Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On the Phil Heatley saga,and more on low budget films

February 26th, 2010

phil heatley
Image from nznationalparty’s photostreamOn board the NUShip Perth

Normally when there is a personal cloud over a Minister, they would stand down and/or be removed from their responsibilities by the PM. That is, until (a) the matter was cleared up, or (b) in more serious cases, they had paid sufficient penance on the backbenches to have learned their lesson. There can’t be too many precedents for a Ministerial resignation when the PM doesn’t think it is merited, and especially when (simultaneously) the erring Minister rejects out of hand his leader’s attempt to find an interim solution, such as a stand-down period until the Auditor-General examines the relevant paperwork.

Yet that is the current state of the peculiar Phil Heatley affair. Some have sought a deeper, darker explanation, but it seems to have been a cavalcade of pure wilfullness on Heatley’s part, over a considerable period of time. When officials told him about his misuse of his ministerial credit card, he continued to misuse it. When John Key – for whom one can feel a good deal of sympathy in this affair – admonished him, Heatley picked up his toys and resigned. When Key tried to find an interim solution Heatley rejected it, and resigned anyway.

At this point, we do not know if Heatley is to be banished to the back-benches for a long, long time – which is what he seems to think – or is gone only temporarily from Cabinet until the Auditor-General reports back. What it looks like is a man immune to criticism, and inclined to over-react when his shortcomings are brought to his attention. When the affair first began to gather heat earlier this week, it is perhaps significant that Heatley sought to deflect criticism by telling the media how competent a Minister he thought himself to have been.

To repeat : this was not an isolated lapse. Heatley has been cavalier with his expenses on more than one occasion – and is repentant this time only because he has been well and truly caught. A kinder verdict might be that it was only after being caught that he realized the rules: but officials had tried in vain to get him to adhere to them. Moreover, as beneficiaries have found to their cost in similar situations, ignorance of the rules is no defence. More probably in this case, Heatley didn’t know or respect the details because he felt himself above the rules, whatever they were. Unfortunately, that sense of personal entitlement (Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, Tim Groser etc) goes far wider in this Cabinet than Phil Heatley.

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Down the Up Escalator

While I’ve had my say on the Film Commission’s Escalator low budget film scheme, I ‘m grateful for the feedback on that article from David Searle in the comments thread, and especially for the thoughtful comments on Facebook by Florian Habicht.

I have no quarrel with Florian’s point that at the end of the day, film making is a co-operative enterprise No doubt. He is also bang on when he suggests that my criticism was partly inspired by the Film Commission pulling out of the Independent Film Makers Fund, and choosing to place all of its bets on Escalator instead. “Why couldn’t there be one less feature produced per year,” Florian asks, “ and that money allocated to the CNZ Independent Film Makers Fund?” Exactly. Good solution.

I’m also glad that while he says he disagrees with me on several points, we are agreed that the FC needs to be putting money behind distributing the films that emerge from the Escalator process. Hopefully Florian, Greg King and Campbell Walker will be on the panel of experienced film makers making the final call on which projects proceed, because there are precious few ‘industry’ people with recent first hand experience of low budget film making – or at least, a shortage of people the FC would deem acceptable for the task.

David and Florian’s comments do not otherwise directly address my central point, which was not ideological but practical – namely, whether a competitive teams/bootcamp model should be the basket in which the FC be putting all its funding eggs for making low budget films . In particular, I doubt that it creates the right climate for identifying and developing worthwhile scripts – long the Achilles heel of New Zealand film-making.

I’m sure that making 48 Hour films is fun. David Searle evidently has a ball and learns a lot – but have you ever tried to watch the films afterwards? In the vast amount of cases, you really, really had to be there, To repeat : the structure of the 48 Hour film process relies on existing genre conventions. That’s what enables the films to be made so quickly, because everyone knows the conventions. Now, why would anyone think a rushed, hothouse environment reliant on familiarity should be the only place to discover and develop original, experimental ideas, good scripts etc?

As one might expect at this stage, there is still confusion afoot. David Searle, for instance, says :

I really take issue with the concept that we have three months to come up with our three ideas. Frankly, the majority of aspiring film-makers in New Zealand would have at least half a dozen low budget ideas on the go already..

