How to make a film in New Zealandby David Larsen
David Larsen interviews Kiwi director Rajneel Singh.
How do you get a film made in New Zealand? It's an easy question for me, in the sense that it requires no thought at all to answer: I have not the least idea. This is a useful ignorance. I review films. Every so often I'm faced with the following situation: the fragile bloom of some local first-time feature director's labours thrusts its head above the cultural tundra, and I gaze upon it and find myself moved to don hobnailed boots. I stomp that sucker. I stomp it hard. A detailed knowledge of just how difficult it was to get the thing to grow is not what I want in my head while this is going on. My job is purely to assess the results.
You will perhaps detect in this position the defensiveness of someone who knows the vultures of guilt will gnaw his liver to shreds if they're given the least encouragement. You're right. Here's a better position: ignorance is never useful. In an attempt to get a better sense of how the local film industry would look if I were a young film-maker setting out on a career, I turned to someone who answers to that description. Rajneel Singh is the archetypal Kiwi film journeyman, in the sense that he's made several short films, knows a lot about the business, has a well worked-out plan for making his first full-length feature, and now needs to solve a problem faced by aspirants in no other art form: getting someone to loan him millions of dollars so he can make the thing he sees in his head. In the film world, you can spend years balanced on this cusp, waiting to become an overnight success.
How long have you been actively working in the film industry? Eight years now, starting in 2003 as a handycam-wielding amateur running around the streets of Auckland after dark, with my friends. My first project - a fan-film set in The Matrix universe entitled The Fanimatrix - was lucky enough to become an early internet viral phenomenon (this is before the days of YouTube) and totaled over eight million downloads, making it - arguably - New Zealand's most widely seen short film in history.
Arguably? Hate that word. Do you in fact argue this? I would definitely argue for it, though I know that I can't prove it. Other serious contenders would be old short films that have had TV distribution in Europe (for instance, Alison Maclean's famous short "Kitchen Sink") and Cameron Duncan, the young film-maker who passed away from cancer, whose shorts are on the Return of the King: Extended Edition DVD box set.
How much did it cost to make? About $800.
That's a fair bit of money to throw at a hobby project - which is what this was for you at the time, right? In the scale of things it's not that much money at all. There were fan-projects at the time with budgets as high as $25,000+. Generally speaking it was very rare for fan films made for less than $5000 to get any online recognition, because the budgets would be too low to get any decent production value out of them.
And that's principally why we did it – to produce something that we could compare to an existing "big budget version". I'm a completely self-taught film-maker so I figured a fan film would be a great experiment, to see how wide the gap was between me running around with my dad's Handycam and an actual professional film shoot. It was definitely an education and taught me it's important to have a big-budget mentality, even if you're shooting with the spare change that you found at the back of your sofa.
What do you mean, a "big-budget mentality"? Basically I mean "don't let anyone see how cheap you are". It's about hiding things in plain sight and being smart about how you shoot your movie, so it looks like you have more money than you actually do.
Break that down for me? The first thing is to write down what you have access to. In the case of The Fanimatrix, I had access to martial artists, stuntmen and safety gear. I also had access to the goth/punk community and a very cheap bar that I could rent. So we wrote a story that incorporated these elements.
The second thing is strategy: thinking laterally and working backwards. Don't find a nice location and then try to figure out how to make it look good on camera. KNOW your camera, KNOW your gear, KNOW your limitations, think up a scene that would look good with those resources and then try to find locations, people, costumes and so forth that match. Exploit every strength in your arsenal that can make your film look or sound amazing. Having a technical understanding of your gear and the various crew jobs is vital.
The final trick is to be ambitious and not be dazzled by your own work. Constantly compare your work with the target you had in mind (The Matrix in our case) and see how close you came. Film-making on a limited budget is like any sleight-of-hand trick; it takes tremendous work to make the trick appear seamless and even more effort to make it spectacular.
