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BSS 2012: a big career

One of the biggest NZ careers, that of Sam Neill, got individual attention in the Symposium’s closing session on Sunday. Earlier in the weekend, Magik and Rose director Vanessa Alexander wrangled Ant Timpson, Dave Gibson, Nick Ward and Rena Owen, seeking common ground and experience in trying to build a decent career in a small environment.

The common ground between the speakers came in the form of pies and Larry Parr, with all of the speakers having worked for one or the other.

Nick Ward also put his experiences with pies to good use as a metaphor, explaining that these days he doesn’t do a lot else to put food on the table other than write but has done plenty of other stuff over the years. As a creator, he claimed that creativity was a renewable resource, and that the more one used one’s creativity, the more of it one found one had.

He cited an oft-visited bakery in Otaki where the people made pies with a lot of love, and equating those pies to the work on created oneself. For that reason, he called a spec script “the most powerful weapon you can own”, and admitted “In my career I’ve probably made a few too many service station pies.” And, he added, his first ever paid writing job was the blurb for the back of the packaging for Big Ben Pies.

Dave Gibson worked in a pie factory early in his life, and the other speakers all managed to find some connection with them.

Other than pies, and being given work early on by Larry Parr, the two themes that quickly emerged as important for all the panel members in sustaining their careers were diversity and looking offshore.

Timpson explained that what he really had was a lot of small, separate careers with the various projects he’s involved with, including the Incredibly Strange section of the film festival and V48 Hours, Make My Movie and now the Sorta Unofficial Film Awards, all being standalone events – even if there’s considerable overlap between them in the people he works with and has built relationships with.

Ward, whose first TV writing job came from Dave Gibson, said as a writer it was important to have a number of diverse projects to offer – whether seeking to sell a spec or seek work as a writer for hire. Meetings, particularly overseas, finished up very quickly if you were touting a romcom and the people you’d booked time with had suddenly developed an interest in horror, he suggested.

Reinforcing a point made by Timpson and Rena Owen, he also said that putting yourself out there was the most important thing. He offered the an evening of heavy drinking in Australia with some producers who asked him what he would do with a property they’d been offered. Fired by alcohol, he told them. Two weeks later, the producers offered him the job of doing what he’d proposed. Unfortunately, when sobriety had returned memory hadn’t, so he had to ask them to be a bit more specific.

“You should do more work in Asia,” recommended Gibson.

Gibson Group has half a dozen people who are overseas regularly. “We work really hard on relationship-building,” he said of Asia in particular.

Noting that some time ago he decided that it was better to look further afield to build the company than try to compete fixed size pot of funding available in NZ, he cited a number of examples of overseas projects successfully completed and in train. Currently, 50% of Gibson group’s income comes from overseas. “We decided to try to fish in areas where there are bigger fish … you have to go a little further out but the pickings are richer.”

Relationships built over time with a Korean production company and distributor saw them invest in Gibson Group’s upcoming feature Fresh Meat.

Like Timpson, who has built a number of longstanding relationships over a period years, Gibson claimed that in Asia the relationship is – in some ways – more important than the deal. “A lot of people are in the business a long time and they can stomach the occasional failure.”

He also noted that doing business overseas is sometimes easier. “We used to go to MIPCOM to sell to TVNZ because we couldn’t get through the door at Avalon.”

Owen’s career has been one of changes of direction. A performer in her youth, she trained as a nurse “because the arts was not a career option for a Maori girl” then headed to London to train as a doctor “but discovered drugs instead.”

What she was clear about and kept returning to, as did all the speakers, was the importance of creating opportunities for oneself that served a goal. After returngin to study in the form of drama school in England, Owen said she “knew from day one that nobody was going to write a role for a Maori girl” and write material for herself.

Owen hasn’t always capitalised on opportunities on offer, noting that she turned down roles in the US in the wake of the international success of Once Were Warriors, “although I’d take the money now.”

Her current focus is on getting a film up.

Moving on to the toolkit, Alexander asked panellists to offer a bit of what they’d learned and any advice they had to offer.

Timpson claimed that early on he’d realised his talent was limited but his confidence not so much. “When I saw my films I realised I’m not going to be a great director.” But he was happy to pitch, pitch, and pitch again, so taking on a producer/entrepreneur role has been a much better fit for his personality and skills. He also reckoned his very social nature has made him a lot of friends along the way … and a good number of those people he’s known for ten or twenty years are now in places they can be useful to him in advancing projects.

Owen reckoned “The best thing you have to offer to the world is who you are,” and that people should use their own voice rather than imitate or try to be what seemed to work for others.

Gibson noted the importance of learning lessons, saying that the company’s intention to build relationships in Asia hadn’t gone as planned, and that there were specific as well general things they’d learned and were working to change. Most directly, he felt that film projects were easier to realise than TV as joint ventures with Asian companies, but that there were still some hurdles to overcome, particularly in the different cultures attitudes and practices around script development.

The session might have benefitted from being two, since one of the things that emerged was that there was a considerable difference in building a career for those who were essentially contractors and those who sought to build companies.

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