An interview with Dave Gibson, the outgoing head of the Film Commission, looking back on four years of rapid change.
Public sector arts jobs look horrible from the outside. You have an inevitably too-small pot of money, distributed to a group of people who are either deliriously happy or incandescent with rage according to whether they’ve recently been funded. Then you’re at the whims of maddening entities like TV channels to schedule it, bookstores to stock it, critics to review it and an audience to consume it. All the while dealing with the capricious whims of the government of the day, oscillating between National’s malign neglect and Labour’s over-vigourous meddling.
Worst of all you have only a very limited ability to ensure that the beautiful vision sketched to you resembles the product delivered.
It’s a surprise bordering on revelation, then, that when an executive takes that awful and very public top job that they tend to stick around for long tenures. The current heads of Creative New Zealand and New Zealand on Air each have had a solid decade in their current roles – the same length of time Ruth Harley spent at the head of the Film Commission through 2007. They’re all dwarfed by Brendan Smyth, who ran New Zealand on Air music for more than twice that.
Perhaps this is because there are scant roles in the arts sector which contain anything as much power to shape our cultural output. And because such positions tend to filled by people who’ve spent a career balancing the demands of venal politicians and grasping creatives these jobs, as well as being horrible, are also as good as it gets in arts in this country.
Dave Gibson is a different type of fish. Prior to heading the Film Commission he spent 40 years in the private sector, first directing, then producing, then launching the Gibson Group, one of New Zealand’s larger private production companies, which prospered through the radical outsourcing of television through the ‘90s and ‘00s, eventually selling his stake to take up the Film Commission job.
This makes him doubly anomalous – a private sector veteran heading a major public arts organisation, and one who willingly walked from the role after just four years. During his tenure the Film Commission had some hits (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Tickled, The Dark Horse) and its share of misses (it would be cruel to name films I and almost all of you have not seen, but there were enough). It has nearly doubled its headcount from 22 in 2012 to 40 in 2017 – though, as Gibson notes, it has absorbed the promotional function of Film NZ, and both the number of films it is involved in and the number of incentive applications have more than doubled.
Though he dislikes the term, the commission has become manifestly more interventionist. It has started making more more small bets, leading to criticism for ducking some more commercial projects. It has instituted test screenings and gender reporting, launched an OnDemand platform and begun exploring AR/VR which could be a great idea, a bad idea or construed as a land grab over other, more appropriate agencies.
Whatever you think, it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t given the organisation tasked with funding and promoting our films and film industry a good shake. I caught up with him for coffee in mid-December before he head away on his century-old trawler to talk about his time, his regrets, #metoo and what he plans to do next.
Interview conducted in mid-December, with a follow-up in January and has been and condensed
Why are you leaving?
I said four years. I don’t think people should do these jobs for too long, I think that you can come in with a fair amount of energy – and I think I have – I think you can make a lot of changes, you can get enthusiastic and be enthusiastic and I’m hoping in my case, help to get a lot of films made.
I’m not retiring or anything – I’ll take a couple of months off, but if someone calls I’ll listen. I just feel that I’ve given it a good run and it’s time for someone else to come in and pick it up and move on. I’m from a farming family, and I always believed there was that element of doing what you can for the farm and then you drive past a couple of years later and someone’s added more and had better ideas and, you know, it continues on.
That’s not always the typical way in the arts and creative sector here.
Look, it depends on the people. I just feel like I paced myself for this. I went four years, I’m gonna run like crazy, do what I can, make some change. Four years is good.
So what have you learnt in this four years, coming from a private sector background into an institution like this?
I think I adjusted to it better that what most people thought I would. I think people thought that bringing someone in from the industry like me into this job would create problems. That there would be issues, particularly with the other government agencies like MCH and MBIE [the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment], I think I can say pretty comfortably that I’ve done a pretty good job in that area. I think that our government relationships are better than they’ve been in a while, we’ve had good relationships with the previous government, I don’t think it’ll be any different with Labour.
[Ultimately] the industry can say how much it’s great to have someone from the industry because you’re empathetic and you have a knowledge that’s good for them, but if the tap gets turned off, if the money doesn’t come, they won’t give a fuck that you’re some nice industry guy. They’re gonna get really pissed off and the industry will be very unhappy.
Conversely, I guess, if there’s a whole lot of money and the people giving it out don’t know what they’re doing, or they’re not empathetic then I guess that’s a problem as well so there’s kind of a balance.
It’s been almost an uniquely difficult era to balance though. The pace of change is so fast you can make a sort of good solid rule with correct assumptions in 2015 and then two years later behaviours have changed so radically that it’s no longer fit for purpose.