Your next film was Big Bad Wolves. It's a calling card in a way The Fanimatrix isn't - it looks fully professional and it's an original story. It shows what you're capable of. Did you make it with the idea that it would be a stepping stone to larger projects? At the time I was making Big Bad Wolves I had no idea what a calling-card film was or what potential projects it could launch me into. My focus was entirely on getting a very funny and clever script onto the screen. What I've learned, since then, is that every project is a stepping stone no matter how good or bad.
Seriously? I'd have thought a bad project is the kind of stepping stone that leaves you flat on your back in the water. You're saying that you learn something even from mistakes, I get that, but can a bad film not do so much damage to your reputation that it doesn't matter how much you learned, you'll never be trusted to put it into practice? In the realm of short films, bad projects can set you back in the sense that people may regard you as someone who is 'not ready'. That's my response when I see bad short films by younger filmmakers, but I never assume they won't get there. (Which is optimistic; statistically most of them don't and many leave the industry.) But a bad project can allow you to learn important things about yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses. I have a couple of bad films which I do not allow anyone to see and I don't advertise them or let anyone come to know that they exist.
Okay, so how did you come to make Big Bad Wolves? I was still working in the IT industry; this was 2005. Chris Kerr, who's a local writer, came to my producer, Craig Parkes, with a short sketch entitled Quentin Tarantino's Little Red Riding Hood, deliberately aping the opening scene of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. We dallied with the notion of producing another web-based parody, but we realised that it would be impossible to find a Tarantino lookalike who could act. So we thought it would be good to remould the sketch into an original short film. We added all of the fantasy sequences (the original sketch only had dialogue) and started planning how we would put the film together. Early in the process we decided to "go legit" and produce the best short film we could, with the best technicians we could afford, rather than using the old Handycam-in-my-dad's-basement methodology.
That sounds like a hinge moment. At the point where you made that decision, were you aware of thinking this was now a career path, rather than a hobby? I pretty much intended to go professional once we realized we were going to make Big Bad Wolves. Prior to that, my interest in the film industry was vague and amorphous. But when we finally found a script that excited both myself and Craig, we knew that this was the moment where we had to make a conscious decision on whether or not this was going to be our foray into professional film-making. And it had to be a conscious decision because of the enormous amount of money required, the commitment of time, everything. Like everything else in the industry, it was a moment of 'going all in' and hoping your luck held out.
You and Craig have been a director/producer partnership since before either of you turned professional. Is that unusual? Do you imagine working together right through your careers? The path of entering into the film industry hand-in-hand with other friends is not unusual … in fact I may even say that it's the norm. Amateur directors desperately need someone to slap them upside the head and keep them on task and amateur producers need talent to nurture, shape and create the films for them. When a producer/director partnership in the amateur field is uneven, mismatched or fails to provide for gaps in each other's knowledge and abilities – that's where you're most likely to find film-makers who are foundering in their career path rather than successfully climbing the industry ladder.
For the next few years, Craig and I will definitely be relying on each other and we have a number of projects that we'd like to see produced and released that we are both passionate about. But we are also realistic – such relationships are best tempered with working with other people, and the likelihood that Craig will develop projects with other filmmakers is very high … ditto for myself and other producers. But if we're both really lucky, our working relationship will last through the duration of our lifetimes.
Where did the money for Big Bad Wolves come from? The film's $13,000 budget was sourced partially from my salary, the majority from Craig's salary, and additional financing from friends and relatives. We enlisted the help of a few people we knew who were starting out in the industry (editors, assistant directors, costume designers, etc) and one very experienced hand: our director-of-photography Marc Mateo. Marc was a highly experienced gaffer (film lighting technician) who had started making the break as a cinematographer. He made sure that the film would look beautiful, no matter what. Pulled out whatever resources he had, sacrificed whatever he could. He helped us to rent – very cheaply – millions of dollars worth of lighting and camera gear and laid out for us the bare minimum of what we needed to obtain, in terms of locations, costumes and so forth, to ensure that the film looked good. It was a huge education for us. We'd never attempted anything on this sort of scale before.
