mid budget movies in the hope one just one of them will be the next Pulp Fiction.

    Here, every movie has to be the next Whalerider - as others have pointed out, it's the public accountability as much as the amount of funds available. That's an impossible situation to be in.

    Auckland • Since May 2009 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • Shay Lambert,

    The budget of any one of them could've made a dozen cheap digital features and odds-on, one of them would've been really good (quite apart from the benefits mentioned above).

    But surely that's the NZFCs rationale behind funding short films? And from what I understand that approach has been criticised as ineffective as well.

    I just don't agree that giving dozens of hopefuls $20k and a digital camera will reveal a huge untapped pool of talent. Don't forget we have a number of publicly subsidised film schools in NZ to give them a chance to learn their craft already.

    Auckland • Since May 2009 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • Yamis,

    The New Zealand Football Championship needs a bit of slack here. It's hard enough running a domestic football competition in NZ without having to try and run our bloody film industry as well.

    Since Nov 2006 • 871 posts Report Reply

  • 3410,

    But surely that's the NZFCs rationale behind funding short films? And from what I understand that approach has been criticised as ineffective as well

    Indeed, because one only learns from it the technical aspects of making a good feature, not - or only slightly, and incidentally - the creative; character development, pacing, plot/subplot balance, etc.

    Auckland • Since Jan 2007 • 2618 posts Report Reply

  • Shay Lambert,

    Indeed, because one only learns from it the technical aspects of making a good feature, not - or only slightly, and incidentally - the creative; character development, pacing, plot/subplot balance, etc.

    Fair point, but remain unconvinced that this approach would achieve much.

    Maybe instead of desperately searching for the next Peter Jackson, we should try to find NZ's David Chase or David Simon? I know TV is NZOA's domain but if we want to foster talent, maintain a viable industry and have more NZers seeing more NZ stories,getting the NZFC to fund some artistically bold, challenging TV series could be the way to go.

    No disrespect to the makers of Outrageous Fortune/ The Cult/ Insiders Guide etc. but I'd rather have an NZ series in the league of Cracker, Red Riding Trilogy, The Wire, Deadwood, Sopranos - hell, going back even further an Edge of Darkness (directed by a Kiwi) - than setting up a funding body to try and to capture lightening in a bottle like Boy or The Piano.

    We all feel good when a kiwi wins an award at Cannes or their film makes some money in the US, but that's why we have sports teams, to get that "plucky kiwis take on the world" national pride thing.

    Auckland • Since May 2009 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    I'd rather have an NZ series in the league of...

    I don't see it as an either/or.

    We all feel good when a kiwi wins an award at Cannes or their film makes some money in the US, but that's why we have sports teams, to get that "plucky kiwis take on the world" national pride thing.

    If that were solely confined to sport this would be a poor nation indeed. I feel way more pride at a successful film than something ephemeral like a sporting victory. It's not just about taking on the world, it's about setting up something lasting, and extremely beneficial to a lot of people.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8494 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    No disrespect to the makers of Outrageous Fortune/ The Cult/ Insiders Guide etc. but I'd rather have an NZ series in the league of Cracker, Red Riding Trilogy, The Wire, Deadwood, Sopranos - hell, going back even further an Edge of Darkness (directed by a Kiwi) - than setting up a funding body to try and to capture lightening in a bottle like Boy or The Piano.

    Actually, I think it is kinda disrespectful to mention Outrageous Fortune in the same breath as The Cult and Insiders Guide -- it's achieved a lot more than either of those. Interestingly, Outrageous is writer-driven, and The Cult was producer driven -- and it showed.

    But everyone involved with The Cult will have learned from it. OTOH, a movie that got that much public money without really working would have been considered a disaster.

    But the point that TV seems to be left out of this discussion is well made.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18837 posts Report Reply

  • Shay Lambert,

    I don't see it as an either/or.

