Monday, May 23, 2011

Nearly There?

I like the way New Zealanders play with names. A couple of years ago, our young neighbour jumped down the bank to visit after a long absence. “Where've you been?” I asked. “L’AshVegas”, he said. Down in Ashburton for the summer, at the freezing works. In the middle of the wide Canterbury Plains, without a neon in sight. Where gambling used to be done for meat packs—maybe still is. On Screentalk, Temuera Morrison talks about going from Rotovegas—Rotorua's a little more like Las Vegas than Ashburton—to Hollywood. There's Sam Cruickshank's Horiwood's blog, ("Hollywood's 1st Entertainment & Celebrity News Website Published by a Maori New Zealander"). Search for Wellywood at NZOnScreen, and there are at least three interesting examples. Down the hill is the Wellywood Backpackers. And here I am, Wellywood Woman. So what do I think of the proposed Wellywood sign, on the hill above Wellington airport?

“Wellywood” is really useful shorthand for this blog. It shows where I live. It explains what I write about. It places the blog alongside its big sister blog Women & Hollywood. It places Wellington's film-making alongside those other traditions that complement Hollywood and enhance the world's cinema: Nollywood, Bollywood. And Wellywood, like L’AshVegas, makes me smile. So I smile when I see the sign.

But is there something better than Wellywood? A large McCahon-ish I AM, great to meditate on during yet another wild ride onto the tarmac: Is there any victory over death? Or another text from one of his landscape paintings?

Colin McCahon Victory over death 2 1970
synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas 
2075 x 5977 mm

Or I am Scared I STAND UP? (Help! I have to stay put in my seat belt!)

Colin McCahon Scared 1976 
acrylic on paper 730 x1095 mm 

Or Te Whanganui-A-Tara, to remind us of tangata whenua issues that affect every New Zealand hillside? Or neons? A thin and flashing blue line and Tsunami Safe Zone, also in flashing blue? Or Stop Asset Sales in red, since Air New Zealand’s one of the state assets being sold? After a little thought, as an air traveller who is terrified during every rough arrival, I've decided I’d most like a rainbow neon sign that flashes Nearly There. So when we rock in at the end of a flight and I'm stuck in my seatbelt and frightened, I can look out the window and be reassured. Nearly There. Nearly There. Nearly There. But if the sign says Wellywood, that's OK. I'll get a smile, whew.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Help an 'activist' today-- Questions please! (EP 3)

lisa gornick the round table

Limping my way towards questions that will help validate a market for films about women, I fell over the United States release of the comedy Bridesmaids. Written by Anne Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, directed by a guy, and produced by Judd Apatow. In an article in the Huffington Post, Jamie Denbo expressed concern about the consequences if Bridesmaids doesn’t do well, for the writers, directors and actors that she refers to as
…every creative, brilliant, funny woman in Hollywood [who] is (unfairly) being held hostage to a single film's opening weekend box office. Meaning no studio is likely to take any sort of chance on any new projects perceived to be ‘female driven comedy’ unless they have proof that it can perform. And perform well.
I know that I’m now concentrating on films about women, and here I’ve strayed back into the territory of women writers and (maybe) directors. But I think that one of the issues about audiences for films about women is about the division between ‘Hollywood’ movies and ‘the rest’, who have been working hard on strategies to get their (our) work out there. And in the comments that followed Jamie’s post came a suggestion I’ve never seen before, from InedaName, who wrote:
If Bridesmaids doesn't 'do' well, why don't the women in Hollywood pool their re$ources and do their own projects outside of the studio system? A quality feature film can be made for thousands, not millions of dollars. There are any number of ways for films to get seen; hundreds of film festivals, straight to DVD, online, etc. You can be just as creative in marketing, promotion, and distribution as in the actual making of the film. Think outside the box!
What would happen if women writers and directors and producers in Hollywood pooled their personal resources and thought outside the box, if they crossed over to ‘our’ side (I’m not talking about already well-resourced and powerful Hollywood actor/producers like Sandra Bullock and Jodie Foster)? I may be over-romantic about the resources available to Hollywood women who want to make movies, but when I think of Los Angeles I think of prosperity: residuals, alimony, spare houses, networks. All pooled. Or is that an irrelevant idea? Would their thinking outside the box help the rest of us? How? Is it already happening? Just this week, Real Girls Guide to Everything Else webseries announced a couple of serious new producing partners, Diane Charles and Antonia Ellis, so maybe it is.