Where did you find your cast? Our actors were all volunteers – professionals provided by the late Robert Bruce and his talent agency – who relished the thought of playing American gangsters for their show reels. This was my first nerve-wracking encounter on working with actual professional actors and it terrified the hell out of me, but it was a necessary process and one that I learned a lot from.
For instance? For instance I had two interesting experiences in the same day. First, I had an actor give me the exact performance, right down to the pitch and tone of his voice, that I wanted from a character and this was something I'd never encountered as a film-maker before. At the same time, I also had another actor who was hovering around a range of performances and I realised that didn't have the vocabulary to get him to settle on what I wanted. I almost – thankfully my producer caught me before I did – asked him to mimic my own delivery in an attempt to get it right, which is a severe no-no when dealing with actors, as it can shake their confidence and their own character-creation work. Eventually he realised what I was having trouble with and began asking deep and probing questions about his character and the moment he was in, and finally managed to nudge me into giving him the directions he needed to give me the performance I wanted. After that I enrolled myself in a six-week acting course and started to get my head around the craft so that I could communicate with my actors in the future.
How about finding locations? The locations were sourced through a variety of means, some were free and others were extremely expensive: the restaurant sequences were at an actual Italian diner in West Auckland called Tony's, the forest sequences were shot in Grafton Cemetery in the heart of Auckland City, Red's Mother's cottage was at the Howick Historical Village (our most expensive location: $1000 for the day) and Granny's cottage was actually the living room of a 113-year-old villa on the North Shore which had recently had had its wallpaper stripped and carpets removed.
How long did the shoot take? The film was shot over the course of six days, shooting on the last weekend of each month. Craig and I would work for a month, squirrel away some money and then "shoot till we're broke" and then repeat the process. After the shoot we endured a year-long post-production period … we tried to get the best deals for editing, sound design, music, colour-grading and delivery. In fact we tried to get it all done for free if we could. Post-production generally costs twice as much as actual production and we just couldn't afford either very well. The editing was done by a friend in the weekends in his living room, the sound design executed by more friends who were learning the same trade at university, and the musical score was composed and recorded by Thomas Goss, a Wellington-based composer who I've still never met; whenever I'm in town he's been off running music camps for kids and doing other projects. I honestly don't remember how we found him. The colour-grading - that is, the correction of colour, contrast, brightness and stylization of the imagery, sort of like running the film through Photoshop - was executed by Images & Sound, a post-production company in Grafton who did the job at a hugely discounted price on Boxing Day 2005.
Discounting and working a public holiday – that's surely unusual. Friends of yours? The colourist was impressed with the short and wanted to put the work he did for the film on his own personal reel. Images & Sound also wanted to add the film onto their in-house reels and, on top of that, help out young film-makers. The public holiday was just a day they knew the suite would be free, and it would be an extra sum of money rather than missing out on the chance to hire out the suite at full-price on a regular day, I imagine. The film was finally mastered and delivered sometime early in 2006.
I've heard the term "mastered" a hundred times, but – confession – I don't know exactly what it means. It's a process by which you ensure that all the elements – vision and sound – are 'legal' for projection, broadcast and display (ie, they don't violate the technical limitations of televisions or amplified sound systems) and then finalise them into a Master which contains locked-off picture and sound elements.
