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PartnersApril 14, 2021

The creative explosion: How an underestimated sector could become an economic powerhouse

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A new white paper commissioned by UP Education and Yoobee Colleges looks at how Aotearoa can better support and sustain its creative industries. 

2020 may have been a year of unprecedented challenges, but for Aotearoa’s creative industries, it was also one in which incredible pressure produced outstanding results. With our government’s mitigation measures effectively minimising the disruption brought by the Covid-19 pandemic – particularly in relation to major international markets – the year became in many ways an opportunity for the sector to assert itself and leverage its capabilities on a global scale.

But with the world resuming something resembling normal service, how prepared are our creative industries for the post-Covid future? A new white paper commissioned by UP Education and Yoobee Colleges seeks to answer that question, speaking to a range of experts and industry leaders about the enormous opportunity represented by the sector, how they feel we can best respond to this moment, and how we should be preparing to respond to the next. Following the paper’s release, we asked a few of its key industry contributors to share their thoughts on what the sector needs to continue moving forward.

Stephen Knightly, Rocketwerkz

The thing that people overlook with the creative industries is what a fantastic business model they offer. It’s scalable – you make your film, your song, your video game once, and the cost of hitting an extra million customers doesn’t cost you any more. The products are weightless – you really can reach the entire world. What that means is when you are competitive and when you succeed, those returns can be fantastic. And it’s the type of industry that New Zealand’s economy needs if we’re ever going to get past dairy, agriculture and tourism.

A screenshot from the new Rocketwerkz game, Icarus, due out in 2021 (Image: supplied)

Every single creative industry is a high-tech industry now. We can have high-tech theatre and dance and painting, let alone the music, film and gaming industries which are all digital-first these days. The creative industries are often the earliest adopters of new business models too – not just selling content, but selling fan relationships, subscriptions and microtransactions. What’s great about those kinds of commercial models is that New Zealand creators can own their own intellectual property and have direct relationships with their customers. When what you’re selling is an intangible asset, a piece of intellectual property, that audience interest and loyalty is what matters.

Covid accelerated the world’s appetite for content. The market for selling entertainment content and services around the world has exploded. And everyone looked at New Zealand because of our great Covid response. So we have a market opportunity, and global publishers and media companies asking for our content, but we neglected the fastest growing parts of the industry like interactive games and animation. We’re currently missing that boat.

There’s a hugely healthy creative industries ecosystem now. We have talented graduates specialising in creative tech. We have established cornerstone businesses, exporting digital content like games to millions around the world. What we don’t have is an economic development or industry development plan for our creative industries. My heart kind of breaks when I see these talented graduates coming out of places like Yoobee Colleges and they’ve got an entrepreneurial mindset but no support. When they do knock on the door of Creative New Zealand, the Film Commission or NZ On Air, they’re largely told that they’re doing something entrepreneurial, or targeting global audiences, that there’s no support for them.

It’s great that we do have those existing government arts and culture funding programmes, but the Covid opportunity is to modernize those programs to include digital and interactive, because that’s the market opportunity. In turn that leads to sustainable creative businesses who can also contribute to public good arts and culture.

Stephen Knightly is a board member of the NZ Game Developers Association and the chief operating officer of video game studio RocketWerkz.

Libby Hakaraia, Māoriland Film Festival

When we first started Māoriland, I was asked by somebody high up in the film industry why were we bothering to define ourselves as Māori film or Indigenous film. It was their opinion that we could all sit under the banner of New Zealand film. 

What we were doing was putting a flag up for our Indigenous audiences but saying ‘here’s a film that has people in it that look like you and have stories that you recognise’. We define ourselves as Indigenous and these are the stories we tell. And we found that audience, as well as non-Indigenous audiences who thoroughly enjoy the stories.

The international rise of Indigenous cinema is testament to something we’ve known for a long time: that we have unique stories. And with the box office success of films like Cousins, it’s clear that people in Aotearoa are responding to Indigenous stories. And yet it took nearly 20 years for Cousins to be made. The entire time Māori filmmakers were saying that Māori stories could find an audience, but they weren’t being funded. Those that did get through the funding gates smashed it out of the park, yet it was still a dripping tap approach. Because of Indigenous film festivals – as well as an increasing number of other mainstream festivals – Māori films are becoming globally known now, and there’s a lot more coming. 