This is a great time for everyone to think outside the box about new ways of working.There's evidence of a 10% drop in overall spending on entertainment, and a drop in takings for Hollywood films. And changing distribution models are affecting even Hollywood's major directors—including presumably their budgets. The other day, a powerful group of directors—including Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Jackson, and James Cameron among others—expressed concern that studios' plans to release movies simultaneously through video-on-demand and in cinemas would close cinemas and increase piracy. According to the Guardian article, the directors' letter to the studios said that "changing release patterns could irrevocably harm the financial model of our film industry". And now, research shows that 46% of all peak-hour downloads in the States come from online video sites like Netflix and YouTube, as people watch movies and TV shows on their laptops, game consoles and smart phones. Netflix's share is up from 20% six months ago, to 30%.

When I thought about all this, I also thought about what is and is not working for people who go the DIY route, and the DIY upgrade, Do It With Others (DIWO).

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Help an 'activist' today-- Questions please! (EP 2)

lisa gornick the female gaze

Fixing pain, I’ve learned, is what every entrepreneuse aims to do. After measuring the pain through the market validation process. But when it comes to entertainment and the arts—as Luci Temple and Meg Torwl explained in their comments the other day—market validation doesn’t work in the same way. If it works at all. So what am I to do?

I have an intimate acquaintance with women filmmakers’ pain, so powerfully conveyed in today’s Lisa Gornick image. I also have an intimate acquaintance with the imaginative ways that they/we transcend the pain—we assert our right to tell stories, develop myriad problem-solving strategies, and forge creative alliances. But the reality is that it’s consistently harder for women than men to make and distribute their feature films, in every country except perhaps France, because of the entrenched industry preference for (often white) men’s projects. It’s especially hard if women want to tell stories about women. It’s old news that women storytellers—of every culture—inherit centuries-long story-telling traditions where central characters who are male appear far more often than central characters who are female, where male characters are more active than female characters, and female characters are often referred to in terms of their ‘beauty’ or lack of it. Just this week, I read a fascinating article* about how even the animals in children’s books are far more often male than female.

But women filmmakers’ pain is irrelevant in the market, even to women filmgoers who are interested in films by and about women. When it comes to buying a ticket, or paying for a download or a DVD, it’s the story that counts, and the quality of its execution. If I had any doubt about that, it went away this week, when Women Make Movies (WMM) campaigned on Facebook, seeking online votes so they could win money. Here’s how the organisation describes itself:

Established in 1972 to address the under representation and misrepresentation of women in the media industry, WMM is a multicultural, multiracial, non-profit media arts organization which facilitates the production, promotion, distribution and exhibition of independent films and videotapes by and about women. The organization provides services to both users and makers of film and video programs, with a special emphasis on supporting work by women of color. WMM facilitates the development of feminist media through an internationally recognized Distribution Service and a Production Assistance Program.

Pretty terrific, huh? Delivering its unique services for almost 40 years. Not surprisingly, WMM has 10,111 FB members when I last looked. Women from all round the world love its work, including me. But did lots of women vote, so that WMM could carry on its great work with a little more ease? No! 698 votes, 7% of its Facebook members. (Fortunately that got WMM a slot in the top 100 (at 51), $25,000, and a chance at more, in the next voting round. Look out for it!) I don’t know whether the demonstrated indifference was because those FB members didn’t care enough about movies by women, or didn’t care enough about movies about women, but it’s bad news for women filmmakers who hope that women will support their work.

I’m going to make a big effort now to put women filmmakers’ pain aside (most of the time). Forget about films by women and concentrate on potential audiences for films about women. I hope that if I do this I’ll move further towards questions that will help validate at least something about the market. 

Next episode coming asap. Please, keep those questions & comments coming!

*An easier read re animals in children's books, from the Guardian.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mothers Day: New Zealand cinema makes history; & the NZFC breaks a record!

This is an historic weekend for New Zealand cinema. Three New Zealand feature films have opened in cinemas to great reviews. And as far as I know the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC), our state funder, did not invest in the development or production of any of them, although I understand that it contributed to post-production costs for two. There’s Operation 8, directed by Abi King-Jones and Errol Wright:

There's  Hook Line & Sinker, directed by Andrea Bosshard and Shane Loader:

And there's Stephen Kang’s Desert, which premiered at the Pusan International Film Festival last year:

(And Stephen Kang’s short Blue, also independently made, has been selected in Competition at Cannes, for La Semaine de la Critique).

Exciting times. But they’ve been coming for a while, and they reflect exciting times in global cinema. Feature films developed and produced outside the NZFC have well outnumbered those made with NZFC support for some years now, and it was inevitable that in time any differences in quality would diminish. The precursor of this trend was last year’s The Insatiable Moon, now on release in the United Kingdom. But THREE films on one weekend. That’s amazing. Many congratulations to all involved.