So you had a film. Did you have an audience? How do you get a short film to where people can see it? After we finished Big Bad Wolves, we entered into the holding pattern that often comes at the end of finishing a project and "getting it out there" (in this instance to film festivals). Every international film festival we applied to rejected our rough-cut and by the time we had finished the film we were broke and had no money to make further submissions to overseas events. There was no financial assistance available to applying to film festivals in New Zealand unless the Film Commission took on your film and acted as a sales agent, and they rejected us outright. However some local festivals (which do not charge application fees) did show an interest. We had a great reaction at our Wellington Fringe Festival screening – it was an awesome first-festival experience for us – and Craig attended the Big Mountain Festival in Ohakune, where I picked up the Best Director award, and then I, in turn, attended the Magma Film Festival in Rotorua where we picked up the Best Emerging Filmmaker award. It was pretty encouraging for us that wherever Big Bad Wolves screened it was a screaming success, even if nobody in the industry or in the commission was interested in the film. After the screening at the Wellington Fringe Film Festival, we were approached by a duo of local producers whom we attempted to forge a feature-film project called Make a Movie.com, which was a combination of a low-budget feature-film production combined with an interactive internet TV show where viewers could participate in the creative and production process, but the project didn't really take off despite six months of development.
That's not related to the current Make My Movie competition, is it? As far as I can tell there's no correlation between Make a Movie.com and Make My Movie, though the ideas are startlingly similar. Of course, it has taken the development of things like social networking, YouTube, web series and the popularity of online media (which didn't exist as strongly back in 2006) to make something like this work. Make A Movie.com had to invent the wheel before they could design the car that would ride on it … Make My Movie has far fewer barriers and the lesser-focus on audience participation in the production end is also what makes it more manageable.
Also the focus of Make A Movie.com was on creating a reality-media-format. Make My Movie is more about the making an actual film with all the gimmicky-awesomeness that hearkens back to the days of Roger Corman and William Castle (e.g. selling a film off a poster etc).
So in the wake of Big Bad Wolves, your situation was that you'd had some good audience feedback, the industry didn't want to know you, and you were flat broke. Financially things were getting pretty desperate. I took on a night-shift job as a tape operator and overnight digitizer at Touchdown Eyeworks, where for minimum wage I did a job that required only two hours of actual work, giving me around six hours a night of free time to write, develop projects and research. I worked there for about two years, and while I was there I wrote four feature-length scripts, shot a pilot for a comedy series developed by a friend of mine, worked in the weekends on other people's short films and finally directed my first music video for a company called Afterglow (which was owned by the actor Gary Stalker, who played the Cigar-Smoking Gangster in Big Bad Wolves). After finishing the music video, Gary had offered me a series of contract jobs at Afterglow as an editor, and as a director (should any directing work come through the door).
Between 2007 and 2009 I got a steady stream of editing jobs at Afterglow and even pulled some work as a director's assistant (researcher and creative writer essentially) at The Sweet Shop, which is one of New Zealand's premiere TV commercial production houses. In those three years I also directed three more music videos and my first commercial at Afterglow and edited three seasons of a heritage documentary series about Maori radio and one season of Flightpath TV, a New Zealand-produced high-gloss aviation documentary series, which is currently screening on Discovery Channel. The sum of all those editing jobs equals 12 months of full employment if that gives you any idea of how long each project takes. I also worked as a movie critic for a couple of online sites, including Flicks, I taught community education courses on how to use home editing software, and I failed to get on the dole four times.
Meanwhile I applied – unsuccessfully – for a short film grant with the NZ Film Commission on three different occasions, applied to the writer's development scheme for a feature film script (again unsuccessful), attempted to get a spec script to a major Hollywood studio for a property that they'd been sitting on for years (again unsuccessful, but I did get as far as having an LA agent interested in me once I'd done my first feature film), wrote nine drafts of a feature film project that we currently still have in development and are slowly moving forward on, and pitched for an additional nine music video jobs and six TV commercial jobs which were also unsuccessful.
This would be where Peter Jackson enters the story? At the end of 2009 I was putting the finishing touches on editing the aviation documentary when I saw in the NZ Herald an announcement about the "Your Big Break" Filmmaking Competition and by December I had submitted five separate entries to the competition. In January, 2010, I learned that I was one of the five lucky finalists, and the entry they had picked was Blank Spaces.