Or you can say look, I want to move into a space. We can talk about an example, our board has just moved towards taking another step into the interactive space. And we’re not going to turn into a full-scale industry funding in a hurry – but I was really conscious, where we’ve got to now is where I would’ve liked to have got to maybe about a year ago, it’s taken us a couple of years to get there, if we move too fast we could really upset a lot of people.
You could also just burn money.
We could burn money, or we could get a backlash where the government says what are you doing this for, why are you doing that, you haven’t explained it to us properly. Or maybe older filmmakers or more mature filmmakers could ask if you’re taking money from our sector and giving it to somebody else?
So you’ve sort of got to move at a pace where – you can never take everyone with you, but you’ve gotta at least take half the people with you. I find, coming from the private sector, I would like to do things quicker and a bit more flexibly, but I recognise that there’s certain things you’ve got to do. And I know some filmmakers find that frustrating, when people don’t fill in the forms properly and then they get grumpy and there’s a little bit of a dispute about it and all that sort of thing, and that’s the other thing as well, I mean that’s the other thing. I won’t miss the odd OIA. I believe in them and it’s a great idea and all that sort of thing but sometimes dealing with complaints can be incredibly time consuming and slightly sapping.
What do you think you achieved in your time at the commission?
Yeah, there are two things I’m really proud of. What I think I did very quickly with the staff and with the industry was we set this kind of mission statement which was that we would judge our success by the success of the industry. So I wasn’t interested in saying ‘the film commission is very successful, as it replies to emails within 4.7 minutes on an average tuesday’, you know, I wanted to basically just say well if the industry is successful then obviously we must be doing something right, if they’re not, we’re not.
[We now look at] eyeballs on films, careers and pathways for people and economic growth. The last two are quite interesting because traditionally, the film commission would’ve been about the films, and then slowly people have begun to talk about the audiences – but they used to talk about box office and we don’t want to do box office.
We love the idea that a film goes to a cinema, that’s the most lovely place to see a film for all sort of reasons – social, screen, and sound – but the truth of it is it’s how many people see it is more important. That’s going to change when platforms change – so we turn to eyeballs. And then this thing about careers and things, I think is a critical shift.
When I began in the business your Mum would say ‘what do you do for a real job’ and there’s no expectation that you could make a living. Most people now want to have a mortgage, they want to have a house and I don’t think that’s unreasonable so we focused a lot more on that. Also I think a lot of training in the industry has been very early, it’s like film school stuff, and that’s not really working for most people at all.
For example if a person who leaves a film school gets a job on Shortland Street as a boom person or as a wardrobe person then that’s a success – but how do you train producers who are essentially entrepreneurial, who will never have a job in their life? It’s not a job, you only get paid of you make something. Well, we’re really short of entrepreneurial, creative, skilled producers. Really, really short. This industry could be twice the size if it had more upskilled and creative producers. No question.
Then the second thing is tied to that which is I think we’ve roughly tripled the number of domestic films that we’re involved in from previous periods.
So does that mean you’ve made more low-budget films?
We’ve made a wider variety of films, some of which are at low budget, and there’s a graph floating around which shows the amount of other investments in our films has gone up considerably in the last three years. So what we’ve done is we’ve encouraged producers to get more money from other places as well so we’ve made more films largely by making the money go further.
At the same time we’ve just invested around $2m into a film of around $35m. Which is the biggest film the film commission has ever been involved in. Now it’s not absolutely locked in terms of its closing yet, so it’s not a done deal but we’re there. I just think we’ve been more aggressive.
What does being more aggressive look like?
We’ve chased stuff a bit more. We go looking for opportunities and we’re not passive. I find that sometimes people will say ‘oh, if I made this film about this do you think you might be interested?’ and I think in the past people might have said yes and then they would wait.
What we’re saying a lot more now is ‘yeah. We would be seriously interested, how can we help you, what do you want apart from the money? Is there a co-producer we can introduce you to? Do you want $10,000 to go to Cannes and pitch it to somebody?’ I think we’re pushing people.
I’ve got a couple of cases. I think with the Richie McCaw documentary, that was a company up here in Auckland called Augusto. They came in and they said ‘well, what do you think? We’ve got this little trailer and some stuff and we have really good access to Richie’.
I told them their deadline was Friday. It’s Tuesday, you need to make an application by Friday. I said it has to go to the board but I couldn’t see why not. I think it’s fantastic and I definitely support it.
I think it’s easy to be a funding agency because all you say is yes and no, but if you really want to be an industry partner or an industry support group then you have to be more than the money. It isn’t just like in the old days where you applied for money and the film commission gave you money and then that was it: it worked or it didn’t work. I think we’re a little more involved now. Some people don’t like that, some think it’s a little more moving towards the studio model.