Okay. But that’s not what the FC’s development executive Paul Swadel was saying in Onfilm earlier this month :

“What it’s not going to be about is people pulling out their existing scripts from bottom drawers that are designed to be shot on $2.5-$3 million and people saying, ‘Don’t worry – we’ll squeeze it in and make it happen for quarter of a million dollars.’ “It’s a clean slate and we want to kick off fresh ideas and fresh approaches…

This kind of confusion matters, because the process kicks off shortly, in June. Another example? At the Wellington launch of Escalator, a questioner asked if you became one of the four winners of the $250,000 each on offer, could you then split the money and make all three of the entry ideas you had brought to the Escalator process? He was assured that would be no problem. Yet the conditions on the FC website clearly stipulate

In the first stage teams will be asked to submit 3 ideas, each as a one page synopsis, along with a one page CV for each member…. After the bootcamp teams will have three months to work on ONE [emphasis in the original] of their ideas….

So, which is it? Hats off to the Film Commission though, says David, for going down the low budget route.’ Well, not so much. Part of my skepticism about Escalator exists because the FC has been down the low budget film route before, with the Headstrong scheme five years ago. That scheme was run in conjunction with the Film Commission by Leanne Saunders and Ant Timpson.

Despite hundreds of scripts being submitted, and shortlists of various lengths being drawn up, and plans to make four films in two years announced, only two films ever got made under Headstrong before the FC finally canned it in late 2007. Those films were A Song of Good by Gregory King, who had previously directed Leanne’s production of his film Christmas, and The Devil Dared Me To, by the guys who made the Back of the Y series on late night television.

Some of those scripts (eg The Void) eventually got made elsewhere. Yet the official output of Headstrong – touted as a vehicle for creative, low budget, trailblazing cinema – was one Jackass type comedy which Wikipedia says received $859,314 from the FC (not counting the cost of its 35mm film transfers) and the Gregory King project in which (according to the Variety review of its screening at SXSW) the script was too half-baked – that old problem, again – to reconcile the drama with the black humor. The initial hype about Headstrong is available here.

The obituary for Headstrong is here.

I’m sure that the FC would say that Escalator will not be anything like Headstrong. Right. So that’s why it draws heavily on the 48 Hour Film template godfathered by Ant Timpson, who co-ran Headstrong. To repeat : I don’t dislike the 48 Hour Film event. For what it is, it is fine. Just like T20 cricket is fine. But are quickfire, competitive team contests (plus pressure cooker bootcamps) a good way – the only way – of identifying and fostering good and original cinema ? It looks more like an excellent way of burying singular visions and original ideas, in favour of local variations on familiar genre conventions. In sum, it risks repeating the culture of mediocrity that the FC has consistently portrayed as being the path of hard-headed commercial realism.

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    1. 7 Responses to “On the Phil Heatley saga,and more on low budget films”

    2. By Ant Timpson on Feb 26, 2010 | Reply

      okay I’ll bite.

      Gordon a couple of clarifications.

      It is V48HOURS. Without V in V48HOURS, the event would not exist.

      Also I think you miss a lot of what the V48 does in terms of the big picture. Sure its fun for everyone but its also about building relationships and confidence. Forget about the playful nature of messing with the tropes of genre, that’s all surface level. I truly hope it doesn’t eventuate in formulaic hacks making by the numbers features, that would be super depressing.

      I do acknowledge that my dreams of an explosion of low fi feature gems being produced post V48 hasn’t really eventuated. Maybe there’s not enough anger out there at the moment. Maybe the drip-fed nature of development here has conditioned a nation that wait to suckle the nipple. Or maybe someone right now is creating the new BAD TASTE/ SMALL TIME /POP SKULL /CLERKS /SHES GOTTA HAVE IT / THE HORSEMAN/ PARANORMAL ACTIVITY as we speak.