That meant you were invited to film Blank Spaces with top-flight professionals. I'm guessing that was fun. The "Your Big Break" experience for producing Blank Spaces was second to none – if any analogy could aptly describe it then I'd say it was like a simulation of being one of Hollywood's biggest film-makers, or one of the top commercials directors in the world. It was absolute luxury in terms of the weight that gets taken off your shoulders, because you have crew, money and resources to work with – and also in terms of the amenities they made available to you as a contestant winner.
Because the competition was financed by Tourism New Zealand, each winner got a tourism package including a couple of nights staying in Auckland, tours of the volcanoes, sailing on an America's Cup Yacht and so forth. The next day we flew down to Queenstown and started the whole process: the production company overseeing the shoots had installed their offices in the suites at a beautiful lakeside hotel (where cast and crew also stayed) so for the five days of pre-production it was just a matter of getting up, getting dressed, finding some breakfast and then walking up to the offices for a day of basically saying "yes" and "no" to people. We had problems to overcome, like finding a lake that could stand-in for the real Lake Unknown location (which was in a DOC no-fly/no-film-shoot zone), casting, wardrobe and art designing, figuring out how to make our sign float on water and balance the budget for transporting the gear to the location and back (especially since it became pretty evident that a helicopter was going to be required; something that terrified myself and the production crew. We were hoping that such an expensive solution wouldn't be necessary). We went on location scouting trips (where I got to see some of Queenstown's more beautiful and hidden locales), went through a line-up of actors and even got to party a couple of nights in town with cast and crew. All the while the logisitics of the shoot were essentially not my problem. There were two producers there who would simply say if a solution I suggested was not feasible and then I could just go back to the drawing board. In fact out of the five days of prep, I spent the last day in my hotel room because I had absolutely nothing more to do.
The two-day shoot was a magnificent experience and – as always for me – the location was far more stunning to work in than it is to see in the finished short film. We had extreme low-cloud problems on day one, which meant we had to lose a few hours for the sun to burn the mists off and we were limited to the hours we could shoot by the path of the sun relative to the mountain, but we still managed to knock off our shot list for the day. Having no lighting gear and no sound was a huge help for this and on day two, we had a beautiful helicopter ride up to the high ledge where we shot the film's opening scenes, and then down to the Remarkables Ski Lodge where we dressed up a corner the lobby to into our fictional NZ Department of Cartography office. We finished the shoot on time and on budget with almost 30 minutes to spare on the second day (had we gone over, crew would have had to be paid overtime).
Then came five days of post-production in Wellington at Peter Jackson's Park Road Post facility. Park Road is the first-class experience in post-production (ie, editing your film, colour-grading it, recording music and sound effects and mixing it all together). The facility is designed not only to offer the best post-production process and technicians (many of them Oscar winners) that the industry can offer, but also a sense of extreme luxury like you're working in a five-star hotel. The place is pretty unbelievable and it was an absolute privilege to have my film finished there. All-up, the experience was identical to shooting in Queenstown where an army of experts took over worrying about the logistical issues and left me to purely think creatively. Which was amazing. And also a bit scary because you find yourself sometimes with nothing to do and you get paranoid that maybe you should be doing something to justify your position. Once our five days were up and the three-minute film was completed, I jetted back home and it was all over. The two weeks I spent making my short film honestly felt like months (in a good way), but then I came home to the realities of being a poor film-maker. As a welcome home gesture, my television exploded on me that very morning.
You're working now on getting your first feature made. Are you on a path other first feature directors could follow, or does the Your Big Break experience open additional doors for you? (What I'm really asking is, is there such a thing as a career path for a first-time feature director, or does everyone end up having to beat their own trail?) Your Big Break has definitely opened pathways and doors for me overseas. It gets me taken seriously. I can't even begin to describe how tough it would be without that up my sleeve, especially outside New Zealand, where the perceived degrees of separation between a NZ filmmaker and someone like Sir Peter Jackson or producer Barrie Osborne (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) is monumentally huge. In addition to all this, the contacts that I have made in that process with establishments like Park Road Post and The WETA Workshop adds credibility to my projects.
