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Sequels, Remakes and Reboots

I love the Kid in the Front Row's blog. And this week he suggested a Sequels, Remakes and Reboots blogathon. I'll add links to the other participants' posts as they come in. 
"It's an open-ended assignment", the Kid wrote. "Your post can be serious, it can be funny, it can be apathetic, it can be argumentative, it can be in Spanish. You write whatever you want—whatever comes to mind--- what I hope is that we'll have an eclectic view of the modern day sequel, a variety of opinions on the fact that they keep remaking things."

The Kid's the first man I know of who's blogged about the 'gender issue'. Here's part of what he wrote, a few months ago:
There is a voice that is MISSING from the world of film. And it is the voice of women...There is a feeling of helplessness. That for this issue to be taken seriously, Spielberg needs to deal with it, or Julia Roberts needs to start a campaign; rather than us exploring the notion that we play a part as writers, directors, actors, bloggers, etc. 
So I know he'll understand that my contribution to this blogathon is the sequel to my last two posts. I could have written about Gaylene Preston's fine Home by Christmas, as a sequel to or remake of her classic War Stories: Our Mothers Never Told Us. Or about Development as a sequel to Sally Potter's The gold diggers (where's Colette Lafont when we need her?)  But I've chosen to focus on gender and audience, and on the reboot-and-remake of the New Zealand Film Commission, following its review by Sir Peter Jackson and David Court. As the visual sequel to Performance, Audience and the New Zealand Film Commission Part 1 (the second most recent post), it also includes more of Bill MacKay's street paintings. 

Sir Peter and David Court's reboot-and-remake review also resonates this week because of the planned abolition of the UK Film Council. They stated at the beginning of their review: "There   is   an   obvious   question:   ‘Do   we   need   the   New   Zealand   Film   Commission?’  The  answer  is  unreserved:  Yes."  So-- we still have the NZFC, but I want it to reboot-and-remake its programmes, so women filmmakers' share of government investment increases significantly, from its present very low level. If that happens, we could increase the proportion of women filmmakers' NZFC-funded feature films from 16%-50%.

Thanks to the NZFC, and Script-to-Screen and my low-interest Kiwibank credit card, the other week I spent a couple of cold and beautiful days in Christchurch, to learn about romantic comedy from Steve Kaplan, an American. I love Christchurch, and was gobsmacked when I saw the snow-covered Southern Alps for the first time in years; they are beautiful. And so is the city. I’ve always had a good time in Christchurch, ever since—decades ago—after a long trip from Dunedin, I wilfully abandoned my virginity there. Got my driving licence at last, after multiple efforts to pass the written test, waved to my mother and took off in an engineering student’s  tiny boxy maroon-coloured ancient Austin (he wouldn’t let me drive). Can remember the goldenness of the glorious Canterbury Plains in late summer but not the young man’s name. This time, I stayed with two people I love, one of them the painter Bill MacKay. He looks much the same as he did in this long ago self-portrait of himself as a wine waiter at the Royal Oak Hotel, near Wellington’s Cuba Mall and Courtenay Place, where he located the street paintings I wrote about in the first part of this post; some of them are included here, too.

Anyway, Steve Kaplan was pretty good and I learned a lot. And he touched my heart in a way I hadn’t expected. Yes, I came away with deep appreciation of his analysis of various clips and his ‘straight line wavy line’ concept. But even better, thanks to him, I now have a better sense of the compassion behind good comedy.

But when Steve stated that Hollywood’s preferred market is 14 year-old boys, I was surprised. I knew (but couldn’t remember the details well enough to ask a question) that according to the latest Motion Picture Association of America figures, 9 million more women (113 million) than men (104 million) in the United States went to the movies during 2009, buying 55% of the tickets. Of the 5.8 million moviegoers aged between 12 and 17, 2.6 million were boys and 3.2 million were girls. If all the boys aged between 12 and 17 were actually 14, they still bought only 1.2% of the tickets. In the 18-24 age group, 3.4 million filmgoers were women and 3.1 million were men. In total then, at 5.7 million, all young men between 12 and 24—the male-under-25-quadrant that’s often referred to as the one to go for—made up only 2.6% of the market. Is the 14 year-old boy market preferred only because it includes super enthusiastic buyers of associated merchandise? Or because decision-makers go to the movies to revisit their 14 year-old selves, and assume others do too? (This could also be a reason why some pornographic films are so popular and most sex scenes are dull—the only one I’ve enjoyed for ages is in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road.) I wish I’d thought quickly and remembered accurately, and asked Steve. 