      Anyone saying you can’t make a good film for $250k need to realise that there is nothing stopping those teams from raising additional finance to increase the scope and release of their film. Matching funds and the like are the norm now and if people have one shot at making a debut feature, I highly suggest pulling out all the stops to help boost their budget and saving a lil for materials /servicing which are not guaranteed to come your way at the end of Escalator. At Sundance I saw many films made for $200-$300k, they were all impressive and exicting. They will all have a hard time being sold. Such is the market at the moment. Even with stars attached.

      FC really didn’t can Headstrong except in the sense that they didn’t want to do another tender under the old regime. Now they do.

      DEVIL’s total budget you mentioned included all the 35mm prints and 35mm blowup. It’s also been in my biased eyes, one of better independent success stories in NZs history – from forming major partnerships with companies like Frucor, Mediaworks, Panasonic to a $100,000 home video advance for Aus/NZ. It also had a very large upfront worldwide rights sale (ex, UK, AUS/NZ) to BollAG who has since sold the film to Freestyle(Universal) for release in US, Wild Bunch in UK, Japan, Germany, Mexico and more. It has played an enormous number of festivals internationally and in terms of ROI, is one of the better ones in NZs film catalogue. It wasn’t sold by the NZFC but by Headstrong. Like most films it has its fans and of course just as many detractors What you can’t infer was that it wasn’t a success. The NZFC took over the sales of A SONG OF GOOD, Headstrong is not handling that title. We initiated the innovative online pre-dvd launch that got attention for being the first of its kind. Your comments about ASOG’s script also need a response, Greg King’s script was not just praised by us but by many extremely knowledgable script consultants internationally. The film actually premiered at Rotterdam not SXSW as you state. Plucking a Variety quote seems a little petty. You can find a negative quote on any film ever made, so I fail what you were aiming at apart from a cheap shot.

      I’m not quite sure what types of films you actually expect from low budget schemes. SECOND HAND WEDDING (as Garage Sale) came to Headstrong and we all thought it a viable commercial script but not one Headstrong should produce. In comparison THE DEVIL DARED ME TO was a zillion miles away and unlike anything produced in NZ since the days of WILD MAN. It was exactly the type of film Headstrong was set up to do. The actual producton team behind DEVIL put in the hours and work of a $3-4m picture – in fact I’d say they put in twice as much. The film succeeded fiscally, creatively and especially in the upskilling of many of those who worked long and hard on it.

      There were lots of lessons learnt with Headstrong. One of them was the amount of hoop jumping required on low budget films needs to be reduced because all it does is dilute the focus and drain resources needed to produce good work. It appears from your piece that you may not realise the third partner in Headstrong was Paul Swadel, who has taken the lessons learnt from Headstrong and will put them to good use at the NZFC and Escalator.

      I’m also pretty sure THE VOID was eventually made as a short not as a feature. It had a great conceit that I see someone in Hollywood has produced into a bigger budgeted version.

      No scheme is ever going to perfect. Nor will they produce great work out the gate everytime. It’s virtually impossible. Cinema like anything else follows the laws of averages, so it’s imperative to just keep producing MORE cinema. Eventually the successes will come and balance out the equation.

      Every single one of these schemes worldwide has pros and cons. I’m sure some of the issues you have with the bootcamp and rushed nature may not necessarily pan out the way you proclaim.

      What we really don’t need more of is hysteria before anything has actually happened. There’s enough distracting noise going on in the world today. Lets just let the filmmakers make some films without them feeling guilty for being given some $$$.

      At the end of the day, the one thing you and I both agree on is that there needs to more discussion of an endgame for these films being made and some thought towards a distribution structure.

      If we had had multiple digital screens (not dvd, not boutique arthouses) in plexes throughout the country when DEVIL was released, could have saved $350k and completely covered its costs? Were we wrong to insist on the blowup when maybe it should have gone direct to home video?

      Well I can tell you we wouldn’t have been invited to do the worldwide premiere at SXSW if it wasn’t on 35mm and we wouldn’t have got as large an advance without the 40 print release in cinemas. But ask me the same question in 2010 and I would have a completely different opinion.

