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BusinessOctober 14, 2021

With Auckland cancelled, the rest of NZ needs to save the film festival


All Auckland screenings for the NZ International Film Festival have been cancelled in the face of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, with online alternatives rejected. Its survival now depends on turnout around the rest of the country.

Annie Goldson, an Auckland-based filmmaker, started shooting a new movie just before Covid-19 began its spread around the world. She’d been reading a blog by David Downs, a North Shore CEO and comedian who had headed overseas to undertake an expensive, experimental treatment for his terminal cancer diagnosis. “He was turned down for stem cell [therapy], which means you’re really sick,” said Goldson. “This was his last chance.”

She wanted to make a documentary about him. So, in early 2020, she jumped on a plane with Downs and the pair travelled to Boston. He’d already been through his treatment, and Goldson was there to see if it had stuck. She kept cameras rolling as Downs got the results. “He had his final tests and he was deemed cured.”

With backing by Prime TV, and funding from NZ On Air, Goldson set about making her movie. Since overcoming cancer, Downs has become an advocate for survivors, so she spent much of last year filming him as he gave TED Talk-style motivational speeches, fundraised for local cancer treatments, and advised others afflicted by the disease. She found his survival story motivational, and hoped others would too. “I just really liked the way he combined honesty and humour and information.”

Goldson, who has made acclaimed documentaries about Kiwi yachtie Kerry Hamill and Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, was planning to debut her new film on Prime TV later this month. Then the New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF) came knocking. Director Marten Rabarts, who replaced the late Bill Gosden in 2019, didn’t mind being scooped by a TV premiere, and told her he wanted Goldson’s movie, A Mild Touch of Cancer, to screen at festival events around the country.

She jumped at the chance. A festival screening would mean more people might see Goldson’s movie, and it could be picked up by other overseas events, potentially leading to distribution and streaming deals. It was also a reward for two years of solid work. Goldson calls herself a “kitchen table” filmmaker with a DIY ethic, often taking on many production elements herself, including sound and editing. “You really are working very hard,” she said. “The film festival is the nice party at the end. It’s the fun bit.”

David Downs
David Downs in a scene from Anne Goldson’s documentary, A Mild Touch of Cancer. PHoto: Supplied

Three screenings for A Mild Touch of Cancer were planned in Auckland when the festival kicked off on October 28. Goldson expected to attend all of them, relishing the opportunity to see her film on the big screen with an audience reacting in real-time. There was another motivation: a Sky City screening would double as a fundraiser for Leukaemia & Blood Cancer NZ. After that, Goldson planned to fly around the country to attend other festivals, including another fundraiser in Wellington. 

Now, much of that can’t, and won’t, happen. Last Thursday, NZIFF cancelled all Auckland festival screenings, blaming the ongoing effects of pandemic lockdowns shuttering cinemas. “We have held out as long as possible but had to make this decision today to be fiscally responsible,” trust chair Catherine Fitzgerald said. “With Auckland in a form of level three for some weeks to come, and uncertainty around when capacity limits will be lifted, it is no longer possible for us to go ahead with the Auckland edition … It is with very heavy hearts that we make this announcement today.”

The decision robs Goldson, and 11 other New Zealand directors, of Auckland festival screenings, many of which would be world premieres. Jane Campion and her Netflix juggernaut The Power of Dog, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and NZ star Thomasin McKenzie was planned as the festival’s opening night launch event. Jan Oliver Lucks’ hotly-tipped, HBO-approved There Is No I in Threesome was also set to premiere. “There is disappointment, of course, and I feel for the organisers,” Lucks said. “Auckland plays an important role in our film and I was looking forward to watching a sequence that was filmed in the Civic on the Civic’s screen itself.”

The Power of the Dog
Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. (Photo: Netflix)

The decision led to an outpouring of grief by movie buffs on social media. Goldson was gutted too. “It’s sad,” she said. She was given the news shortly before it was made public. “It’s disappointing but I completely understand. It couldn’t have happened with the virus spreading as it is.” Stuck in locked down Auckland, Goldson can’t attend any of the other festival screenings either. She’s not looking forward to having to appear digitally at those. “I’ll have to beam in by Zoom or something ghastly.” 

While the prospect of audiences packed into the Civic was clearly off the table with Covid in the community, many have been left wondering why an online option isn’t being offered for Auckland, by far the festival’s biggest and most lucrative market. A Mild Touch of Cancer is screening in New York as part of the Imagine Science Film Festival, and Goldson said organisers there offer virtual ticketing and digital waiting rooms that allow viewers to meet other festival-goers. “They’ve done a fantastic job.”

