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Gender & the Terms of Reference for a Review of Film Commission Act 1978

Often, New Zealand feature filmmakers want some version of this New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) logo in their credits. It signifies investment from our state-funded film agency, which may also have helped the producer(s) find other investment. Over the last 30 years the NZFC has developed, funded, marketed and sold most New Zealand films that are well known internationally—Heavenly Creatures, Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider. And many other movies that New Zealanders love to watch. The NZFC also provides 'pathways' to making features, programmes like the Short Film Fund and the First Writers Initiative.

But, as I showed in my PhD Report for People Who’ve Helped Me and discussed in a recent interview in TAKE, the Screen Directors Guild magazine, the NZFC’s programmes tend not to work well for women. 

Women filmmakers' low participation in state-funded programmes 

Between 2003-2008 women wrote and directed only 16% of features the NZFC funded for production, although in 2008 NZFC investment in women’s films in advanced development showed an unprecedented spike. Women scriptwriters also fared a lot better in the First Writers Initiative than in the previous five years.

But our position on the pathways to making a feature worsened in other ways, for complex reasons. One reason may be that decision-makers have increasing expectations of applicant experience (see for example Big Shorts' call for short film submissions). Women have historically sometimes been less able than men to meet these expectations.

Between 2006-2008 the Short Film Fund invested $1.7m in projects men wrote and directed and only $500,ooo in projects women wrote and directed. In the same period, women’s participation in short film projects with mixed gender writer/director teams dropped, and in 2008 not one Short Film Fund short had a woman writer and director (though two had women directors and one a woman co-writer). 

In addition, the Independent Filmmakers Fund (IFF)—with increased funding for low-budget feature films—has replaced the Screen Innovation Production Fund managed by Creative New Zealand, where women’s participation was traditionally strong, except as low-budget feature filmmakers. Unlike the Screen Innovation Production Fund, the IFF excludes emerging filmmakers, a group where women are disproportionately represented. 

After almost three years of close study I'm certain that women writers and directors want to use the relevant state-funded pathways to feature filmmaking. But the cumulative effect of NZFC programmes and practices, in association with external factors, is that few women writers and directors reach the end of a pathway, with a feature film up there on screen. 

So, because of all I've learned, I was very interested to learn that the Ministry of Culture & Heritage is preparing the terms of reference for a review of the Film Commission Act 1978. Will the terms of reference include a direction to consider gender? 

Gender & the Film Commission Act  

The Film Commission Act does not mention gender. (New Zealand on Air’s legislation, in contrast, at least requires it to consider women as audiences, which may be one reason the participation of women writers and directors in its recent telemovie series has been comparatively high.)

The NZFC's recent Statements of Intent, which describe its current goals within the statutory framework, ignore gender too. The latest one makes reference only to 'diversity' without giving a definition, and without providing for programmes to encourage diversity. In contrast, the UK Film Council is committed to an Equalities Charter and "to create ways of working that support equal opportunities and diversity in the film industry", though there is no evidence that this commitment has resulted in more UK features with women writers and directors. Maybe gender's got a bit lost there, too; a catch-all 'diversity' may not be enough to ensure gender equality. 

The latest NZFC Statement of Intent does record an intention to measure participation by Maori key creatives each year, a system that could be extended to measure Maori women writers' and directors' participation, currently much lower than Maori men's. But at the moment, any consideration of gender issues depends on the uncertain goodwill and commitment of individual policy- and decision-makers, who come and go.

And those individuals come and go uninformed by gender statistics, as the NZFC does not have to record or publish statistics about the gender of writers and directors who apply for and receive funding (though it has helped me to record them over the last few years). Nor does it require those to whom it devolves funds and decision-making powers to keep gender statistics—Creative New Zealand for the Independent Film Fund; three executive producer groups annually for the Short Film Fund; and the Devolved Development Fund and Producer Overhead Funds for experienced producers who develop feature projects independently of the Commission. 

Without transparency through publication of all relevant gender statistics, including the amounts invested in each programme by gender, it is impossible to analyse which Film Commission programmes redress or reinforce the present gender imbalances.

Why the review's terms of reference should include gender

For me, the imbalances I've described make it imperative that the terms of reference for the review of the Film Commission Act direct the review to consider gender issues. It is necessary to identify how to remedy the present situation through legislation. It's a human rights issue. It's a cultural enrichment issue. And in the contemporary global environment it's also a commercial issue.

The human rights argument

New Zealand ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985. So, as a state, it must encourage the participation of women in public life on equal terms with men (article 7). Telling stories on the big screen is one way to participate in public life, and the Film Commission's status as a state entity means that the review must consider, because of CEDAW, how to encourage women's access to state-funded filmmaking programmes. Women's participation in public life as feature filmmakers matters in principle.

The cultural enrichment argument 

And it matters because the whole community misses out if women filmmakers don't participate in our storytelling. As a Writers Guild of America West report puts it (p. 51): 

The importance of the stories scriptwriters tell and of the people telling them cannot be overstated. These are the stories through which our society defines what it is, what it is not, and what it hopes to be. The scriptwriters are the people whose experiences shape the underlying reservoir of ideas.

(And of course the way directors and everyone else involved bring these stories to the screen is equally important.)  

If we continue to have few films written and directed by women, New Zealanders miss out on a broad, rich, vision of who we are, who we are not, and all that we might be. And opportunities to convey that vision to the world. 

The commercial argument

The international context provides a commercial argument for more equality in state investment. Gender's important in the global industry. It divides the market into quadrants: women over and under 25, men over and under 25. And after the recent commercial successes of Mamma Mia, Twilight, and Sex and the City worldwide—echoed here by Secondhand Wedding's outstanding success last year—the industry is increasingly attracted to the market represented in the women’s quadrants. 

If the Minister for Culture and Heritage includes gender issues in its terms of reference for the review of the Film Commission Act, that would help fulfill the nation’s CEDAW obligations. But it would also be a first step towards a legislative structure that, through its awareness of the significance of women's stories and of women as a market, would help enhance New Zealand’s reputation for astute development and use of its cultural capital.

(For a wider view of New Zealand women's participation in public life, see the Human Rights Commission's New Zealand Census of Women's Participation 2008.)