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NZFC makes changes to funding

Reactions to the funding changes announced in the Film Commission’s (NZFC) latest newsletter were mixed, if a little delayed. Industry bodies didn’t regard 5pm on Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend as the best time to make policy announcements.

Changes introduced in the newsletter addressed the Devolved Development Fund (DDF), funding of feature documentaries, both in development and production, and development funding for writers without producers attached to a project.

The timing was awkward, as the ministerial review due to be delivered “shortly” to the Minister for Culture and Heritage, Chris Finlayson, might recommend other changes. Apparently, the report is about three quarters complete, with Peter Jackson and David Court meeting yesterday to work on the remainder.

The most significant change announced for producers was the abolition of the DDF scheme whereby experienced filmmakers could receive up to $200,000 for the development of a slate of films.

The Screen Production and Development Association (SPADA) said, “The end of the DDFs may send confusing messages to producers given that market conditions at the moment are very tight and the time is ideal for a period of sustained development in readiness for when the market does improve.”

Producer Overhead Funds and Devolved Development Funds have now been merged into four Producer Awards, worth $50,000 each.

In the Screen Production Incentive Fund (SPIF) environment, producers receiving DDF have been able to develop projects with financial assistance – but little control – from the NZFC. Theoretically it has been possible to develop a project with support from the DDF, then bypass the NZFC funding structures to fund production via SPIF and other third-party investment.

This change to devolved development funding suggested to some an attempt by the NZFC to regain some of that lost control. But Graeme Mason, CEO of the NZFC, argues that’s definitely not the intention, saying he “would be thrilled if filmmakers weren’t looking to the NZFC to match SPIF funding.”

The reality has been that filmmakers accessing SPIF have had difficulty finding other investors in the current climate, and the NZFC has received a large number of co-funding applications from producers seeking to match their $2.5 million SPIF funding.

The ‘losers’ will be the very small number of people able to access devolved development funding, and even they won’t be cut out of the picture completely, according to Mr Mason.

Mechanisms had been put in place to enable them to seek development support on a more regular basis, and to provide market assistance, for which recipients of DDF were not previously eligible.

The caps on staff committee funding decisions has also been raised, reducing the number of applications that have to go before the NZFC Board.

Penelope Borland, CE of SPADA, said that while there were messages that as much funding as possible should be going into production, that came from consultation some time ago relating to co-investment with SPIF, it wasn’t anticipated that this would come largely out of development but that all areas of NZFC expenditure would be looked at.

Graeme Mason said that all areas of expenditure had been looked at, and that the NZFC had reduced its own overhead by around 10% as part of its attempt to direct as much funding as possible to production.

In contrast to some producers, who might regard themselves as losing out from the changes announced, the two ‘winners’ in the announcements were writers and documentary filmmakers.

Steven Gannaway, Executive Director of The Writers’ Guild (NZWG), broadly welcomed the initiative enabling writers to access early development funding without the need to attach a producer, but expressed reservations about the amount of money on offer.

He was looking forward to seeing more detail, particularly to understand what results the NZFC expected the $7,500 Writers’ Development Loan to deliver. Writers must assign the rights to a producer before applying for further development funding.

The NZWG said it would “be working with the [NZFC] to provide practical information and guidelines on how this new development funding opportunity will work for writers.”

SPADA agreed that while there was merit in awarding funding to writers for initial development, there should still be a requirement for producers to be attached to projects in full development. “As a guiding principle, when funds are scarce they should be prioritised to achieve a production outcome.”

Alex Lee and Dan Shanan, co-founders of the Documentary NZ Trust (DOCNZ), which runs the DOCNZ film festival and accompanying summit, welcomed the changes announced to funding of feature documentaries.

Unlike for dramatic features, documentary filmmakers have not had a clear route to feature documentary development and production funding. With the increasing popularity of feature documentaries, DOCNZ had called for a funding structure beyond the broadcast format supported by NZ On Air.

Alex Lee said, “By supporting documentary films, [NZFC] recognizes the potential of documentary as a viable cinematic expression. It allows New Zealand to come to the international co-production table as an equity partner and will encourage our pool of talented filmmakers to compete internationally.”

Graeme Mason spoke to us this morning, emphasising that all the changes made were a direct response to concerns expressed by the industry that a higher degree of the NZFC spend should be directed towards production. “Some of the detail might be a surprise, but the big picture isn’t.”

Given that available funding would never match filmmakers’ wishes, Graeme believed that the NZFC had done the best it could in opening the door to the widest number of people and projects.

Simultaneously he was trying to protect the future of the industry by providing support for emerging filmmakers so that there will still be an industry in ten or twenty years, and that the people working in it will be skilled and exciting filmmakers, be they writers, directors, producers or other key creatives.

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