07 March 2007

WIFT documentary meeting

Today I had the opportunity to attend a WIFT (Women in Film and Television) meeting to discuss the future of documentary funding in New Zealand. The meetings (or hui) took place in Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington to get the views of documentary filmmakers from across the country on the best way to make use of the current interest in documentary. WIFT provided a great list of background reading covering the history of doc film making in NZ and Australia as well as a range of reports and facts.

 The one-day event in Wellington was chaired by Gaylene Preston and attended by 40-odd people - men and women - involved in doc film making as directors and producers as well as some people from the funding side (NZFC and CNZ) and TV. We spent the morning discussing the obstacles we face as doc film makers in NZ and the afternoon finding possible solutions. Our table (one of four) consisted of a good range of people covering every aspect of film making (and then some). There was a producer, a couple of independent directors, someone who worked in TV as well as a researcher and a web developer.

We found that there were initially two areas that needed to be discussed separately: broadcast and non-broadcast films. While some people were focussed primarily on creating content for TV and had much to say about the attendant problems regarding commissioning editors and such, there was another strand of people who - either because they were frustrated with the problems of making docs for TV or because their docs were never intended for broadcast - were looking into other areas of distribution. As far as broadcast documentaries were concerned, the biggest obstacle to getting our stuff onto the small screen seemed to be the perceived ‘gate keepers’, also called the programmer and the commissioning editor.

The population of New Zealand apparently loves to read books and loves to watch documentaries. The problem is that NZ TV rarely schedules documentaries in any prime slots, because advertisers prefer fiction (and imported fiction at that). This means that the public is not getting what they want and doc makers have no access to their audience. Another problem related to non-broadcast docs: it was very difficult, if not impossible, to find funding.

Neither the Film Commission nor Creative NZ have a fund for documentary films, although they have been funding docs through the screen innovation fund (even though it is not specifically targeted at docs). For feature documentaries there is a lack of development funding, meaning that the up-front work of research that could be funded if it was a fiction script, has to be borne by the individual film maker. The same applies to post-production funding, where completion is often difficult to get funding for.

The slow funding rounds that do exist are often an additional problem, as the nature of doc subjects means that they don’t always wait around for the funding to come through. Marketing, distribution and specially non-traditional channels like new media and the internet are an important and problematic aspect of doc film making. The concept of the Long Tail promises that there is an audience for our films out there, if we can just get our product to them, but there is a lack of infrastructure ranging from the broadband caps implemented by ISPs to non-existent doc distributors in NZ. This means even if we get to finish our projects, it may not always be possible to get them out into the World.

 Every now and then the discussion would come round to the basic principles of doc film making. Gaylene Preston said that “documentaries are the backbone of NZ film making. It started that way and it remains that way.” People considered their role as recorders of culture and history, and felt that this role was undervalued. There seemed to be a decline in long-form story telling and while there was some value in making films about the NZ experience, there was too little support for film makers who want to look at the rest of the World from a NZ point of view. Tim O’Brien from the NZ Film Commission pointed out how “gigantically ahead” Australia was of NZ where support for doc film making is concerned. He felt that New Zealand’s digital strategy has not involved film makers and therefore there were many obstacles for local film makers to get their films seen by the rest of the World. He suggested that marketing nowadays has to build in digital components when planning film distribution.

 Some of the solutions that appeared in the afternoon included direct sales to circumvent traditional distributors, although it was acknowledged that funding bodies such as NZFC and CNZ need a digital as well as a documentary strategy. There was the suggestion that the NZ Trade and Enterprise’s “Export Year 2007” initiative could be used to foster ways to find a wider audience for documentaries. There was a call to set up pitching sessions with TVNZ and to lobby NZ On Air to not require that a broadcaster be already attached to a project for funding to be released (although there are legal issues with NZOA’s remit). A quota such as exists in Australia could ensure that locally made projects could get a screening.

The biggest support existed for the setting up of a documentary film fund along the lines of the FC film fund. It should fund docs made for cinematic release that could find an international audience. 

The day was hugely educational for me as a newbie to the local doc film industry. It was also a little mystifying at times that there should be such a lack of confidence in the universal appeal of local subjects, the local view on World issues or even on films made by local film makers that had nothing to do with NZ. If it’s a good story, then it should find an audience and support, regardless of it being a NZ subject or not, made by a NZ or not, made in NZ or not.

NZ has a great opportunity with the advent of new distribution methods to get its films out of the corner of the World we are in and to satisfy international interest in NZ. Watch out for the report and meeting notes on the WIFT website (sometime in May)!

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