Directors Briar Grace-Smith and Ainsley Gardiner on location for Cousins. (Image: supplied)

We are a country of incredibly passionate film storytellers and technicians. When we all went into lockdown it felt like everybody looked around and said, “Who are we? What are our defining values as a nation?” And for those making cinema we had those same thoughts: what are we here for? What are the stories we want to tell?

I hope that we’ll look back at this time and say that it forced a paradigm shift in how we think about filmmaking. It’s a collaborative experience and I think a lot of people are realising that being a part of that experience shouldn’t be the privilege of the few. Also the role of the storyteller is necessary in our society to help show ourselves to each other. What really excites me is how rangatahi are picking up the camera and making really great films. We are working with a lot of this exciting talent at Māoriland. That’s what drives me. 

Libby Hakaraia is a film director and producer, and managing director of Māoriland Film Festival.

Sam Ramlu, Method NZ

I think in the past we’ve had a focus on certain creative industries, but others have been left behind, ignored or not even considered. As an example, film has had a lot of support over the years, but industries like gaming and interactive have traditionally not even been seen as part of the creative sector. Yet they don’t fully fall into the tech sector either, which has been more focused on things like SAAS-style platforms and large enterprise solutions. So for me, it’s thinking about how we can stand out on a world stage as a creative country, not just focusing on individual creative industries. 

We’ve got the people here, we’ve got the ideas here and we’ve got the desire right here to compete on the world stage. But I think what happens is we have these ventures and people that are successful at the beginning because they’re willing to hustle and invest their own time, but they peter out, exhausted or disillusioned, because there’s not enough support or funding to grow their work and there’s only so far you can go by yourself. If you look at film, a lot of the funding has come about from previous successes in the industry. So when we look at industries like gaming, it’d be such a shame if we had to wait for these massive successes, and for people to be pulled out by international companies or give up, before we start properly funding it.

In the gaming and interactive space, the people who are creating the games and developing the content just want to get on with doing great work. And then we want to do even better, larger projects, because we enjoy what we’re doing. It’s a true passion. But you know, we could pack up today and literally move our studio over to Canada, and because of the funding schemes they have in place, 40% of our costs would be covered. There’s no scheme like that here. And while we don’t expect the exact same model, we need some support from somewhere. We want to stay in Aotearoa. We want Aotearoa to be recognised in this space.

I don’t know if I’m the right person to be talking about government policy and funding programmes, I don’t have that experience. All I know is we just want to make great games and great content. But it all starts from somewhere, right? And if it’s not from within the industry, how else do you get the passion and drive to start talking about it and getting behind it? I’m glad the conversation’s happening but we need to pick up the pace or we’ll miss out on some amazing home-grown opportunities. 

Sam Ramlu is the co-founder and managing director of digital creative agency Method NZ.

Ana Maria Rivera, Yoobee Colleges

We need to change our mindset in a couple of key ways. The first thing we need is to get high school teachers and parents, and career counselors, really talking about creativity as something that’s viable for the kids, and embedding it into the curriculum. Until we can gear our education system towards creativity and a creative workforce, we’re going to be a bit stuffed in terms of the pipeline. 

Ana Maria Rivera, CEO of Yoobee Colleges (photo: supplied)

A big thing we’ve been doing at Yoobee Colleges is asking how we can teach skills like computational thinking at high schools in a way that doesn’t sound dull. Like, setting up Minecraft servers, or understanding YouTube and TikTok algorithms – kids these days are interested in those things, but they don’t get that that’s actually maths, you know? Making your own Fortnite skins is actually digital design. When we were putting together the whitepaper we learned that at the moment, we’ve got 400 of New Zealand’s teachers who can teach digital skills. That’s 400 out of more than three thousand. 

In many ways, we’re also not looking at these things holistically. You can’t have a developer these days who’s not working hand-in-hand with a creative. And the creative industries feed into everything else too. That’s what I mean about changing the conversation – as a nation we need to recognise that growth in the creative industries is really important not just for people who are working directly in these fields, but for industries like hospitality and construction and infrastructure too. These things all bring big money to the country, and they’re all supported in a major way by creative industries. But until we start talking about it in that way, the creative industries will always be seen as things which are really lovely to have, but not things we need. 

It’s a super exciting time. And New Zealand talent is so sought-after overseas, because as Kiwis there’s so much ingenuity to what we do. So how do we teach this stuff and get kids really excited about creative industries at a young age? So that when they’re making choices about, say, tertiary study, they actually see these things as viable. We’ve got this amazing talent, but we need to back it with the right initiatives and the right support, right from the start.

Ana Maria Rivera is the chief executive officer of Yoobee Colleges.

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