The opening session of the Big Screen Symposium kicked off with a good amount of industry star power giving their observations on the state of play. Gaylene Preston wrangled Roger Horrocks, Larry Parr, Robert Sarkies, Tim White and Leanne Saunders.
In opening, Preston noted two drivers of the current state of play, one the democratization of the filmmaking process courtesy of the internet and the coming of age of digital filmmaking, both of which were picked up by other speakers.
She also addressed what she called our “triumphant amateurism”, noting that of the local filmmakers whose latest efforts were deemed worthy of NZIFF selection this year, and 2012 has been a bumper year for NZ content in the festival, none have made money from those films. Yet, at least.
First up was Roger Horrocks, long a person who’s been able to provide an overview and strong analysis of the industry. Acknowledging the opportunities that the digital era was presenting us with, he added a note of caution, that “we live in an amnesiac age”.
There’s long been a trend to commercialism and built-in obsolescence, which might work well for business but, he argued, served culture less kindly. There exists a real threat that in the rush to embrace the new opportunities we lose sight of what has given the long-lasting NZ films of the last 30+ years their longevity: strong production values applied to strong ideas.
There’s been, he said, “a boom in low budget production”, but with it has come “a danger of creating a disposable tradition where the lack of production value will mean product is replaced by next crop rather than being retain and archived and used.”
Larry Parr reinforced the importance of the cultural investment made in NZ film and TV and argued that we should acknowledge it as such. Since its inception, he claimed, NZ On Air has put direct taxpayer subsidy of over $2 billion into the industry and recouped less than 5% of that. The numbers for Te Mangai Paho were proportionately worse.
Such taxpayer intervention, he argued, could not be considered a business subsidy. But to maximise the value of the cultural subsidy, the material produced with that money “needs to be seen by as many people as possible on as many platforms as possible, for as long as possible.”
Parr opened by claiming “A lot of people said no before they got my name out of the barrel.
With Gaylene you get consistent, when you get me you get what I’ve reinvented myself as.”
While the comment was self-effacing, it acknowledged the need to embrace change in moving forward.
Tim White also looked back, noting that when he started out there was no film infrastructure, no tertiary level training, no career path and hat the people who stood out as NZ filmmakers over the last 30 years were people who’d been driven, independent and visionary.
He believed that, internationally, there was still money looking to support such people. Earlier this year in Cannes he’d put together deals on two projects, both of which would see directors with strong visions get their first features up.
Sarkies claimed that, as an industry, we often sugar coat reality.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere, stuck in the Pacific Ocean, and nobody cares,” he suggested. The good news was that the boat wasn’t leaky. The less good news was that, in his opinion, it lacked a rudder.
While increased accessibility of low budget filmmaking might create opportunities, Sarkies felt that low budget schemes such as Escalator could potentially damage the careers of some filmmakers, putting them into features before they were ready.
There’s long been a belief that a poor (funded) first feature in NZ is a fast track to never being funded for a feature again. Whether or not it’s policy, the number of filmmakers funded to one feature in NZ dwarfs the number who’ve been supported to make two or more.
It wouldn’t be so bad, Sarkies felt, if we were taking risks and making exciting and challenging films, what he called “cinema”. However, he felt – and included himself in the criticism – that we weren’t doing that, and called for a stronger sense of vision at both individual and collective level around the films that should be being made, and supported to be made, in NZ.
Parr’s point about the level of return for funded TV programmes was picked up by Saunders, who opened by claiming, “Most of our films are made with soft money and that has insulated us from thinking about our audiences and how our films will perform domestically and internationally.”
Picking up on a point from Ted Hope’s workshop on Friday, she repeated his question: how do we increase value for people watching our films?
She claimed not to have an answer, but felt it wasn’t something that wasn’t currently being given sufficient focus either generally or specifically in relation to exploiting the opportunities digital filmmaking and distribution offered.
It wasn’t a gung-ho opening session for the Symposium, but rather an overview of perspectives which acknowledged some realities. Over the remainder of the two days, the sessions will delve deeper into various aspects of the journey from script to screen.