I actually started writing this as a reply to “The Rain Dog on the Message boards in the The
Death of 3D Part II thread, but the course of the thread had swerved back on topic and I found out I probably had enough to say on the topic of the NZ film commission to warrant a blog.
I guess the difference between The New Zealand Film Commission and a bigger county like Australia’s commission or a hypothetical US equivalent is in NZ even if a movie was really popular, with a population of 4 million a locally made movie is just never going to turn a profit at home, so the way the government sells the idea to tax payers that their money is being spent on such a frivolous non profitably venture like cinema is to say that while the movies themselves don’t make money, them being shown overseas adds millions to tourism. The result of this is you get the dumbing down, lowest common denominator, play it safe attitude of a movie studio coupled with the your movie has to sell NZ as a product mentality of a government tourism board, and because most of NZ’s tourism image is set around clean green landscapey rural stuff and Maori cultural stuff you get a shit ton of movies set on farms and featuring Maori culture, which I’m not entirely against, those movies and stories certainly have a place, but you find these movies set on farms are made by city dwellers who’ve probably never set foot on one, or having a Maori cultural subplot shoehorned into a script by filmmakers just because they know it will be more likely to get them a green light. But then you find the truly stand out movies we make like Whale Rider, both rurally set, and featuring Maori culture had an almost impossibly hard time getting made because no-one at the NZ film commission saw it’s potential, and you scratch your head and ask what more could they have done? And the answer is probably dumb it down. It just seems to be the case that the worst movies have the easiest track through the system and the exceptional films the film commission wont go near until the movie reaches post, at which time they see there’s a gem on offer, and help out with financing post production so they can slap a NZ film commission logo on the front of the film take all the credit and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
I will say that in the past 5 or so years things have improved quite a lot and there is a much greater diversity in the types of stories being told than there were in years past. But those years gone by have done a lot of damage to the public’s perception of locally made films. People have the attitude of “If it’s a New Zealand made movie it must be shit.” what they really mean is “If it’s a New Zealand made movie it must be shit unless the media tells me otherwise” Because people ate up “Whale Ride”r and “Worlds Fastest Indian”, I think in the first instance because it’s great, and got a lot of critical acclaim internationally, and if there’s one thing the Kiwi public love it’s the rest of the world paying attention to us. In the second instance I think it was just the second half of the equation, Anthony Hopkins is a lauded foreign actor and he agreed to be in a little New Zealand film, yay us. I don’t think it was a bad movie at all, but honestly nothing special.
It’s the movies that don’t make a splash that earn the reputation for NZ making bad movies. Part of that is that we make a lot of bad movies, so does everywhere, the difference is we make bad small movies, we don’t have the luxury of hiding our bad scripts and wooden acting behind a barrage of special effects and explosions. It’s also a case of talent depth. Most of the actors here will have down a soap opera if they’re lucky, sure you’re gonna find a few diamonds in the rough, that will come through in the leading roles, but you’re gonna have some inexperienced players from community theatre filling out the bulk of the cast.
A few years back a memo was leaked from the Film Commission to the print film critics asking that they go easy on NZ made films to get more people along to them, the film critics rightly railed against this. If you’re asking the same ticket price you’ve got to expect the same level of criticism. I guess it’s a dilemma that face all low budget film making how do you compete with a Hollywood blockbuster for the average persons dollar? I think the answers the same for both with unbridled creativity, originality and boldness, and that’s where I have a problem with the way the NZ Film commission is run, they look to standardize, homogenize, and agendarize films until there’s no redeeming value left. Bottom line when you combine a studio mindset with a government department your not setting up an environment for a lot of creative risk takers.
For a brief period there was a tiny glimmer of hope. Ant Timpson is a film lover who’d put most of us to shame, he’s a guy with the largest collection of actual film prints of fucked up weird movies in the Southern Hemisphere, I know he helps out a bit with Fantastic Fest, and also organises numerous film festivals in NZ as well as the annual 48 hour film competition. (which as of writing 2 weeks away). I’m not sure of all the details but for a while he was in charge of an endeavor called Headstrong which was a sub branch of the NZ Film Commission dedicated to funding young filmmakers making low budget digital features. I remember there being a huge buzz in the local filmmaking community at the time of holy shit the Film commission is actually doing something to help people get onto a career path and seeking out new talent rather than just funding the same established old guard all the time, it was just so unlike them. The biggest movie to come out of the project was “The Devil Dared Me To” which was based on a local low budget cult TV show, I really liked the flick, and as far as I know it didn’t do badly and did achieve a bit of a cult status in it’s own right, but it seemed like just as Headstrong was making progress and we were starting to see the results The commission dropped all funding for it. One of the few good things they did right and they shit canned it.
I guess the other thing that gave many hope and shouldn’t go unmentioned was Lord of the Rings. At the time when the hype machine was at it’s peak we were all told that it was going to usher New Zealand film making into a golden age we’d never look back from. It helped, it helped a lot in fact, but most of the impact seems to have come in the form of lots more foreign studios choosing NZ as a filming location, which means there’s a lot more opportunities for crew to get jobs here which means we don’t lose them to other countries which is great. We now have Weta Studios, Weta Workshop, Weta Digital, Also great. Wingnut films are a major sponsor of the 48hours, and Peter Jackson is a guest Judge at the 48hours competition and last year he brought in Guillermo del Toro to guest judge, and the year before that Edgar Wright. But with Lord of the Rings and Whale rider coming out pretty close to each other what I’d really hoped for was a shift in public perception towards NZ film, but it never really happened, people treat them as an exception to the rule and go on ignoring the rest. At the end of the day I guess it’s no different to independent cinema anywhere, it’s a niche market with a few standouts that will catch the public’s eye, it’s just with a tiny population the market for niche is virtually non existent.
I’d like to note that this is not the bitter rant of someone who’s been turned down on a funding application, I’ve never had any personal contact with them whatsoever, although I will say out of all the film makers I’ve met who have had dealing with them, none of them had nice things to say, probably is just sour grapes though. I don’t mean to rail on them like I said up top they do have to answer to the tax payers and balancing commerce and art is never easy Basically what I’m saying to the Film Commission is you’re probably not
going to make any money anyway so why not just piss the tax payers money
away on something daring and awesome? Back the risk takers early on, I think the potential reward is well worth it.
And so as to not be a total negative Nancy here are a few recommendations of NZ films that you should try out
The Devil Dared Me To