I asked someone who felt like your film commission was a lot more interventionist.
I don’t think we’re interventionists, I think we’re firm and quite tough – but we’re giving out a lot of money.
Someone told me that Top of the Lake season two under the new incentive criteria wouldn’t be considered for support – is that true?
I would absolutely refute that. I would say that Top of the Lake two they wanted to make in Australia for creative reasons. That is my understanding. It’s not set in New Zealand, they didn’t leave New Zealand because of the incentive. Ironically, for Top of the Lake one, it was made under the old incentive where they only got 20 per cent for television. The new incentive they would’ve got 40 per cent for television in New Zealand and in Australia they only got 20 per cent because TV rates are different but it would’ve made economic sense to stay in New Zealand but it was a creative decision. That’s just another one of those bullshit pieces of rumour that drive me completely and utterly nuts in this job.
I mean if there was one TV show made here in the last decade that really meant something, it was that.
We actually inquired why are you going to Australia, are you sure you don’t want to shoot in New Zealand.
I don’t know. I think we have a lot to offer and I think we are generally helping people. I have a little story for you. We instigated compulsory test screening for all films. So basically we invest in a film now, when you get to the edit you have to stop for three weeks, then we organise a test screening, where we ask what they think about the film and then we produce a report which we discuss with the distributors and then the filmmakers.
Now that’s inserting ourselves into the process. 90 percent of people think it’s a great idea. The people who don’t think it’s a great idea tend to be people who have never done it. Feedback from most people who have been involved in the process is that it’s incredibly helpful, so interventionist? Yeah. Unashamed. Does it make the film better? Yeah.
In terms of the films that you’ve been responsible for, how would you rate your slate?
I think we’ve done pretty well. We’ve increased the number of films, last year we had the best box office that we’ve ever had. Now a lot of people would go oh, yeah, that’s Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but actually there were a number of other films that were north of a million dollars that year as well. I think it’s been pretty good.
We’ve had some failures but that’s the nature of the business, and if you have some films that are very successful then people will forgive you some failures. Because they can see the successes they don’t notice the failures so much. If it was that easy, we wouldn’t need a government funding agency we’d have bankers queueing up at the door lending money on term deposits because they were convinced they would make their money back which clearly they wouldn’t on an average thing.
I inherited the back end of Dark Horse, but that was only the very beginning of how we approached the production in a different way. Mahana I was very proud of, it didn’t do particularly well offshore but it did solid business here. Hunt for the Wilderpeople, obviously. Tickled is a personal favourite, because I saw David Farrier at a pitching contest and went up to him afterwards and introduced myself and gave him some money to go to L.A. and introduced him to a couple of producers, from which he chose Carthew Neal, supported that film through quite a lot of legal and insurance issues – so I’m particularly proud of that. I don’t feel bad about anything we’ve made.
What have you made of the Weinstein story and all that has followed? Were you aware that he was such a monster?
I wasn’t surprised by the Weinstein story, having been in the business a while. He operated in an orbit that most New Zealand producers and filmmakers were far away from. But was I aware of the fact he didn’t seem to be that well regarded? Yes I was.
I’m not conscious of a lot of that activity in the New Zealand industry. But I guess people don’t always know what’s going on. A lot of these situations are one on one. So it needs people to step up and to talk, which I guess is the really positive thing about the #metoo thing. Because if you’ve got a better environment, where people feel more empowered to do that then that can only be a good thing.
What I would expect to happen now is that I think the the guilds and other organisations within the industry – including the funding agencies – will become much more conscious of this. I would expect processes for reporting and standards of behaviour would probably start to find their way into contracts more.
Are you surprised by the extent to which it has been – not entirely, but most frequently – located in film and television?
I would think these situations are occurring in all industries. It’s an element of the star power thing – the media probably has more of an interest in what happens in the film industry than what happens in a chemical manufacturing plant in the middle of America or the middle of New Zealand. Because these things are happening by famous people to famous people they’re going to get more coverage. But it can only be a good thing – it can only help across the board.
Is film in New Zealand a boy’s club – does it have a diversity problem?
There are two things we’ve done in recent times. We’ve got a gender policy, it’s got eight planks. We report on those planks, so if you go onto our website we did a report only about three weeks ago that said this is where we’re at with these things, this is what our progress is. We have an aim of 50 percent female directors on a rolling average within three years.
Do you know where you’re currently coming in?
When I came in we were about 11 or 12 per cent if we were lucky. It’s significantly improved but it’s still not right. In 16/17 14 films received production finance, 48 per cent of the 23 directors attached were women.
