After four years at the helm of the NZFC, Dave Gibson departs this Christmas to put in some well-earned rest. Earlier this month, SCREENZ caught up with Gibson in Auckland for a chat about the last few years.
When Gibson took on the job he wanted a three-year contract, was given a five-year one, and guaranteed then chair Patsy Reddy he’d stick around for four. “It feels right,” Gibson said, who’s spoken previously about liking to see a flow of industry people into and out of the Commission. He also noted that, as the screen industy is essentially project-driven, it makes sense to do what you want to do and then move on.
Gibson reckons giving seven months’ notice (his official leaving date is mid-January) was possibly a bit much. Although it’s given the board plenty of time to look for appoint Gibson’s replacement, he’s aware that while he’s still busy, there’s also an element of marking time at present. Some things he feels should be left for the new arrival, Annabelle Sheehan, who’s been in Wellington learning the ropes.
There are plenty of projects Gibson has see through in his time, so we talk legacy and the things he’s happy to have achieved and be remembered for.
Establishing and promoting a sense of vision for the agency and the industry has been a major part of Gibson’s work these last four years.
“We judge our success by the success of the industry,” he says, and there have been some pretty good successes he’s happy to have contributed to.
As for hard outcomes, new box office records for both domestic narrative and documentary have been set. The amount of international production work heading to NZ is up considerably from when Gibson took over, although he’s quick to share the credit around for that.
Former NZFC chair Patsy Reddy is widely credited for her work behind the scenes that led John Key’s National government to pull its head out of the sand when the 15% incentive rate wasn’t delivering productions to our shores. The new 20% rate, with an optional 5% uplift, has been a success.
While that’s been all good Gibson acknowledges that, disappointingly, there’s a lull right at the time he’s departing.
James Cameron’s Avatar and Niki Caro’s Mulan are both delayed from their expected production dates (not for the first time in Avatar’s case), and so there’s not as much happening right now as there might be.
But the overall amount of work is up, and the benefits flowing from those productions are not just actual work. The studio and water tanks out at Kumeu from Meg are one concrete example – literally. Yesterday the Commission made announcements about partnerships around Christian Rivers’ Mortal Engines.
The NZFC now has a bigger role in all these things than it used to. The absorption of Film NZ into the Commission and the shift of Film NZ’s aims away from the Hollywood or bust mentality under its previous CEO have paid dividends. While US studio features continue to be the source of the most lucrative inbound production, Gibson has been more open to growing relationships in other parts of the world than any of his predecessors.
There have also been some strategic efforts made by the Commission to service international productions with more NZ crew. A while ago it was apparent that there was a dearth of experienced and qualified location crew, and so Gibson pushed forward with some support to upskill and expand NZ’s capacity in that area.
Gibson has increased the number and range of features getting made and released with Commission support (11 in the year to June 2017). He’d like to see that growth continue, in part to help mitigate the feast or famine nature of a project-driven industry. In order for that to happen, the industry needs more producers. More producers can create more work and more work is good for everybody.
With the support of Vista, the NZFC has developed the A-Z producing course to upskill producers, which has been getting good reviews from participants.
We talk a little about the benefit of hindsight and what, if he were able to wind back the clock, Gibson would do differently. “I’d do some things more quickly,” he said, citing the A-Z programme as one thing he wished he’d got to sooner.
Gibson did make a number of significant changes fairly early on in his stint, touring the country to lay out his ideas at a number of meetings, and later introducing more plans at the Big Screen Symposium where the planets first made an appearance.
In his first year at the NZFC, Gibson closed down the sales agency, which needed to happen and would probably have happened earlier if Graeme Mason hadn’t had a beackground in sales. The coda to the sales agency story has just been written with the recent announcement of the repurposing of the New Zealand Production Fund Trust (better known as the Film Fund) to become Te Puna Ataata, the New Zealand Film Heritage Trust..
Gibson also reworked the way the agency supported short film. The changes drew some criticism, and it’s still too soon to know if the change of Premiere Shorts to Premiere Pathways will help short filmmakers move towards features more easily, but there are promising signs.
NZ has long had a strong reputation internationally for short film, and that’s not gone away under the changes Gibson has implemented. Roseanne Liang’s Do No Harm premiered at Sundance this year and went on to achieve Oscar qualification. Zoe McIntosh’s The World in Your Window won at Clermont-Ferrand, the world’s premiere shorts festival. A one-off initiative has Hash Perambalan and Hweiling Ow making genre shorts.
Women were significant beneficiaries of changes to NZFC policy during Gibson’s time at the helm. Reporting of statistics, followed by policy initiatives, now see women writing, directing and producing around 50% of funded films.
Gibson has put a lot of work into establishing policy to support Maori and female filmmakers – and both in the case of the Ramai Hayward Wahine Māori Directors’ Scholarship. The successful release of Waru reinforces the value of making such effort.
The relationship with government is also something Gibson’s happy with. He believes the agency is well-regarded by government for its sense of self, and that while he’s been in charge the agency made a good economic case to government about the benefits of support.
Of course, having put in place reporting that delivers the sort of numbers and analysis for a government that knew the price of everything and the value of very little, Gibson is leaving as the government changes and a considerably more arts-friendly administration comes to power.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has already made it clear that her government will take a much more holistic view of the benefits of the arts, and the levels at which they’ll be supported. Fellow screen funding agency NZ On Air is already able to look towards the future more positively.
The reporting the NZFC has in place measures both economic and cultural value, so Ardern is likely to find what she feels she needs to support the agency going forward, just as Key’s government was able to find what it wanted. The NZIER report will be updated annually going forward.
That change of government delayed the tabling of a number of annual reports in the Hose, and therefore their wider release. The NZFC report was published last week, and notes a large number of achievements off screen.
Remit change was also on the menu during Gibson’s term. While NZ ON Air’s broader remit saw it move into supporting digital media several years ago, the NZFC has only recent started to dip its toes into that pond. At a recent SPADA Conference the Commission presente d on ways it might help support a film’s ancillary digital activity, such as a game. More recently it introduced the pilot Interactive Development Fund.
There have been other changes too such as the introduction of the pause clause, and test screenings, which are credited improving a number of features hitting our screens in the last couple of years.
It’s been a good four years for the Commission as a whole and Gibson in particular, and so he leaves with plenty of runs on the board. Gibson’s immediate plans involve a slow boat, not to China but to the South Island, and time to wind down although he’s not using the word “retirement”. Expect to see him around the traps again.