Seasoned film executive Graeme Mason had a tricky moment in 2010 near the beginning of his tenure as chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission.
An 87-page report written by Peter Jackson and film academic David Court characterized the regulatory and funding organization as “adversarial,” “out of touch” and “not believing in the filmmakers.”
(Despite its name, location attraction is not specifically part of the NZFC’s mandate. That is handled by Film New Zealand.)
Departing now for the top role at Screen Australia, Mason believes that not only has the grousing over the NZFC subsided, but also that tiny, out of the way New Zealand has become a sustainable global filmmaking destination with a unique selling point.
“The real goal of the Film Commission in my tenure has been to try to look beyond the specific and see what the more sustainable goal is,” Mason says. That meant not becoming obsessed with any one project, trying to balance cultural and industrial impact, and emphasizing the teamwork needed for filmmaking.
“What we’ve been trying to do is find how we help people tell stories, and also have a career,” says Mason. “If you simply go from one great story to another great story you are going to consign everyone to working from their kitchen table. And that is just too hard.”
Incentives that Mason believes have boosted sustainability include the “devolved development funds” that allow the NZFC to back favored producers over a slate of projects, and the Screen Production Incentive Fund, which producers can use as if it were their own cash. He cites the example of Matthew Metcalfe, producer at General Film Corp. who had two films at Toronto — performance film “Giselle” and big budget 3D documentary “Beyond the Edge” (pictured above), which shot in New Zealand. Metcalfe has already re-teamed with “Edge” director Leanne Pooley on another project.
Addressing the different, often conflicting, criticisms of the organization that he inherited, Mason says that “we the current Film Commission really believe in teams” and that he has tried to put equal weight on every link of the filmmaking chain. “A key thing we have been working on is to ensure that the Film Commission is part of the industry. We are not a studio, we don’t make things. But we do assist in getting things made.”
That reference to studios is telling. Mason’s 20 years on the road away from his native Australia have seen him in senior positions at PolyGram, the U.K.’s Channel Four and at Universal Pictures Intl. “At all of those entities you can say ‘no’ (to a project) because it does not fit your taste or style. At a public funder you can’t do that,” Mason says. “So everyone comes to you, everyone believes they have a right to (finance), and it is the manner of your saying ‘no’ that is the key.”
New Zealand’s unusual film heritage continues to shape the industry today — for better and for worse.
“There was a period in New Zealand where there were a lot of very successful local films — that’s where Peter Jackson and Jane Campion came from — going back 30 or 40 years. So we ended up with two ends of the industry. You had the monsters — ‘Hobbits’ and ‘Lord of the Rings,’ or ‘Avatar’ — and the local films. That is very strange in a small place.”
For all the egoistic sense of entitlement that has come with such success, Mason clearly believes that the country and its film industry are better off.
“We’ve created a pool of people over a 10-15 year period with these really huge films and TV shows. That’s created skill and opportunity. When I was at Universal I remember people asking ‘Where is New Zealand?’ ‘How will this work?’ There was fear. Nowadays everybody in Hollywood or London knows about New Zealand.
“That’s an advantage compared with Northern Ireland, South Africa or even Canada. People associate New Zealand with ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Spartacus.’ And the punters on the street do too, which is why the government has been supportive and will continue to be so. Film helps to define New Zealand abroad.”
Mason admits that Hollywood’s production slowdown and the recent backlash against runaway productions in Hollywood may make for trickier times ahead.
“No country wants to be involved in a race to the bottom in terms of subsidies,” he says. But Mason says that, when compared with Australia, the U.K. or Canada, New Zealand is leader of the pack due to its specific production skills.
“Once you have had a decade of doing ‘Xena,’ ‘Hercules,’ ‘Spartacus,’ ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘Hobbit’ and the ‘Avatars,’ then Weta Digital and the Weta companies are now making costumes or doing effects on pretty much everything you can think of, such as ‘Planet of the Apes’ or ‘Iron Man 3.’ It is about the level of skills and service that they can bring.
“The big point for us in this race is that we have a point of difference. It is not just about the bottom line.”