Certainly there are no two identical paths to getting a film made – there are just as many options out there as there are actual films. Given the "genre/commercial" nature of the projects I've been developing to date, its been difficult to tie it down to local development and funding models. The most prominent of these projects – called Seizure – has been rejected by the NZFC's development process and we're not happy to go the self-financing route given the project's scale and the assets we have attached to it (for instance we have signed on the WETA Workshop to do the design and special effects for the film). The only option that's left – and to be fair the majority of independent films are produced this way including all of Peter Jackson's films bar Bad Taste – is to go out and look for financing under our own steam and our own development money.
How much can you tell me about Seizure? Without giving too much away, if I was pitching Seizure I'd say this: it's a very dark psychological thriller, set in a dystopian near future, about a woman who is struck down by an epileptic seizure so violent that it scrambles her memories. Confined to her high-rise apartment building and mentally crippled by powerful anti-convulsants required to keep her epilepsy under control, the woman is cared for by a live-in boyfriend who she doesn't remember, and she is pursued and terrorised by a ghastly apparition that appears to haunt the building. Soon she comes to the realisation that there is a complex conspiracy within her building that is closing in around her and she must find the truth and escape with her life.
How much would you need to make it and market it? Currently it's budgeted at NZ$10 million , but movie financing is a chicken-and-egg question and ultimately to get a film off the ground when you're a nobody film-maker you have to make the film for whatever budget you think you can reasonably raise. In terms of marketing, that's a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string value which I don't control as a writer/director, but obviously the greater presence the film has and the smarter the marketing money is invested, the greater the chance more people are likely to see it.
But there must be a minimum below which you'd essentially be making an entirely different film from the one you're aiming for. How low could the budget go before you'd have to shrug and say "It isn't worth doing at this point, because we couldn't do it right"? Well there's no such thing (in my head) as a "this is too low to do it right", unless of course you're talking about dollars less than NZ$500,000 where it is physically impossible to tell the story – at all – in a sellable way. But off the top of my head, I think if the budget fell below NZ$3 million then the shape and flavor of the script would have to be changed drastically to accommodate the removal of the elements that we then clearly could not afford. It would be a totally different movie at that budget level … though not necessarily a bad one.
And you're saying this is a type of film the NZFC isn't geared up for. The "issue" (and the quote marks are essential, it's only an issue from one perspective) with the New Zealand Film Commission at the time was that it is a government body purposefully set up to nurture, celebrate, dramatise and promote New Zealand – as a culture and a nation – to New Zealanders and to the world. Prior to the global recession, the NZFC's charter was devoted to producing New Zealand content films for the New Zealand audience, and those films had to be produced with the intention of making financial returns in the New Zealand box-office. The pressure for those films to make a profit locally was not particularly intense, especially because of the late-90s boom in the international art-house market, and the immense popularity of New Zealand films at many of the world's biggest film festivals. The shorthand is: New Zealand got very good at making "arty" films and film festivals loved those films, there was a global demand for those films and there were plenty of financial institutions in the world who were happy to fund our art house market-aimed projects.
The financial and critical success of films like The Piano, Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors fed and justified this methodology. Directors who bent more naturally to this particular style got support. If you were a film-maker who did not fit this model, then it was likely that the old commission regime would be unable to help you find your feet. So hundreds of young film-makers who had more commercial/genre leanings were turned away. Within the industry, the NZ Film Commission regime of the 1990s and early 2000s tended strongly towards art-house projects, and this made it hard for genre film-makers to grow, learn and develop their craft with state funding. Within the industry itself, I know there were many accusations of nepotism and film snobbery, but I think mostly it's a case of sour grapes colliding with a very hard and harsh reality: that what one large demographic of film-makers wished to make didn't connect – neither financially nor legislatively –with what their local commission was allowed to produce or was able to on-sell. Basically, the New Zealand Film Commission was very good at doing what their government mandate required them to do, and the cost was that they had to turn a blind eye to anything and everything that didn't fit into their production model or their charter. Every project that I've ever wanted to make fell squarely in that dead zone for them.