      Word to the wise, DO NOT EVER RELEASE A YOUTH PIC on a major video game launch. We got HALO’d up the ass. $100+ discretionary income out of a teens pocket is worse than AVATAR opening against you and it was something ‘most’ associated with DEVIL completely overlooked.

      There’s an enormous amount to be learnt from the release of DEVIL in terms of where to go from now.

      I wish all the people applying to Escalator the best of luck with their films. Just make sure you look after your cast and crews!

    3. By Gregory King on Feb 27, 2010 | Reply

      Okay I need to say something in response to yur comment re A SONG OF GOOD Gordon:

      “…and the Gregory King project in which (according to the Variety review of its screening at SXSW) the script was too half-baked – that old problem, again – to reconcile the drama with the black humor.”

      Thanks Ant for your response below to that comment by Gordon:

      “…Your comments about ASOG’s script also need a response, Greg King’s script was not just praised by us but by many extremely knowledgable script consultants internationally. The film actually premiered at Rotterdam not SXSW as you state. Plucking a Variety quote seems a little petty. You can find a negative quote on any film ever made, so I fail what you were aiming at apart from a cheap shot.”

      Gordon I appreciate and am thankful for your voice in the midst of a largely conservative dumbed shallow media…

      However in this case it seemed you took on a negative slant before knowing and have presented an uninformed judgement on A SONG OF GOOD.

      As Ant said the script was genuinely great, which was unanimously confirmed by top international dramaturgs and script consultants and good enough amongst an ocean of scripts to attract the concrete interest of Lars Von Triers Company Zentropa.

      Unfortunately the NZFC development team at the time didn’t see it that way and the project was stalled somewhat.

      We decided to take it through HEADSTRONG instead who loved the script and weren’t fazed by the material.

      However it was a 3 million dollar film, not designed to be realised on a 300k budget and in the event of making it much compromise happened.

      The film was made and its good, many say very good, and not surprisingly considering its nature there are also those who have a strong negative response as well.

      You can check out responses, critique etc at:

      http://www.asongofgood.com the official website

      reviews on the Facebook Page http://www.facebook.com/pages/A-SONG-OF-GOOD/61914693616?ref=search&sid=618983408.3269966254..1

      and responses to the free online screening at http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=49105331924&index=1
      also feedback, reviews etc on the the imbd site – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1179791/

      On hindsight although it was an extremely tough experience making it (and a massive and invaluable learning curve) – considering everything it was a micro budget film that had considerable success and definitley one of the better NZ films of the last decades… – it had great critical response, won awards and played at major International festivals.

      In my mind and in the minds of many it deserved to get a cinema release but the NZFC decided not to support it via a blow up and post finance and local distribs weren’t prepared to take the risks…

      The current NZFC development team esp Paul Swadel have obviously taken lessons learn’t from the A SONG OF GOOD experience to heart when they say up front that the Escalator Scheme is not about taking a script that needs a significantly bigger budget i.e several million and trying to make it through a micro budget…

      I could go on and on about the current state of play in great length but for now I’ll leave it here…

      I look forward to reading future articles Gordon…Please keep it coming…

      Best Greg

    4. By followpeter on Feb 27, 2010 | Reply

      Have to query Ant on BAD TASTE. Surely this was something of a singular vision, painstakingly put together over many weekends filming, after a lot of planning?

      So many young filmakers seem to blow their load and budget on the 48 hourfilm festival in the hope it will be a pathway to glory. It’s a lot of fun like 24hour theatre.

      Is there a market in New Zealand for low budget New Zealand movies?

      How and when would the public of NZ like to go about watching them?

      Surely not in competition with Avatar.

      Is there any thought, in the same way the Summer Series or the various food and wine festivals have developed or even like the lamented incredibly strange film festival, to developing the culture around going to watch these films?

    5. By Ant Timpson on Mar 2, 2010 | Reply

      Hi Peter

      I can see where you are coming from however…

      I honestly don’t see the “team” focus being something that diminishes a singular vision. As PJ found with Bad Taste, he had a loyal bunch of mates who stuck with him for years. He may have done nearly it all himself but without them there’d be no film. Teams make films, it’s as easy as that.

