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Vote for me

On Wednesday evening at Auckland’s Unitec, speakers from the Greens, Labour and National laid out their respective party’s beliefs, policies and intentions for the screen industries going forward.

The event was, to a degree, an exercise in repetition as – at least as far as Labour and National are concerned – their positions are fairly well-known. Labour had formally announced its Arts & Culture policy a few days ahead of the Forum, so there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room for Labour’s Jacinda Ardern.

From the left ... Labour's Jacinda Ardern, the Greens' Denise Roche and National's Melissa Lee

From the left … Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, the Greens’ Denise Roche and National’s Melissa Lee

At #13 on the party list, it’s a flip of the coin whether the Greens’ Denise Roche will return to the Beehive after the election. Ardern (#5) and National’s Melissa Lee (#31), as in clover, although she did bring a reference copy of the Greens’ policy on various issues with her.

Entirely predictably, Lee came in for most of the stick because of a considerable amount of residual anger about the suffering in the industry, particularly in Auckland, last year.

Happily the government did eventually move on incentives, or there might not have been anyone left for candidates to address. As it was, the turn out was poor. For an industry from which so many voices were raised to express concern last year, less than 60 turned out for the meeting.

Admittedly the 5.30pm start time was hardly user-friendly, certainly for anybody actively involved in production or trying to negotiate the North Western motorway. The debate’s moderator, journalist Nick Grant, arrived somewhat later than planned courtesy of gridlock.

“See – Auckland needs trains,” jibed Jacinda Ardern.

On topic, Lee outlined the big picture, citing the $2.5 billion of inbound production spend in NZ over the last decade, the huge growth of the industry itself in the last two decades. She also noted that it was important that we grow “our own industry”, and not just be a service industry for international productions.

Lee also noted that the incentive spend came from the Econmic Development vote, not the Arts & Culture vote, so claims that money spent on supporting inbound prouctions was effectively being taken away from local production were incorrect.

A National government was, she said, committed to growing NZ’s creative work force. Labour and the Greens were also committed to that aim, Roche calling screen industry product a prime example of “the weightless exports we want to see for NZ”. The devil – and any differentiation between the parties’ positions – would be in the detail of exactly how such growth might be achieved.

Lee maintained that National was committed to IP creation as one route to that growth. While she didn’t cite the games industry’s impressive record in that area, she did note that – as a former producer of Asia Down Under – she had some understanding of the production sector and an understanding of the benefits of IP ownership versus service work.

The day following the Forum, Nick Grant put some questions to Minister Stephen Joyce, asking if he still favoured the industry focusing on IP development.

He did, answering

The way to build a sustainable industry is for more companies based here to produce films based on New Zealand creative IP, which is successful on the world stage. That’s the reason why … we set up a new approach where medium-sized productions (between $15 million and $50 million) which feature New Zealand content and significant local creative control will qualify for more support than previously. This will help harness and grow the benefits from local intellectual property.

One can learn as much by the questions that are ducked as the ones that are answered. At Unitec all three candidates substantively ducked two questions in particular.

The Coalition for Better Broadcasting’s Myles Thomas asked whether IP owners should have the right to geo-block material. Ardern answered that Labour was committed to protecting the rights of copyright holders. The other question, rasied in a couple of forms, was whether screen sector state agencies would be combined or, more bluntly, whether Film NZ still had a future. Nobody was biting for that one. The following day Joyce also declined to answer that question.

There was some evidence of an Auckland-Wellington divide, some of it centring around Peter Jackson’s empire and the percentage of the industry’s work it accounts for. Nobody opposed the idea of creating thousands of jobs, but a number of people objected to how it was being done. The changes to labour (with a small ‘l’) law still rankle, and the fact that The Hobbit was the only NZ production since Lord of the Rings any government minister ever seemed to mention.

The candidates mostly contained themselves to promoting their own policies rather than attacking others’. Roche did note the sinking lid that National had imposed on the sector’s funders since coming to power in 2008. Ardern claimed that some foreign investment “came at too high a price”, again citing the legislative changes made before production commenced on The Hobbit.

It was all a bit of a soup, policies without detail being added in or taken out with no clear evidence from any side of the effects of those actions – just a belief from each that their actions would improve things.

Specifically on Auckland issues, the question of whether or not there should be investment into studio space reared its head. Ardern argued there was “room to improve fit for purpose infrastructure”. Even ignoring the irony of that statement shortly after the fire at Auckland Film Studios, it was hardly a ringing endorsement of suggestions of building more capacity.

Overall, a Forum is not the place to pick apart policy line by line, although some of the sweeping statements were less than realistic. “The domestic industry should be at the heart of decision-making” was open to many interpretations.

“We need NZTE to market us” seemed oblivious to the fact that it used to do just that until 2009, when it handed the responsibility and a larger cheque to Film NZ. MFAT’s name was also thrown into the ring as a prospective promoter of NZ content internationally.

“Is it right that those who control distribution control the game?” seemed out of touch, as the major players in distribution have lobbied for a decade on the grounds that digital disruption is robbing them of control and of their ability to generate a return for their IP.

Ardern suggested that, when it came to government departments, they didn’t all move in the same direction at the same time. Lee agreed that we don’t sell ourselves as well as we could.

It’s doubtful anyone’s political opinions were changed by what was said, either by the speakers or from the floor. In another couple of months, the industry along with the rest of the country will get a look at its new government. Then the business of turning policy statements into quantifiable actions will begin again. As will the lobbying.