Surely the film commission's response to this would be that they turned two entirely non-blind eyes to your proposals, looked them over thoroughly, and concluded they weren't very good? Of course it might always be that our proposals simply didn't look good as projects, in and of themselves. However the large elephant in the room, prior to Peter Jackson's review of the old NZFC regime, was that the commission themselves struggled (rather publicly sometimes) with finding and greenlighting solid film proposals that could find an audience, turn a profit and fulfill their charter obligations. This, combined with the old commission's history of being well-connected experts in catering to the art-house/festival market, and their failures in the genre film market, pretty much made a lot of film-makers feel that we weren't dealing with a level playing field.
It's not the film commission's fault that a generation or so of upcoming genre talent may have been skipped over (many of whom have reportedly given up and left the industry), but at the same time the repercussions of this are now being felt strongly. The art house market is all but gone in the wake of the financial collapse. New Zealand films don't get NZFC funding unless they've secured a local distribution deal, so locally those films do get at least some time in front of audiences. But overseas, the number of art-house theaters and distribution channels have shrunk astonishingly, and distributors are being very picky about what they're buying at the moment. Meanwhile, the available financing has dried up in a huge way and, in response, the NZFC has been forced to cut budgets back. The absolute maximum the commission can now invest is NZ$2.5 million and that would be a rare case for a film that had a good, strong chance in the markets. The days of ambitious NZ$8-15 million art-house projects are shrinking because it's difficult to raise that cash between NZ and overseas investors. You won't be seeing the full effects of all this in New Zealand theatres for another year or two at the earliest – it takes years for funding changes to filter through the system.
When these changes do start filtering through, what are going to see? We won't stop making art-house/festival films, but we'll likely see greater diversity, and also a sharp drop in the scale and production budgets of local art-house features. Little by little, it feels as if we've gradually fallen out of step with the beat of the world and now we don't have the ability to make profitable films that people will invest in. And, more tragically, we don't have trained, experienced and honed young genre/commercial filmmakers here ready to take on the challenge, nor do we have many producers who have the experience to spearhead and manage such projects. To some degree, it's back to training-wheels for everyone as we scramble for a share of a much smaller pot of money.
The new staff and regime at the New Zealand Film Commission are working very hard to manage this current crisis, but at the same time they're still yoked by New Zealand law, which demands we make local films that make money in local theatres. The law is outdated and unrealistic: our country does not have a population large enough to support profitable films unless they're made for less than NZ$400,000. The commission is working the microbudget angle with new funding schemes like Escalator and Fresh Shorts – I can potentially see long-term good coming out of these, but like everything, these schemes will have their teething issues, and I think the general industry expectation on the quality of the micro-funded features will be moderate-to-low. We don't have any giants on whose shoulders we can stand yet, in this arena, so it will take time to get up to speed on how to best craft micro-funded films.
Without NZFC support, what are your funding options for getting Seizure made? International money, basically. We went to the American Film Market in Santa Monica last year – imagine a trade show with thousands of people looking to buy films to distribute into their territory or media platform. Our visit was fascinating and extremely educational, but we found that, post-recession, the money that US production companies had access to has practically dried up. Given the glut of projects vying for everyone's attention, it was going to be difficult to battle it out in that market to get your film project looked at, built into a package with stars and other assets, hopped around and then eventually financed via a group of third parties. Likewise with my recent trip to the Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival in France at the beginning of this year (where– was invited to play as part of a retrospective programme), the many companies and producers we touched base with did not make a good fit for our project and were also dealing with a financing drought.
When you say "the money that US production companies had access to", that's what, exactly? A variety of sources – banks, hedge funds, capital venture companies (typically based in Europe), loans from studios, money raised in the share market, pure private equity. There's no preset way to finance a movie. You get the money wherever you can find it.
