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Shorts in a bit of a twist

Show Me Shorts responds to the NZFC’s consultation paper on short film, taking issue with some of the NZFC’s assumptions around short film, its purpose and funding. In his addresses to industry in February, Dave Gibson outlined proposed changes around short film, which were further developed in the NZFC’s consultation paper.

The major change announced by Gibson was that short film funding might not in future be used for making short films; therefore, the number of NZFC-supported short films might diminish as a result.

The NZFC’s rationale is clear. Short film is a pathway towards features. (The NZFC is now very big on pathways.) It makes sense to direct some of the money and effort around short film to help filmmakers transition and move feature ideas forward.

Show Me Shorts (SMS), the country’s strongest advocate for short film as a genre, has responded – supporting some proposals and taking issue with others. SMS supports aspects of the NZFC’s proposals, including efforts to address the issue of transitioning from shorts to features; the inclusion of documentary shorts (“A greater variety of projects not only fulfills growing audience appetite for variety, but also encourages development of diverse voices”); and “allowing filmmakers to pitch projects ‘up to $70,000’, rather than exclusively at the level of $70,000”.

But, argues SMS, the present system of supporting short film isn’t broken. Indeed, it’s very successful.

NZ is very good at making much-loved short films, second only to France in terms of the number of short films in Cannes, apparently. However as Gibson pointed out, “It has now been 13 years since NZ had a feature film screen there: Christine Jeffs’ Rain in Directors’ Fortnight back in 2001. That’s a long time between drinks.”

Show Me Shorts’ opposition to the NZFC’s proposed actions is not based on any objection to helping filmmakers transition into features, but the impact of doing that on short films. In particular this comes down to two issues:

  • there will be fewer films made, as some Premiere Shorts funding will not go to films, but (from Gibson’s speech) be “aimed at supporting visual material which could be a short, a trailer, a taste tape or some scenes from your proposed feature”; and
  • that short film is a creative or art form deserving of support in its own right.

The new proposals wouldn’t mark the first time short film funding has been used to attract support for a feature. Tusi Tamasese and producer Catherine Fitzgerald used the short Va Tapuia (not supported by the NZFC) to shoot a piece that would convince the NZFC to support feature O Le Tulafale, which went on to win three awards at Venice in 2011.

SMS argues that the funding to create feature-focused material should come from feature funding budgets, eg development, rather than eat into short film budgets.

The NZFC directs c$1 million (including some operations spend) to making short films, plus support for 48HOURS, Tropfest, Show Me Shorts, NZ International Film Festival and Wairoa Maori Film Festival.

“We value the role of these talent incubators,” Gibson said.

The difficulty of trying to argue for retention of support for short films – or anything else – on grounds of intrinsic merit is that that boat has long sailed.

When Gibson’s predecessor, Graeme Mason, was appointed to lead the NZFC it signalled a shift – an acceptance that commercial nous had become a necessary part of the role of the NZFC. While the NZFC hasn’t developed a love of commercialism in the way that, say, TVNZ has, it’s clear that there’ll be no going back.

There never was enough money in NZ film funding to sustain careers. Towards the end of his tenure, Mason was pushing the line that the NZFC definition of success was “overseas”, a suggestion the Jackson-Court review had also made.

The driver of that opinion remains: there’s not enough money. In real terms, there’s less even state cash in film now than when Jackson, Court and Mason formed their opinions, due to the sinking lid of standstill funding and the exhaustion of the Film Fund.

Events both within and without the industry since 2009 have done nothing to diminish the shift to a more commercial focus. Show Me Shorts is absolutely right to argue that NZ shouldn’t throw away a world-class reputation for its short films – but being among the best is no longer a reason to be supported, at least unless you’re an Americas Cup team.

What will save the funding (and the short films it makes) will be the ability to point to X number of filmmakers who’ve transitioned from making short films to a successful career in features – and by successful, one means filmmakers who are on someone else’s payroll.

The NZFC consultation paper is here. Show Me Shorts’ submission is here. Submissions closed on Friday 28 March. The NZFC proposes to meet with focus groups in late April with a view to announcing new structures in May, and implementing them as of the start of its new financial year on 1 July.

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