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BSS 2014: the road to feature success

Dave Gibson talked features and how to get to the point of making one as the NZFC makes some significant changes to how it views the landscape.

Gibson used the metaphor of a river and a bunch of stepping stones on which one might tread to reach the other side, the promised land of feature filmmaking. Those stepping stones broadly fell into three categories: ones initiated and wholly or substantially funded by the NZFC; those initiated elsewhere and receiving some NZFC support; and those with no direct connection to the NZFC.

IMG: NZFC

IMG: NZFC

The image accompanying the description showed almost thirty stepping stones. The routes available are many and varied and no two people are likely to take the same combination. Some may even bypass the stones altogether, take an almighty run up and leap right across the river without using the stones. Some will start on one route, fall off and get back on another stone.

What Gibson was driving at was that the NZFC wasn’t the answer to all problems. If you want to make a feature, there are other ways than expecting the NZFC to pave the way there, so don’t be afraid to take them for some or all of the journey.

What the NZFC wants is success, which Gibson defined as bloody good films being seen and enjoyed by different people. Come in with a great idea, a great script and nobody’s going to check that you’re already in the club. If something has potential, the NZFC wants to help it and its creators move it forward.

Gibson noted that although Gerard Johnstone had made a successful film under a wholly NZFC-initiated and supported scheme, Escalator, that wasn’t going to be the major thing driving his career forward from this point. Peter Jackson calling the film “Bloody brilliant” and making some introductions overseas was probably going to be of far more benefit to Johnstone in taking the next step.

As part of his work with the Screen Advisory Board Jackson and partner Fran Walsh will be doing more of that: helping talented people make connections early in the careers.

Gibson explained the NZFC’s “stated aim is to support the production of 8 – 12 features a year … But we would prefer even more. Diversity is a key goal, by budget, genre and audience appeal.”

The intention is to be more able to be more responsive. Gibson said in another internveiw recently that “if you’ve spent $5 on making something, it sometimes makes sense to spend the extra 50c to make it really good”.

That flexibility was applied to Hip Hop-eration, which opened two days before BSS, and to a couple of titles announced for the Fresh Shorts scheme the day before BSS.

Now there’s a requirement for non-government cash in most feature titles, the NZFC has made some changes to help producers get those commitments. It supplies letters of interest, which Gibson said “seem to be working well”, and – as it exits the sales agency business – is making introductions to sales agents.

Gibson also noted other ways of looking for cash, including the ongoing crowdfunding campaign for The Patriarch (which yesterday passed its $300,000 trigger on the way to its hoped-for $500,000).

Gibson said he wasn’t much interested in inventing more schemes, “or things with a name”.

He’d rather see the Commission – mostly at staff level – able to spot those opportunities, identify those projects that would fall through cracks or not be eligible for schemes like Escalator (Jonathan King’s Realiti, for example).

The NZFC will, therefore, introduce a new lower-budget “opportunity”, even if that sounds a bit like a scheme without a name. Basically addressing, in different ways, films below $500,000 anf dilms $500,000 – $1 million, the intentions behind the plan are to:

  • increase the number of New Zealand feature films produced each year;
  • increase the development opportunities for the next generation of talent both behind and in front of the camera;
  • increase the quality of low budget films through exposure to overseas attachments; and
  • build relationships for filmmakers.

Gibson was clear that it was not an attempt to get what, to greater or lesser degrees, all the Escalator films turned into – making bigger films on smaller budgets by deferring people’s pay.

“We are looking for projects with strong scripts and audience prospects, from exciting teams,” he said, which sounded very Escalator-esque apart from the bit where an audience is expected to want to see it.

There are innovative elements in the funding plan, using distributors and sales agents to drive a pre-sale, which will determine the overall budget and the size of the NZFC cheque. As it did in the later stages of Escalator, the NZFC will attach (and pay separately for) an Executive Producer. Applications will go through the normal board process.

It’s all getting very market-focused and that will please some filmmakers more than others. There’ll be non genre restrictions and doco titles will also be eligible for consideration. It will, therefore, become harder to get NZFC support for what Gibson called “dark art-house films, with low to moderate audience appeal”, which is a welcome volte-face from five years ago when it was hard to get NZFC support for anything else.

Gibson also drew attention to changes to the NZFC offer around distribution grants. There’ll be four going forward, including the Innovation grant, trialled for the day and date NZIFF/VOD release for Max Currie’sEverything We Loved.

Gibson’s full address to the BSS is available here.

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