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NZ–Germany co-production seminar

One of the special events during the Goethe-Institut German Film Festival, the panel discussion featured a range of people from a range of roles with a range of views.

The Goethe-Institut's Maren NiemeyerPhoto: Deutsche Welle

The Goethe-Institut’s Maren Niemeyer
Photo: Deutsche Welle

Repping the Europeans were the Goethe-Institut’s Film Department programme advisor and doco filmmaker, Maren Niemeyer; and another German documentary maker, Arne Birkenstock, whose Sound of Heimat is currently screening in the German film Festival. Birkenstock also appeared on a panel at Unitec’s Uni Shorts event.

For NZ, John Barnett of South Pacific Pictures and Mladen Ivancic of the NZFC appeared, with late addition Brett Ihaka, a Kiwi who has recently spent time in Berlin trying to raise co-production funding for his own project over there.

Given that Max Currie has appeared on industry panels at several events recently it was a surprise not to see him here, especially since his intended next feature Life (in Subtitles) is set in NZ and Germany.

Ihaka’s story of his experience in Berlin is one of how not to go about securing co-production finance. He went there as a filmmaker, although he sees himself chiefly as a writer, and knocked on doors, cold-calling. Most sent him away instantly, but from the people he was able to talk with he discovered the importance of a great story – not a good one, not an excellent one, but a truly great one. The other essential ingredient was emotion – this is absolutely critical. Ihaka was told that his story had nowhere near enough emotional content. (So much for the German stereotype of cold rationality.)

He also learnt that a successful co-production story is a cross-cultural one. The one story that German co-production partners can be tempted by is one in which people from two cultures are brought together, there is conflict, a split, and an utterly essential bringing back together at the end. Barnett pointed out that a film can be a successful co-production despite being set within one specific culture (such as Whale Rider) but where the film’s theme is universal.

Barnett’s experience with Whale Rider is instructive. Beyond finance, a big advantage of a co-production is the bringing to the project of an outside perspective, a third eye. The film’s editors in Köln kept asking “What does this mean?”, “Why is this here?”. As a result, the film is more accessible to international audiences in a way that has no doubt contributed to its worldwide popularity.

Cultural conflict need not be between cultures as distant from one another as Europeand and Anitpodeans as the Maori. The contrasts between the French and German ways of seeing things is sufficient to create drama; West Germany is still getting to grips with the culture of the former East Germany; various European countries are challenged by their relationships with former colonial subcultures.

Part of Ihaka’s difficulty was that he went there as a writer, without a producer. There is no point approaching potential co-production partners in Germany without a Kiwi producer attached, and no point approaching a German TV network without a German producer already involved. It is also a complete waste of time to go to Germany seeking co-production without New Zealand finance already committed.

Both Barnett and Birkenstock described the nature of a co-production partnership as being like a marriage. You need to know each other’s personalities and work habits if you are to work together successfully.

Arne Birkenstock

Arne Birkenstock

Even in Birkenstock’s and Niemeyer’s documentary world, co-production is not a business for small players. There is no point in looking at the co-production deal unless you are dealing with a budget of at least €400,000 (NZ$600,000 plus). Birkenstock’s documentaries have budgets of between €700,000 and €1 million which, he is at pains to point out, is because people are properly paid for their work!

He criticizes the situation where recent film school graduates, desperate to get a project up, will make a film for almost nothing; and then are expected by funders to work at that budget level ad infinitum. When Niemeyer pointed out that some schools in Germany are producing 800 directors per year, Barnett commented that the situation in New Zealand is even worse – with our population of 4.5 million compared to Germany’s 80 million, we are nevertheless producing 500 “directors” out of our film schools annually! It is, according to Barnett, too easy to go to film school in New Zealand.

The regional film funds in Germany make for a significant factor to take into account. Regional funders, based on the various German states (much like those of Australia), have far more funds available than any national source. Most filmmakers are attracted to the cultural hotspot of Germany, Berlin – but Berlin is the poorest of the regional funders, by a long way. There is also no point in applying for funding in Berlin/Brandenburg when the film’s story is set in Bavaria, and vice-versa.

Generally co-production requires that key personnel are split between the co-production partners, usually in a proportion related to the financial contribution. Commonly, shooting is done in one country and post in the other. But New Zealand is in a unique situation – while finance and key creative personnel must be split in some relative proportion to the budget over the two countries, the actual content of the film can be set anywhere in the world.

An important aim of co-production is to increase a project’s international appeal but in seeking co-production finance from New Zealand, there are the seeds of a Catch-22 situation. German co-production partners are not interested unless there is already some financial commitment from New Zealand. It is harder to get money for a co-production from the Film Commission unless one already has some finance from the overseas partner. The same appears to apply to approval for a co-production agreement – the Film Commission has the role of administering co-production agreements from the New Zealand side.

Cinema and TV are very strongly linked in Germany. It is impossible nowadays to make a film for cinema there without TV money involved. Regrettably TV is withdrawing from the cinema side of things. Despite it being a relatively wealthy country, compared with NZ, and having a long-standing reputation as one of the more generous funders of the arts in general, it is just as difficult to raise money for a film project in Germany as it is here.

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