NZFC CEO to industry: Lift the bar

The New Zealand Film Commission’s new CEO Dave Gibson has called on the Kiwi production industry to “lift the bar.”

The veteran film and TV producer sees the NZ screen industry entering a new era thanks to the government’s increased rebates and grants, which come into effect on April 1.

“The government has changed the incentives, now it’s up to the industry to make a go of it,” Gibson tells IF. He sold his shares in the Gibson Group, which he founded 35 years ago, to senior management when he was hired as CEO, succeeding Graeme Mason.

“We would like to lift the bar a little bit, stretch a wee bit further, make films a bit better and get a few more eyeballs,” says Gibson, whose film and TV credits include The Silent One, Street Hospital, Fresh Meat, Time Trackers, Aftershock, Welcome to Paradise, Holly's Heroes, The Strip, The Last Ocean and Paradise Café.

Gibson is in regular touch with Mason, now CEO of Screen Australia, and hopes to see more collaboration between Oz and Kiwi producers. The level of trans-Tasman co-productions has been “surprisingly low,” he says.

In December the NZ government announced a series of measures including raising the baseline rebate for overseas and New Zealand productions from 15% to 20%. In addition, qualifying productions will get points for specific benefits to New Zealand.

That was a pivotal step in persuading James Cameron and Jon Landau’s Lightstorm Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox to shoot the next three Avatars in Kiwiland, a combined production spend of at least $NZ500 million.

The trilogy will qualify for a rebate of 25% assuming it complies with the guidelines set out in an MOU with Lightstorm Entertainment and Fox.

In addition, the 40% rebate for New Zealand films is being extended to TV projects and other productions with larger budgets. The two-tiered system will take the form of a rebate on productions up to $NZ15 million in qualifying New Zealand production expenditure (QNZPE) and equity investment on productions with between $NZ15 million and $NZ50 million QNZPE.

The Screen Production Incentive Fund and Large Budget Screen Production Grant are being combined to form the New Zealand Screen Production Grant, an uncapped fund.

Reps of two government departments are meeting with stakeholders on February 24-25 to finalise the guidelines for the rebates and the points test that applies to local productions. Gibson says he expects the 40% rebate will attract more TV productions and co-productions in the vein of Top of the Lake.

Gibson plans to meet with industry players in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown later this month. He says his main aim is to get feedback on how the modern screen industry in New Zealand should be structured and operate, contrasting that with the NZFC’s approach 20-25 years ago when films were funded primarily for cultural reasons, not on economic grounds and as a basis for training and career development.

“The next step is to say, ‘What can the NZFC do to help that?,’" he says. “We need to be a bit clearer with people on what our expectations are, why we invest in projects and what we expect out if it. We can hold people to account a bit more.”

Also on Gibson’s agenda: His hopes for a co-production treaty with Italy, and to foster film co-prods with China via a treaty which has not been used.

The executive expressed concern about the increasing trend by some Kiwi producers to self-distribute their films, observing, “It’s an easy default not to engage with distributors.”

A rare successful case of self-distribution was Gardening with Soul, a feature length documentary directed by Jess Feast and produced by Vicky Pope, in which the NZFC had a small stake. Gibson says the docu, which follows 90-year-old Sister Loyola Galvin, the main gardener for the House of Compassion, is in profit.