Does this count all of the directors of Waru [which had nine female directors] individually?
Of course it does. There’s a note: in 16/17 there is the impact of Waru’s female directors. So we’re not hiding that information. One of the stat problems is that submissions by women are generally lower than men so that’s actually quite an issue. We often give both the numbers for early development funding. In the last financial year, 40 percent of the applicants were women, 46 percent were approved. So we’re tending to give you both the numbers which is quite an interesting approach.
Another thing we’ve just locked off after about six or eight months of hui is locked off a Māori policy. I think the gender thing and the Māori thing are two non-screen achievements. Most other countries with indigenous filmmakers see New Zealand as like, quite a high pinnacle. Because a lot of films have Māori themes, Māori directors, Māori actors and stories and things like that. But we’ve never had any policy around that. For example, the Film Commission had generally had around two or three staff who were Māori, but at the moment we’ve got six.
We’ve got this lovely thing where older Māori filmmakers would say ‘I don’t want to work with the bloody Film Commission, I’m a filmmaker’ and then quietly afterwards, young women in particular were coming up and saying ‘I think it would be really cool to work with the Film Commission, I’d love to do it, even if I only do it for a year or two’.
You learn a lot sitting in a place like that because you see everybody’s applications, you see all the creative treatments, you read all the scripts, you see all the budgets, you see how people prepare marketing and audience engagement plans. You see all this stuff. It’s better than film school if you want to be a producer.
What would you do differently if you were starting over?
I would do some things quicker, I would have got onto the question of producer skills more quickly and in a way I’m a bit stunned that I didn’t – because I’m a fucking ex-producer.
What I realised was we thought some of the producers are really really good at this and that but they’ve never done the finance plan – so when you say to them ‘how will you divide up the money that comes in?’ they have no idea. I think upskilling the producers and identifying entrepreneurial people and giving them a bit of a skillset is obviously a very good thing. I wish I’d done that earlier. That’s one of my regrets.
There’s also a little bit of regret around that area we talked about earlier of not really managing to find quite the right balance between how to be nimble and flexible and respond quickly, and still solve government funding agency sort of things. If we’d actually sat down with a blank piece of paper and said is there another way to do this it might have been a bit interesting.
[When I started] there were a very large number of ways to access money from the film commission. ‘You don’t mean this fund, you mean that fund,’ ‘oh no that fund’s just passed and you’ll have to wait another three months for that to come around again’. I thought that was quite clumsy but now it’s exactly the same if not worse.
What is your view of the broader state of the screen ecosystem in New Zealand right now?
I think on the one hand it’s really exciting, because you’ve got new ways to tell stories, things like AR and VR . If you look at it in a total sense, you feel like now there’s a lot more ability when people say ‘I’ve got this story I want to tell, this idea I want to explore,’ then you can create different ways of doing it, and then you can think about different platforms. So I think that that is more exciting.
The potential downside of that is that some of those platforms aren’t particularly monetised so people could be doing something amazing and it might get a big audience, but after five years, they don’t have a career to pay the mortgage and that’s a problem. For every Taika there are plenty of people who aren’t getting there.
One industry source I spoke to said that there is a bit of a feeling that the film commission has predominantly interacted with arthouse or low budget films. Is that fair?
One of the reasons I feel that we have to be proactive is because we can only fund what comes in the door, what people apply for. Obviously, our criteria, generally, is that we like to see most of the films, not all of the films, but most of the films have some sort of significance to New Zealanders. That’s the point of the exercise.
The sort of film we might turn down on a commercial basis might be, let’s say a very commercial horror film that’s very slashy. A couple of times we’ve turned down people or discouraged people from making films that have no relevance to New Zealand whatsoever. So they’ll say ‘I’ve got a film about these two people and it’s set in America, and I want to set it in America because I believe that I’ll make more money from Americans buying the film if it’s set in America, so I’m setting it in L.A. and I want you to give me half a million dollars’, and I go ‘why?
That’s not what we’re here for. Why don’t you set it in New Zealand?’ and they go ‘oh, because it’s very commercial’, and I go ‘well, if it’s all that commercial, why are you talking to us? Why don’t you borrow the money from the bank if you’re that sure about it?’
This section is made possible by Simplicity, the online nonprofit Kiwisaver plan that only charges members what it costs, nothing more. Simplicity is New Zealand’s fastest growing KiwiSaver scheme, saving its 10,500 plus investors more than $3.5 million annually. Simplicity donates 15% of management revenue to charity and has no investments in tobacco, nuclear weapons or landmines. It takes two minutes to join.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.