And "wherever you can find it" means what for you, now? If there were too many projects and not enough money at the AFM, what are you left with? Our alternative is to go to the money's source. Fifteen years ago, that money would have come from Europe, which had been financing most of studio and major-indie productions in the US. Today, there's a new source – India and China. Because one of the producers for Seizure had worked with Bollywood in the past and has forged pathways to that market, we decided to look to the sub-continent to see if we could get any traction getting an English-language, commercial, genre project off the ground. We thought there might be some significant interest in a project like ours because of the perceived glass ceiling of revenue in the Bollywood market, and the desire in China for bridging their industry and financial institutions into the Western market and popular culture.
I've read about the Chinese interest in getting involved in American film – last year's Karate Kid remake would be an instance of a film being made in China to take advantage of new funding opportunities, I think. But what's the "perceived glass ceiling"? In the West, there is a notion among some people that local films in Bollywood and in China can only make so much money within their own markets – ie, that to maintain the level of growth both industries have been enjoying, they have to reach a wider audience, or invest in projects made outside their industries. But it's not so easy for Westerners to figure out if this is really the case. The cultural and language barriers you have to work around to make high-end business and investment deals are substantial. When we did our research, both territories seemed interested in overseas projects, but when we actually went to Mumbai recently, we found that the real investment climate was something very different. (And perhaps being an Indian I was able to gain a more sympathetic insight into why this was.)
The glass ceiling will eventually be a reality in India, but for the time being it is still largely irrelevant. Due to the way their films are financed, distributed, marketed – and due to the value of the rupee in the international currency markets – Indian studios and financing bodies are still making a lot of money from local audiences. They have almost 1.2 billion Indians to cater to, their revenue sources are not drying up at the moment, and they are still willing to push production costs higher to grab larger chunks of that market. (For example - several recent Hindi films have been shot in 3D, some are hiring high-end Hollywood post-production houses to do special effects and post production for their films; others are now being shot almost entirely on-location in other countries, and so on and so forth.) Combine this with extremely strict economic legislation, which prevents Indian businesses from investing large amounts of currency overseas, and it becomes impossible for a project like ours to get financing from within India … unless we are willing to shoot in India and deal with the production cost/expertise issues there. Big Indian media conglomerates like Reliance Corporation are investing in overseas films, but they spread their risk by investing in movie studios which have slates of over 100 films, rather than putting money into a single movie. So that particular financing angle is difficult to leverage, and hence India remains a tough nut to crack. (And believe me, Hollywood's made several attempts in the last five years and failed spectacularly in every one. The lone exception: Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire.)
For China and other parts of Asia, there still appears to be some hope. At least there are no restrictions and there are several major events such as the Asian Film Forum (being held in Auckland next month) and the Hong Kong Film Markets, and other avenues where projects like ours could find an ideal fit for money. Of course going to these places is expensive and having the right bits and pieces attached to your package also takes time and money to put together … so it's a long and slow process.
That sounds discouraging. Are you discouraged? They say in the industry that no matter where in the world you're working, the pathway to getting your first real, widely-seen feature film off the ground is at least 10 years. I've been in this industry for eight years, so I don't feel like I'm running out of time just yet. In the meantime we are dealing with various producers interested in Seizure from different parts of the world, we are learning about the distribution and financing aspects of film-making, we are entering the Make My Movie competition, we are developing at least three other feature film ideas, including a potential art-house project that was offered to us during my trip to Mumbai, and, on top of all of this, we are pushing on with our careers and our work without losing momentum or enthusiasm for what we're doing.
The blood, sweat, tears and, worst of all, the years of waiting are all part of the game of film-making. And we enjoy playing it. And because of this, we feel it's not really a matter of if … but when.
Read Rajneel Singh's film blog, Film Is A Harsh Mistress, here.
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