I like it that women co-directed two of this weekend's three films, and that Mike Riddell wrote and Rosemary Riddell directed The Insatiable Moon, and that another mixed gender team Tom Burstyn and Barbara Sumner Burstyn made This Way of Life, short-listed for an Oscar this year. There’s a fascinating study in there somewhere, about mixed gender domestic and professional partnerships, which I wrote about a while back, in another context (I have no idea whether Abi King-Jones and Errol Wright’s professional partnership is also a domestic one). And another study's in there too, about the various ways these partnerships conceived, funded and are now distributing these features.

Operation 8 had some funding from Creative New Zealand’s now-defunct Screen Innovation Production Fund. Hook, Line & Sinker’s funding depended on a strong community developed over years of work (their last film was Taking the Waewae Express). They’ve paid everyone the same and some cast and crew share ownership of the work. The Insatiable Moon’s funding started conventionally and went through many transformations, wonderfully documented in Mike Riddell’s blog (see sidebar). I don’t know about Desert, but Stephen Kang is a commercials director at Curious Film, who are his producers, and I imagine that this has helped him resource his work.

By coincidence, this week the NZFC announced a New Zealand season at the Barbican in London, in association with the New Zealand High Commission, New Zealand's Ministry for Culture and Heritage and NZ-UK The Link Foundation. It is part of the City of London Festival. Films included are Taika Waititi’s Boy and Eagle vs Shark, Roseanne Liang’s My Wedding & Other Secrets, Chris Graham’s Sione’s Wedding, Leanne Pooley’s The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, Ian Sharp’s Tracker and Brad McCann’s In My Father’s Den. Only one (16%) of the six narrative features written and directed by a woman.

It seemed a slightly odd selection to me. Why Tracker, currently on release in the UK? Why one film released in 2004 (In My Father’s Den), one released in 2006 (Sione’s Wedding) and another in 2007 (Eagle vs Shark)? After some feedback from others, I wrote on the NZFC’s FB wall:
Is this the complete list? My London friends are really disappointed that Home By Christmas isn't included, because of its current relevance and because they're interested in innovative film-making. And also want to see This Way of Life, because they've heard so much about it and it was short-listed for an Oscar. Who selected the programme, and what criteria did they use? Will there also be short films, and if so, how will they be selected?
The NZFC’s response, unsurprisingly, was incomplete:
Hi Marian, yes that’s the complete list selected by the organisers in London.
[Who were the organisers? The Barbican all on its own? And/or others in London at the time?] Home by Christmas wasn’t chosen this time around as had already screened at the BFI London Film Festival, which was great. This Way of Life isn’t on the list either as has already played at the Barbican. Thanks for asking about short films – Take 3 will be screening too. It’s a short from Roseanne Liang the director of My Wedding and Other Secrets, which is of course also showing. So lots to see you Londoners – get out there!
I was left to work out possible criteria for myself. One criterion seems to have been that the selection should prioritise particular New Zealand producers. I inferred this from the way the films are paired. Two from Whenua Films, two from South Pacific Pictures and two from T.H.E. Film, including Tracker, which seems to fall squarely within the same category as Home by Christmas and This Way of Life, since it’s not only been shown in London but is still showing there, right now. The choice-by-producer would make sense if those involved in the selection wanted to introduce New Zealand producers to new possible funders in Europe. If that’s the reality, or part of it, why not say so? And if people at the Barbican selected the films, who advised them? The ‘new’ NZFC has often talked about transparency, and some transparency would have been good here.

It would also have been good if the Ministry for Culture & Heritage and the others in the partnership had stepped back a bit to take a wide view, and asked “Where are New Zealand’s points of difference to showcase to the world?” “What’s happening right now in New Zealand cinema?” “What other new movies match the warmth and vitality of Boy, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, My Wedding & Other Secrets?”

On this weekend’s evidence, one of New Zealand cinema’s points of difference is that a diverse group of skilled filmmakers is using New Zealand’s famous number 8 wire techniques to make inexpensive films-from-the-heart that are finding appreciative audiences. Doing just what lots of others are trying to do around the world. And doing it very well indeed. To showcase them in London would make us all proud and give New Zealanders and others there a real treat.

New Zealand also has a strong cohort of women writers and directors. And Home by Christmas, popular as well as innovative, is arguably Gaylene Preston's best work; she's in her prime. Including only one narrative feature with a woman director isn’t good enough, and isn’t compensated for by including a woman-directed documentary, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. The Barbican programme, no doubt funded in part by the taxpayer, isn’t doing justice to the vibrant world of the second decade of twenty-first century New Zealand cinema.

My sadness about the Barbican selection is compounded by the latest NZFC newsletter. It details its recent feature development investments and provides another historical moment. For the first time since I started my research six years ago, in this round the NZFC has invested ZERO in development of projects written and/or directed by women. ZERO. As I showed recently, NZFC investment in the development of women’s feature projects has been dropping steadily for a while, so I guess that this dismal news is as inevitable as this weekend's strong releases. But is it acceptable?