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SPADA 09: Julie Christie, a cat among the pigeons

Julie Christie kick-started the conference with a strong, opinionated and well-argued case for producers taking back control of their programmes, their money, and the industry.

She opened with the statement, “I was told when asked to make this address that I should be bold,” and delivered on that request. She was bold, but not offensive. Although there was plenty of criticism of current systems, Ms Christie didn’t single out individuals.

Having spoken to a number of people before the conference who felt they might be targets, this was probably a smart decision. Arguments presented rationally, with conviction and passion, are more persuasive than emotional rants, however satisfying those might be to deliver on occasion.

The boldness was in the proposal. Let’s treat the TV business like we treat other important New Zealand businesses. Let’s offer them support, at a governmental level, not give with one NZOA hand and then take back a share of sales profits with the other. Let government partner with producers and broadcasters to deliver television that people will watch, that advertisers will pay to be a part of, that overseas buyers will want to purchase.

She argued that free to air television might never recover from the economic recession and earn the ad revenues of the past, that there was no guarantee advertisers would return to traditional platforms. Presently, internet advertising in NZ ranks at about 10% of the TV advertising spend but in the UK in the first half of this year, the spend on internet advertising overtook the TV ad spend for the first time. It won’t happen here for a while, but it’s coming.

Nonetheless, Ms Christie said, we need free to air television. She challenged the audience to think about how that might be funded, what it might look like, and to decide whether they wanted to be part of building a TV production industry or just battling to keep an ailing one afloat.

She claimed that there was little opportunity to make money domestically, so “all that is left is for us to make a splash internationally.”

From 2001 to 2003, Julie chaired the Government funded Screen Production Industry Taskforce, charged with identifying the barriers to major growth in foreign exchange earnings and with reporting to the Government how those barriers might be removed.

The Taskforce predictably recommended that the screen sector needed a range of things; business and marketing skills, entrepreneurship, independence, innovation, determination and vision to compete in the international marketplace; and noting that the industry owed much of its development to a cultural subsidy funding environment.

The report also noted that the New Zealand industry did not have the benefit of quotas or investment incentives, and that the development and exploitation of intellectual property was one of the major ways in which the industry could be responsible for its own growth without direct Government funding or intervention.

The Government largely ignored the report. Ms Christie took her own advice. In 2002-4 her own company Touchdown collected $22 million in foreign revenues from one format programme.

So what should New Zealand do? Julie suggested a range of measures, the most contentious being to become unrepentantly market-driven and to make television in New Zealand rather than always New Zealand television.

She suggested taking the funds Government “ploughs into the industry” through funding bodies and concentrating not on a perception of cultural identity but on our economic development. The result, she claimed, would be funding decisions not “driven by ethnicity loosely disguised as cultural identity”, but driven by the local and international markets. Broadcasters would screen programming for which there was demand. Larger shows such as Dancing with the Stars would not be lost.

Our one-off documentary obsession had no market basis and was something we needed to get over. We need to be making kids’ shows that kids want to watch: in the US three kids’ shows, Wizards of Waverley Place, Zack & Cody on Deck and Hannah Montana, none of them on free to air, were the top three rating shows recently.

There was “no one keener to sell a product than the producers,” she said, and as a producer herself, that had to be taken at face value. Like them or not, many of her sentiments and opinions about the international marketplace were backed up in a presentation on international distribution by Yvonne Body of Beyond International.

Julie argued that we could make TV for ourselves and for the world but we would need to consider the world from the outset not as a mere add-on, sentiments with which Ms Body would agree.

Will the government change the rules to allow a plan as bold as Ms Christie’s to be tested for the three-year period she recommended. Of course not, but that’s not really the point. The gauntlet was thrown down once more to producers and broadcasters. Do they want to be a part of an industry that is successful domestically and internationally? Or do they want to watch ad revenue and NZOA funding eaten away until they’re trying to make programmes on the smell of an oily rag, if at all?

Ms Christie has a plan and, just as with the Taskforce report, one suspects she’ll follow it, regardless of whether or not others follow her lead.

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