      Why don’t you think these films wont have planning and be carefully thought out with time spent on script and rehearsing? They will. They might not have to go through years and years of development. Many big budget films do that and still end up with ropey scripts.

      I guess what Escalator are after is in the sense that the “team” will deliver a finished film. That shouldn’t affect the writer or directors vision of the film, it should simply assist in making it to the end.

      Your big question though is this one “is there a market for low budget film”. Thats a tricky one. As my very smart friend Mark Gooder (ICON) told me during the HS process… “good films find audiences”. And that’s it in a nutshell. It certainly helps having an end game with a distirbutor attached to ensure that (see ASOG) that happens though. The biggest crime of all will be a good film not reaching its audience and I think this is where Gordon was coming from too. The days of letting films find their audiences are long gone, you have to be loud and proud and innovative in your marketing plan.

      The law of the industry is really one in ten breaks out. So if you have more than that then you’re doing well. Low budget film should be no different. You make enough and one or two will perform way above expectations. It’ss an uphill battle all the way and if it was just all about business, you’d close the doors and buy lotto tickets.

      Your idea of a culture of watching NZ films is interesting and something I have been thinking a lot about. But you can’t create such a culture without the product to work with.

      And in the end of the day this is not rocket science. People choose to go see films that interest them. Firstly audiences have to know about them, so we need to work on that and filmmakers and the people producing these films need to think of 100s of alternative avenues to make sure their work gets visible in this cluttered marketplace.

      You can’t force people to see the films and you certainly can’t compete with star driven vehicles and genre films with massive budgets.

      So you need to make films that those others aren’t offering.
      And that is this : NZ stories.

      Some will work. Many won’t.

    6. By Ant Timpson on Mar 2, 2010 | Reply

      I’ll also add that I know for a fact that some 48 teams internationally have gone on to make VERY successful first low fi features with many of their “team” onboard.

      That’s enough proof for me.

      I doubt you can show me one 24Hour Play team thats eventually created a play thats reached Broadway level of success… ie equivalent of 48 teams making Sundance premieres.

    7. By mike on Mar 3, 2010 | Reply

      It seems there is an interesting historical angle that never (?) really comes up when all the tinkering over film funding, marketing, audiences etc. gets debated.

      Back in the late-1970s and 1980s there were some great NZ films produced. These are still so original, raw and rough (in a good way), exhilarating. I’m especially thinking about the work of Murphy, Donaldson, Blyth, maybe Pilsbury and others too. To me this stuff still trumps Jackson, especially for drama and depth.

      I know audiences, expectations and tastes have changed drastically, but it seems these films worked because they weren’t the product of such a dam*ed institutionalized process. Somehow the producers contrived the budgets, semi-created their own funding body (NZFC), cobbled together a crew with a few key talents and great popular films emerged. They taught themselves, they invented a kind of NZ filmmaking.

      These days everybody is so sophisticated, trained up, workshopped, artily well-informed. Somehow all these “schemes” are needed, which turn out to have a pretty patchy record, let’s face it.

      Might one say the “means” have become the “ends”?

      PS. Escalator = very positive and “upward” but isn’t an escalator just a kind of conveyer belt?

    8. By Ande on Mar 10, 2010 | Reply

      Hooray for some sanity from Mike in this Escalator-lead madness, which, if sensibilities haven’t been too dumbed-down by the amount of bureacratic, analytical bulls*** that is around at the moment as we all brace ourselves for the obvious repercussions of the Jackson report, it seems these Headstrong/Escalator people are now taking over the Film Commission by introducing compulsory bootcamps to make films. Well their track record is pretty shonky, and it makes many of us shiver in horror at the prospects of what is to follow. COE Mason seems ominously quiet in the discussion as well. Sounds as if no-one knows what is going on. Kudos to all Independent Film Makers making self-funded films, without Producerial, and Film Commission, and worst of all Script Editor interference. Sad that this country as stopped making real films, as Mike says, make as the 70′s and 80′s showed. But we’re not going to see anything remotely intelligent, cinematic, and enduring- not with this gung-ho mob bulldozing their way into an Industry that has lots its focus, its face, and its own sense of culture.

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