Last year, NZIFF became one of the first festivals in the world to pivot to an online model. A Spinoff piece from July previewing the event proudly judged the set-up as pioneering, “ahead of higher-profile film fest players such as Venice and Toronto”. Through an online portal, audiences were able to log on, buy tickets and stream the year’s selections. Aaron Yap wrote that it might even signal that the days of braving winter chills to head to a theatre were coming to an end. “The film festival, as we’ve known it, may be over.”

David White was key to making that happen. As the founder of Shift72, White has seen massive growth for his streaming platforms since Covid-19 lockdowns began. From his Hamilton base, he’s helped more than 300 film festivals around the world move online. Many have seen audience growth, he said. “You’ve suddenly got this new audience that will watch it at home and don’t want to go to a cinema. We’ve proven that it doesn’t cannibalise (audiences).” Shift72’s growth has been huge, with White’s team doubling since last March. Even Deadline has written about his success. 

When an alert level four was announced for Auckland in August, White reached out to NZIFF offering his help to move its festival online, he told The Spinoff. “We said, ‘We’re here to help.’” He was surprised to be told Shift72’s services weren’t required. When the Auckland leg was cancelled last week, White reached out again. “The answer was, ‘No, it’s too hard.’” 

NZIFF trust chair Fitzgerald addressed some of those concerns in an interview conducted the day after Auckland’s cancellation was announced. She said moving online wasn’t possible because Auckland audiences couldn’t be geo-locked from the rest of the country, who are able to attend theatre screenings in alert level two, as long as they’re socially distanced. “They may have created borders for people leaving by road and air,” Fitzgerald said. “On the internet there is no border for Auckland.”

White says that’s not insurmountable. He predicts hybrid festivals are the way of the future, and he’s helped plenty of others adapt to this model. “You would very much be in control of how you release this content,” he said. Yes, there are issues with film rights, but White says you can restrict screening numbers. “You run it like another cinema … with 500 tickets. For Aucklanders, I think they just want to see something. I don’t think they care and they understand if they can’t see every film.”

The reality, says Fitzgerald, is that it would take six weeks to move NZIFF’s programme of more than 170 films online. “We have a really small team, so going online is a full time job,” she said. “Rolling out in the rest of the country with a small team is also a full time job. We are just not resourced to do it.” White, however, says the platform’s already there, and could be adapted from last year’s model. “Technically it could be done in a day – it could actually be done in a couple of hours. We can do it extremely rapidly.” He remains available and hopeful he can help out. “It’s a shame,” he said. 

Longtime festival director Bill Gosden in the 90s. (Photo: NZ Film Festival)

All of this adds to a lengthy period of turbulence for the festival. Bill Gosden, the festival’s director of 40 years, stepped down in 2019 due to ill health. Other personnel changes, including the departure of long-serving general manager Sharon Byrne, and communications manager Rebecca McMillan, have given the festival’s team a shake-up. Gosden died last year, and the vacuum left in his wake appears to still be felt. In the coming weeks, a book about his reign will be released through Victoria University Press. Its title is The Gosden Years.

If the festival is to emerge from the upheaval and return again to Auckland, the challenge is now for the rest of the country to turn out in numbers. Organisers, many based in Auckland, spent last weekend in a flurry of activity, reworking the Wellington festival to adopt many of the premieres Auckland can no longer host. Two years in a row affected by Covid-19 lockdowns has hurt the festival, Fitzgerald admits.

Last week’s cancellation was ultimately about bottom lines. “You have to crunch the numbers and go, ‘Actually, we’re putting everything at risk by just pretending it’s going to be OK.’” She admits NZIFF is “talking to all our funders … we have to be thinking in the long term”. Also of concern is competitors stepping in to fill Auckland’s void. Already, the Auckland Online Film Festival has launched on Letterboxd with a line-up curated by local film buffs and a list of 100 films.

Yet Fitzgerald and the rest of NZIFF’s team are pinning their hopes on the rest of the festival taking place successfully. They need every available seat in every single screening to be booked in the festival’s 13 other centres: Dunedin, Gore, Christchurch, Hamilton, Hawke’s Bay, Masterton, Matakana, Nelson, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Tauranga, Timaru and Wellington. For film fans, it’s no longer just about enjoying a movie with a large popcorn and a choc top nestled in their laps. Attendance is a show of force that could make or break an event that’s now been running for four decades.

The problem? Like Auckland, last-minute delta outbreaks and alert level changes could also affect many of those screenings. With Hamilton recently returning to alert level three over Covid-19 concerns until at least tomorrow, its festival screenings hang in the balance. It’s also not a given for the rest of the country, where social distancing rules remain in place. “We hope we can sell every ticket we have for sale,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s that audience support that will help us be here to fight another day.”

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