Half a TV featuring the NZ on Air logo, half a movie screen featuring the film commission logo
Will 2 become 1? (image: Tina Tiller)

MediaJune 5, 2024

Is the next big media merger NZ on Air marrying the Film Commission?

Half a TV featuring the NZ on Air logo, half a movie screen featuring the film commission logo
Will 2 become 1? (image: Tina Tiller)

Combining the Film Commission and NZ On Air is now being openly discussed in Wellington. Duncan Greive assesses the idea – and asks why stop there?

Combine what now?

Only the two hugely powerful agencies that decide what we fund for our screens. 

The NZ Film Commission was founded in the late 70s, tasked with a broad range of functions, most notably “to assist in the making, promotion, distribution, and exhibition of films [and] to encourage and promote cohesion within the New Zealand film industry”. It has quite a broad remit, which encompasses everything from developing the industry to marketing it overseas, to funding or part-funding many New Zealand films and administering the big money screen production rebate (or SPR), which exists to encourage people to shoot films here.

NZ On Air was formed a decade later, the apex of the fourth Labour government’s gamifying policy. Ostensibly it was to encourage payment of and administer the broadcasting fee – a $110 per household annual payment that funded the making of TV shows (and soon a little music). The fee was eventually abandoned – but it’s worth remembering that universally paid and adjusted for inflation it would be close to $450m a year, around triple what it is today. Over time NZ On Air too has seen its remit broaden, moving beyond television into streaming, podcasts, industry development and some shows (disclosure: including The Spinoff’s) with YouTube as the platform, while also administering a gaming rebate.

This division made sense at the time. Historically, film and television were different worlds. Film played in cinemas, then was rented from stores or sold on DVD, next hitting on satellite or cable TV before finally having a big bang of a premiere on TV. Television mostly meant advertising funded free-to-air network TV, unless it was fancy enough or weird enough to play on subscription services like Sky. TV was largely considered a mass entertainment device, with a bit of cultural relevance at the edge. Film was an artistic form with a juggernaut of commercial outcomes at its core. 

Robyn Malcolm in After the Party (Image: Supplied; additional design Archi Banal)

What’s the case for a merger?

Now, Netflix has become the biggest platform for film and TV, “straight to streaming” has become almost as common a film release strategy as debuting in theatres while studios, and actors and directors increasingly work across both mediums. As the remits of NZ On Air and the Film Commission have broadened, so their work has become somewhat tangled. NZ On Air has funded tele-features – functionally, films made for TV, while the Film Commission’s rebate has it touching TV shows like the commercially funded Celebrity Treasure Island and Brokenwood Mysteries, earlier seasons of which were funded by NZ On Air. Both also co-administered a special Covid-era content fund that produced a TV show with cinematic values in After the Party.

Similarly, each now finds itself making both cultural and economic arguments for its existence. Part of the thinking behind the SPR was that films showcasing our lush scenery would help bring tourists to New Zealand, as well as export dollars in. NZ On Air now loves to talk about how $6m of funding toward a drama can meet with some foreign financing and the SPR to unlock $14m of spending locally. Both have become increasingly conscious about the cultural consequences of what they fund – wanting a more diverse slate of content and content creators, which made them more interventionist, and less audience-focused, in the eyes of some.

That points to an underrated difference between NZ On Air and the Film Commission: how each thinks about audiences. The Film Commission has always had a global mandate – get New Zealand film to intentional audiences, and international films to New Zealand. NZ On Air, by contrast, exists to make stuff in New Zealand for New Zealand audiences. 

Importantly, those goals, which once seemed simple and distinct, are now becoming increasingly fused – and complex. All audiences are largely on global platforms. So the best way to get eyes on New Zealand content, whether local or international, might be to have it on Netflix (which barely carries any currently) – or YouTube.

At the same time, funding directly for Netflix or YouTube carries issues. Netflix is wildly popular, but not everyone has it, meaning it can be both highly viewed and inaccessible to many New Zealanders. And an increase in funding for global platforms carries the inevitable consequence of reducing spend on local platforms, decaying local industry and infrastructure.

There is a real urgency here. For decades NZ On Air existed to fund shows that would not be affordable through networks like Three and TVNZ’s own commissioning budgets – largely drama, comedy and documentary. Huge areas like news, soaps and reality TV were unimagined, as they were commissioned even when funded entirely through advertising revenues. 