    Nope it's a question of focus. And the focus at present seems to be on finding feature films/ filmmakers that will be internationally successful.

    That's great when it happens - my point is that it's unfair to judge the success or failure of a funding body based on the inherently flukey nature of a film being any good AND then that good film finding a mass audience (and it is inherently flukey, otherwise why have so many brilliant and talented people been involved in making so many shit films - or good films that no-one ever saw).

    We fund national sports teams to win. All I'm saying is we should fund storytelling based on a different criteria, and it may be the best way to do that is by putting more focus on the small screen, not the big one. (I don't have a dog in this fight by the way - I've no connections to the industry, just an avid consumer of film, and more recently started watching some great TV series on DVD.)

    Auckland • Since May 2009 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • AlvinChipmunk,

    The writer-driven/producer-driven aspects might actually explain a lot of our "less inspiring" films and TV shows. Where the creative minds (ideally writers and director) have been allowed to basically run with what they want the result seems to generally be better.

    I'm not a big fan of the "democratisation of filmmaking" idea - the technology has existed for a long time to make quality stuff on a low budget. The RED One and Canon 5D haven't changed anything really. All the people who went out and bought one of those thinking that some how better glass and a shallow depth of field would make their film better have completely missed the point and I'd rather not see the NZFC support that misconception.

    A 10-minute short no-longer has to cost $100k, certainly, but neither should it be budgeted at only $5k. Ideally the commission should find a way to locate and nurture the people who have the really good ideas. The ones who can write well, and project that written vision into a cinematic product. Good directors and writers basically.

    Almost without exception the "no-budget" indy features and even shorts that I've seen suffer hugely from lack of focus on quality writing and directing, and instead seem to be entirely built around cool looking shots and fancy effects.

    Since Jul 2010 • 5 posts Report Reply

  • 3410,

    Let me clarify. I'm not talking about the democratisation of filmmaking so that 'everyone can have a go', rather so that the Commission can be more adventurous in what they support at the lower levels, and thus more likely to discover seeds of greatness.

    Auckland • Since Jan 2007 • 2618 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    Almost without exception the "no-budget" indy features and even shorts that I've seen suffer hugely from lack of focus on quality writing and directing, and instead seem to be entirely built around cool looking shots and fancy effects.

    I'm not surprised - that's a lot cheaper to produce. Quality writing and directing takes untold effort and training by comparison. Just getting a bunch of people to turn up and act in something they won't get paid for, to the directions of a director, is a hell of an ask.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8494 posts Report Reply

  • Shay Lambert,

    adventurous in what they support at the lower levels

    The problem is that by moviemaking standards, the "lower levels" are 99.9% of locally made films. I bet a couple of mil doesn't go far if you're trying to make a feature on location with professional actors and don't want it to have the look and feel of an episode of Home and Away.

    From what I've seen of no budget movies, pacing, character development, sub plot etc are all secondary to the concept - which is whatever can be done without sets, city locations, lighting and professional actors (hence the endless mockumentary/ Blair Witch-style horrors and talky hipster relationship dramas.)

    Auckland • Since May 2009 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    lightening in a bottle

    would this be mini-net-movies like "Bleached as"?

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 4860 posts Report Reply

  • Shay Lambert,

    Ha, more like Legally Blonde

    Auckland • Since May 2009 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • 3410,

    From what I've seen of no budget movies, pacing, character development, sub plot etc are all secondary to the concept

    Sure, that's often the case, but I'm not suggesting they fund any old rubbish. They should still be funding only the promising projects.

    Auckland • Since Jan 2007 • 2618 posts Report Reply

  • Shay Lambert,

    They should still be funding only the promising projects.

    That's the point I'm trying to make - obviously not very well. Promising projects require millions, I would have thought. Otherwise too many compromises would be required. A great script for a relationship drama requires the right actors, for example, and that's a problem if you have to cast based purely on who's willing to work for free.

    Auckland • Since May 2009 • 78 posts Report Reply

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