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Plight of the content creators: how NZ is stifling the next generation of TV talent

Looking for the next New Zealand breakout star? Don’t bother switching on your television, says writer and director Chaz Harris.  

Over a decade ago, I was working at Miramax Films in London. One of my colleagues, an acquisitions executive, was preparing to leave for the Berlin Film Festival. I asked him if he went to any of the short film programmes.

He swallowed his laugh when he realised I was serious, while a pile of continuous-feed printer paper tumbled to the floor in front of me. On it was a very long list. “These are all the feature films we have to cover while we’re there” he replied. “If I miss one of these to attend a short film programme and it happens to be the next Pulp Fiction, I’m fired. It’s literally not worth my job to go and see shorts.”

I have never forgotten those words.

The heavy-hitters who attend the major festivals are predominantly the acquisitions teams (unless it’s Sundance, and everyone’s too busy with bidding wars over features to watch short film programmes there). So how does new talent get noticed? What is the benefit of your short film screening at these festivals besides the prestige on paper? And – a question for audiences – can you remember the last time you sat down and watched a short film?

Hell, I’m a filmmaker and I can’t even remember the last one I watched. Beyond the practical experience of making them for those involved, short films often work better as a proof of concept. Almost always they make zero money, are a lost leader and are primarily key capability indicators and showreel material.

However, if you’re trying to get a feature off the ground that requires something specific to pull it off, it is worth making a short to showcase that. It gets expensive though; I’m still paying off the cost of partially self-funding two low-budget shorts from 2007 and 2012.

This was partially what drew me to web series when I made 101 Dates in 2010, after trying to get my first professional short into festivals. I waited for a year before we could do anything with the film or even show it publicly; in the end it seemed like a lot of wasted time and money.

At the time, there were very few web-series festivals around and there are still no restrictions on releasing episodes before submitting to those festivals – just one of the benefits to this approach. If people come back and watch more than one episode, you’re doing something right. If people don’t walk out of the theatre during a play and the word of mouth spikes ticket sales, you’re doing something right. If someone watches your short film, there’s really no test beyond that – maybe they hated it? Maybe they loved it? You’ll never know unless it goes viral (with a 0.001% chance of that happening).

The choice many of my peers and I are making to work in theatre and web series is largely born out of frustration. Through these mediums, we’re able to demonstrate a grasp of narrative storytelling that a slice-of-life short film can’t offer us. Sometimes, in the case of stage production, we break even so it doesn’t even cost us money.

Since creating 101 Dates in 2010 though, I’ve noticed things change. All the exciting new local content is happening online, or in the semi-pro theatre realms of BATS or The Basement. The new creative voices aren’t on TV – they can’t even get close. Television is still the realm of a limited writing pool and a very conservative approach to programming that causes emerging creatives to dismiss it as an option.

The only thing that feels risky or bold about the current state of TV drama and comedy in NZ is the price tag. Unfortunately, it’s preventing anything new making it to the screen because all the eggs are in a few very expensive baskets.

But there are a lot of people making web content here. The difference is that, in the US, they would be getting tapped by the likes of Hulu and Netflix to develop and create full-length shows (ones people actually get paid to make, imagine that!).

I binged Auckward Love in an afternoon and would love to see that as a full-length drama/comedy instead of a web series. I’ve got a soft spot for the dorky anti-hero of The Adventures of Suzy Boon which could have been a very fun half-hour comedy. I’m astonished by what The Candle Wasters have achieved as they’ve even found a potentially sustainable funding model by engaging their fan base with crowdfunding.

So why are so many talented people stuck funding their own content? Why is nobody proactively scouting and developing our emerging content creators? If content is king and IP is where the money is, who is looking out for the next best thing? Perhaps content creators just aren’t valued here?

In the 10 years I’ve lived in New Zealand, I can’t recall any proactive effort from networks to engage or reach out to new talent. There seem to be more opportunities for writers and directors on offshore productions like Power Rangers than on anything that’s homegrown.

When a well-funded new content platform launched in a while back, I reached out to their head of local programming about the potential for original content in the future. I was met with apathy. There are now three or four subscription-model content platforms on offer here, and none are funding the production of original local programming. Surely that would be a unique selling point for subscribers?

In some circles within the NZ industry, young blood and new talent is seen as more of a threat in a limited funding pool than something to be nurtured and developed. However, if we truly want to have a self-sustaining screen industry in New Zealand, we need our young people to see opportunity and a future career path here. They need a reason to stay and believe that exporting their content is viable.

At the moment they move to Melbourne or London because there is no opportunity to get your work seen here beyond theatre or making a webseries. New Zealand’s best creatives are taking their talent overseas, along with the potential economic benefit their future success would have brought us. Imagine if Peter Jackson had moved to London when he was 35?

The cast of 'The Next Best Thing'. BATS Wellington, 1-10 September

The cast of ‘The Next Best Thing’. BATS Wellington, 1-10 September

Last week, I premiered a new play that started life as a TV concept. It’s called The Next Best Thing and is a sort of ‘gay Sex and the City’ about a day in the lives of four gay men looking for relationships instead of hook-ups.

I initially thought about developing it for TV, but if Flight of the Conchords had to leave New Zealand to get their show off the ground, would an LGBT comedy even stand a chance? A play felt more doable, and the obstacles to getting the material in front of an audience some time soon were far less overwhelming.

I hear a lot of talk in the industry that we can’t do comedy in this country. I think that’s bullshit. Want to know how to do comedy? Hire funny people with a fresh voice and build a writers room full of them. The work of countless comedic talents is on display at BATS and The Basement every week. The real problem? Nobody is there to discover them.

For emerging talent, making short films, plays and web series are not a sustainable way to make a living or pay the rent. Full credit to the TVNZ OnDemand team and WatchMe for starting to showcase short-form content like this. However, with the absence of any branded-content partners for financing, there is always going to be a limit to how much you can make before you need to start getting paid for it.

I’ve seen it happen to a few people already; they give up because they have a mortgage, a family to support and are forced to ‘get a real job’. In some ways I’m lucky that I’m single, gay, avoided the mortgage and don’t really want kids. I’d rather make those sacrifices than be forced to give up storytelling.

Our TV networks are struggling to remain relevant. The only way things will change is if they stop making content written by the same people from the same templates. I’m in my thirties and nothing homegrown on primetime TV in New Zealand appeals to me anymore, I don’t even watch it. I’m streaming short-form content on TVNZ OnDemand or I’m on the likes of Lightbox instead. How long before everyone else follows?

It’s time for a more pro-active approach, a few more risks being taken and to start engaging some fresh voices on our screens.

What’s that I hear you ask? Where do we find them?

We are here. We are creating.

Chaz Harris is a writer, director and producer based in Wellington. He is creator of award-winning web series End of Term currently streaming on TVNZ OnDemand and a producer on the independent anthology feature film Encounters. His latest project is The Next Best Thing, on now at BATS, Wellington, 1-10 September.

This post is part of an ongoing series assessing our publicly funded television. Read part one, on the role of commissioners here; and part two, comparing TVNZ with the BBC, here.

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