As we have seen with the demise of Newshub, Sunday and more, that thesis doesn’t hold for news. There is also a major question mark over the viability of industry giant Shortland Street, and both TVNZ and Three have largely signalled that popular reality formats like Married at First Sight and Celebrity Treasure Island are unlikely to be viable beyond the current cycle. Some of this comes down to taste – audiences love reality TV, but cultural funders tend to cringe at it. That wasn’t a tension, but is now.

And the case against?

Despite the blurring of lines, there remains a real distinction between film and television. The dominant funding of one remains advertising, while the other is direct audience revenue, whether through subscription or ticket sales. The gap between the impact of the Oscars and Emmys shows how film retains a cultural power that only a small handful of television shows reach – or even aspire to.

Perhaps more politically relevant is that recent history suggests media reform is a messy and fraught process. When RNZ tried to switch Concert to a youth channel, it went badly; when Labour tried to merge TVNZ and RNZ, it went worse. While there is likely broad alignment on the logic, as soon as you get into the weeds the chance of upsetting people increases exponentially.

With characters as powerful as Sir Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi involved, screen production can cause news stories bigger than its budgets. Similarly, there is a deep philosophical objection to the concept of rebates from a group focused on limited government, including the New Zealand Initiative, the Taxpayers’ Union and the Act Party. Some of it is a principled objection to the mission creep of the SPR into domestic and NZ On Air-funded productions, some of it is culture war against a sector increasingly considered antagonistic to conservative (and some old school liberal) values. Either way, it has potential to be a gnarly battle, especially if (as is likely) it ends up costing more than anticipated.

Taika Waititi, and his Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Jojo Rabbit for at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards in 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)

What are the big questions and potential complications?

The big argument: why stop there? Te Māngai Pāho (TMP), primarily a funder of te reo Māori TV and radio programming, also funds screen productions, and has been criticised for being excessively focused on older linear TV audiences, especially given the average age of Māori is just 27. Arts development agency Creative NZ (CNZ) funds music and has funded podcasts – the blurring of lines between movies and TV also exists between other cultural forms too.

This isn’t purely specious. There is a chance to create a giant culture agency with a dual internal and global audience remit, with each supercharging the other. The same networks that market our film locations might also help option our novels and find financing for our TV shows. 

Equally though, the knotty discussions that CNZ typically wades into around depictions of colonisation in poetry or whether a school Shakespeare programme needs an EA or not are objectively hard. Deeply involving the agency tasked with revitalising te reo Māori through culture risks agonising discussions with no clear correct answer. There are questions to be asked about the scope and direction of TMP and CNZ in a digital era, but the more agencies and departments are involved, the more likely the project collapses under the weight of its own sprawling scope.

Likewise, there is the vexed issue of how to deal with the most popular form of entertainment for all New Zealanders: the semi-professional parts of UGC, or user-generated content. That describes much of YouTube, and increasingly large parts of Spotify, TikTok and Instagram too. Do you ignore it and risk making almost nothing for many young audiences? Or fund it, perhaps through a rebate, and take on all the risks of these largely ungoverned, perhaps ungovernable, platforms? There’s no way to do this without at least contemplating that. Same goes for a gaming – an industry that dwarfs film and TV combined, yet has only minor state participation by comparison.

What’s to stop it happening?

This government is dealing with a profoundly glum economy, partly inherited, partly created by the Reserve Bank, partly willed into being by its own decisions and narrative. This has driven ad-funded domestic media into a tailspin, with profound flow-on impacts for film and TV production, along with the closely related news media. That is the argument for doing something big and consequential right now. It would also serve to draw a stark contrast with the previous Labour government, which announced a lot and spent a bunch of money, with little left to show for it.

Still, it is a sector within which the faultlines between the coalition partners are particularly clear. The nationalistic impulses of NZ First clash with the market-driven ethos of Act. Both are aligned on a war on perceived wokeness – and it’s undeniable that the content funded by both the Film Commission and NZ On Air in recent years has been drifting much more towards a progressive vision of New Zealand. That’s partly a corrective to years of indifference, but it does mean that the sectors can feel politically hostile to the current government.

Still, the prize is huge – fixing a dilapidated and incoherent set of media regulations and legislation, and aligning a cluster of agencies with a series of ambitious goals that might ultimately create a run of hit films, shows and songs. It would allow parties of the right to take plausible credit for revitalising the creative and commercial engines of culture, and contrast that with the halting progress made by Labour when last in power. 

While this piece is speculative, the prospect has moved into open discussion in Wellington. It is certainly high risk, but with an outside shot a high reward – a lot like the average film investment. We’ll soon see whether the still very new media minister Paul Goldsmith, who has both agencies under his purview, is willing to place the bet.

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