John Drinnan: Film industry riding high

Film industry is doing great things. But TV? Not so much.
Dave Gibson, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission. Photo / Dean Purcell
Dave Gibson, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission. Photo / Dean Purcell

Film Commission chief executive Dave Gibson is half-way through what he has insisted will be a single five-year term.

With board backing, he has taken the film industry by the scruff of the neck and brought in new outside investment.

Gibson has spotted some new millennial talent, and with government help, has identified a way to build co-production ties with China and open rare access for NZ film to that giant market.

It's early days but the strategy seems to be working and the industry appears to be in rude good health. Last week, Chasing Great: Richie McCaw had the highest gross opening for a New Zealand documentary at $681,180. In May, Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople passed his Boy to become the highest grossing local film ever. Three other movies - Poi E, Born to Dance and Mahana - have earned more than $1 million at the local box office.

Early results and local support are encouraging, in part because the output has popular and cultural credibility: a documentary on an All Black captain, the story of an iconic pop song, and an adaptation of a Barry Crump story.

In my opinion, film's recent success is partly due to the sector having leadership.

Alas, the television production sector is not standing so tall. Television and other video are very different to film because they have much higher demands for revenue from advertising. Advertising and free-to-air TV are in upheaval right now and many people I speak to expect things to get harder in 2017.

The grand notion of an NZ television production industry making export income has diminished. Programme production companies have largely been sold to overseas interests and, with a few exceptions, there is little interest in a grand plan for the local industry.

Film has the huge foundation of the Peter Jackson empire, linked to Richard Taylor and Weta. One big success in TV production has been the Weta offshoot Pukeko Pictures, which made the new series of Thunderbirds for British broadcaster ITV.

Successive Labour and National governments have sold the idea that the screen industries can be developed into home-grown success stories, returning profits from intellectual property sales. And not just by doing what we have done for years - making American films and TV shows cheaply, using accomplished non-union labour.

The Richie McCaw documentary <i>Chasing Great</i> has been a box-office winner. Photo / Supplied
The Richie McCaw documentary Chasing Great has been a box-office winner. Photo / Supplied

But the local TV production industry is dominated by overseas firms:

• South Pacific Pictures, producer of Shortland Street and founded by veteran John Barnett, is now ultimately owned by a joint venture of multinational media firms Liberty Group and Discovery Communications.

• Screentime, once owned by the Australian Seven Network, is now owned by the Banijay Group, with offices in Australia, the US and Europe

• Greenstone Pictures, started by industry leader John Harris, is now owned by Australian firm Cordell Jigsaw Zagruder

• Touchdown TV, established by reality TV queen Julie Christie, is now owned by Warner Bros

I have written before how taxpayer funding through New Zealand on Air is dominated by overseas firms, and it's hard to see how the sector can grow from here to provide local intellectual property.

NZ on Air finance is getting tighter as it extends into digital programming on new domestic outlets, making it even harder for companies which are producing content with international TV production values. Television networks such as TVNZ and MediaWorks are battling to maintain revenue and limiting the risk by seeking partial funding for new, innovative programming.

Which Way Lightbox?

Telecommunications company Spark seems intent on some role in media, but what part will Lightbox play?

Kym Niblock this week announced her resignation as chief executive of Spark's fledgling media division. Niblock is following in the footsteps of Spark Ventures boss Rob Snodgrass, who leaves on Monday. Former Lightbox head of programming Maria Mahony left a while back to work for Bravo

In April Spark gave an open-ended commitment to Lightbox being free to all of its broadband customers, but declines to say how many paying customers it has.

Rival Netflix has substantially more programming, but Spark insists Lightbox has a strong future. I wonder if TVNZ will be involved?

In brief

• The Otago Daily Times is holding off on its planned digital paywall, to go alongside its recently revamped website. Initially, the paper forecast that the paywall would be introduced in April. However, ODT editor Barry Stewart now says it is watching developments in the rest of the media and that there is no rush.

• DDB has won the advertising account for Coca-Cola Amatil brands L&P and Pump. It won the account from Saatchi & Saatchi in a pitch that also included Assignment. DDB group chief executive Justin Mowday worked on the account many years ago when Saatchi came up the line "world famous in New Zealand". While it's not a huge brand, L&P has always maintained a high profile.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been a business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s.

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