NZFC CEO Annabelle Sheehan on moving across the ditch and pushing for inclusion

Annabelle Sheehan.

NZFC CEO Annabelle Sheehan.

New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) CEO Annabelle Sheehan believes there are currently two global drivers of change in the screen industry.

The first is the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, AppleTV+ and Amazon – the latter of which has just confirmed it will shoot the series The Lord of the Rings in NZ.

The second is a push towards a more diverse and inclusive industry, both behind and in front of the camera.

It’s this second driver that the NZFC’s upcoming global summit Power of Inclusion will seek to explore head on in partnership with Walt Disney Co. and Women in Film and Television (WIFT) International.

The October event has already attracted an impressive array of both international and local speakers including actress and activist Geena Davis; Black-ish and Grown-ish star Yara Shahidi; director Niki Caro (Mulan, The Zookeeper’s Wife), Pose creator Steven Canals, The Black List founder Franklin Leonard; writer and producer Philippa Boyens (Lord of the Rings); Moana producer Osnat Shurer; Raising Films founder Hope Dickson Leach; director Heperi Mita (Mereta: How Mum Decolonised the Screen) and Maria Giese, who led a federal investigation for female directors in the US. Among the Australian speakers are actress Magda Szubanski and writer Benjamin Law, and NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will also address the event.

When it comes to making the screen industry more representative, Sheehan notes “there’s still so much work to be done”.

“For us in New Zealand, it’s really important to find a way to drive that discussion and to bring people into this part of the world,” she tells IF.

The speakers who have signed on for the Power of Inclusion are people whose activism and production work are linked to core issues the conference seeks to explore. It will cover various issues such as the #MeToo movement, gender equity and Indigenous storytelling and representation, and look at a variety of case studies of diverse and authentic storytelling.

“The people who we’re choosing are people who can inspire by what they’ve achieved, and give ideas… plans or paths that others can follow,” Sheehan says.

“That’s one reason for having a conversation. The other is to come up with next wave plans around what we should to be doing next to keep moving forward…  everyone benefits from inclusion and ensuring there’s diverse people both in front of and behind the camera.”

As well as sharing ideas and learning, Sheehan is aware the conference may lead to new creative partnerships that cross borders. “It does relate to the way in which we want to engage with the global screen sector”.

In that regard, the conference will run a stream on doing business with New Zealand, unpacking incentives and locations, with speakers than include producer Jon Landau (Alita: Battle Angel, Avatar, Titanic), unit production manager Brigitte Yorke (Avatar, The Hobbit Trilogy) and Amanda Walker (Mortal Engines) with more to be announced. There are also plenty of NZ creatives who will be spotlighted such as Mita, Caro, Boyens, Rachel House, Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek and Tainui Stephens.

“We want to imbue in the conference a really strong understanding of New Zealand culture, and we will be working with some really great speakers from New Zealand for that purpose.”

Sheehan joined the NZFC in January last year, having previously been CEO of the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC). She’s also been a director of production investment at Screenwest, was the CEO RGM Artist Group, and headed film and television at AFTRS.

She’s enjoyed the transition across the ditch, noting Kiwis have a unique voice that comes through in films like Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Sami and van Beek’s The Breaker Upperers. “People recognise that New Zealand humour and I feel like people see that as an incredible strength.”

Further, she notes that the country is a well-regarded hub for international production, with the expertise and creativity of Kiwi crews recognised for decades now. Recent productions to shoot in NZ include Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan and Blumhouse’s Black Christmas.

“Twenty years ago Lord of the Rings broke into the world through the great work of Weta, Peter Jackson and Phillippa Boyens. It’s been an amazing way for the world to understand how strong New Zealand expertise is, and how it can tell amazing stories to really transform the sense of the country.”

Of course, NZ often competes with Australia for footloose productions, but Sheehan says it’s a “friendly competition – about as friendly as the rugby. It’s the same between states in Australia; there’s lots of competition between states too.”

With a global glut of content, Sheehan sees both industries facing similar challenges. “Audiences are receiving an onslaught of global content… and our home-grown content has to compete in that context. That challenge is very real for Australians and New Zealanders, but I think both countries are rising to the task of telling stories that people want to see.”

To help bolster NZ’s voice on the global stage, NZFC and NZ On Air recently ran Raupapa Whakaari, a funding initiative to develop high-end adult drama series that will appeal to the international market as well as New Zealand audiences.

Notably for Australian producers, NZFC has also launched a new international co-development fund that offers matched funding for both features and drama series, with the expectation projects will be structured to qualify for the New Zealand Screen Production Grant (NZSPG), as either official co-productions or because they contain significant NZ content.

Sheehan believes one the NZ industry’s biggest strengths in its bi-culturalism. NZFC recently partnered with Screen Australia on Indigenous anthology Cook 2020: Our Right of Reply, which will be titled Ngā Pouwhenua in NZ. Eight teams have been selected to create a short chapter for the feature film, providing an Indigenous perspective on the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s maiden voyage to the Pacific.

Sheehan believes Australia and New Zealand can make great partners in screenmaking, and she would like to see more collaboration between the two countries. Under the official co-production MOU between the two countries, four features, seven TV dramas, one animation and three documentaries have been produced since 1994, including recent projects Cleverman, The New Legend of Monkey and feature doco Wayne.

“We’re so close. There are ways we can interact and look at each other’s audiences to better connect. It’s important to see more of it; I know we’re talking about lots of different co-productions right now between the two countries.”

The Power of Inclusion Summit will be held October 3-4 in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.