Melissa Silverstein has an explanation for the MPAA's 2009 figures:
I know exactly why the 2009 numbers increased. If you follow the business it's not too hard to figure it out. The reasons are New Moon and The Blind Side with a side of The Proposal (now Sandra Bullock's Oscar makes even more sense). Maybe folks are going to try and say that it is a fluke because there were two female centric successes and we don't have those frequently. Friends, that is the whole fucking point. It's like that line from Field of Dreams—"If you build it they will come".
This ties into one of my favorite Meryl Streep statements. A while back, when she was promoting The Devil wears Prada in Australasia, she talked on television about studio executives' lack of support for 'women's' projects, because they don't think women's projects are marketable, and are surprised when they are successful. She said: 
Devil Wears Prada took [studio executives] by surprise. Mamma Mia! had a budget about this big (she demonstrates something very small). A musical is very expensive. We did it on a diet...I'm hopeful that they'll learn that there's a market for these entertainments but they seem to need to learn the lesson every year.
So, women are a very significant audience. Or many significant audiences, because we're not all the same. And decision-makers tend to resist this truth. And even alert and lovely people like Steve Kaplan continue to believe that teenage boys are the most important audience.

Bill MacKay Courtenay Place Sunday morning (1977 not far from NZFC offices)

I've also felt surprised by an aspect of the NZFC review, undertaken by Sir Peter Jackson and David Court (from Australia). Recently released, the review refers with approbation to the project-based work of Film 4's Tessa Ross who, like Sir Peter, is a savvy participant in the zeitgeist. But it highlights the importance of talent, and recommends that the NZFC "be more talent-focused in its policies and practices". The review advocates for a Long Term Game Plan with, as its final goal, "the creation of a successful New Zealand film industry, producing a wide range of films, driven creatively by resident Kiwi filmmakers". It suggests a three-level model to achieve this goal, where the NZFC has "a very clear part to play at the beginning but its role and responsibilities steadily reduce as filmmakers achieve success and attract their own funding".

At the first level, the NZFC should "find the talent and develop their first feature film". Then, it should "assist successful (first-time feature) filmmakers to develop their next New Zealand movie and encourage them to stay based in New Zealand". At the third level, "a growing number of successful Kiwi filmmakers base themselves in New Zealand, attracting big budget finance from offshore". The report also affirms Escalator/Te Whakapiki, the NZFC's new low-budget feature programme, as one that "with a little a move in the right direction: new, talented storytellers making real movies for cinema—provocative, challenging, memorable".

The surprise is the review’s reference point for talent. The review says:

A creatively successful film industry is as much about talent scouting as it is about training, and once a talented individual is found, they must be nurtured and supported. Variations on this theme are found at the heart of any meaningful film industry and especially within the Hollywood studio system…In the Hollywood industry, talent has long been the organizing principle. The very structure of the industry reflects this with the talent agencies directly rivaling the movie studios in their power and control of the business. In their fierce competition they scour the world for new talent, beating a path to every promising door. The intensity of the search confirms the importance of the target.
But the Hollywood talent agencies do not beat a path to every promising door. 

The Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) is the writers guild most closely associated with the Hollywood industry. It commissions biennial reports about one essential element of the ‘talent’ required for making a film: the screenwriters. These reports consistently show that Hollywood’s intense search for talent is focused in a single direction, towards finding young, white, men, although there are a few writers over 60 who earn at the highest level. The 2005 report showed that:
The industry… provides few points of access for writers traditionally denied the chance to demonstrate their skills and gain experience. Until this basic structural truth is addressed, and until a norm of inclusion is enacted by industry gatekeepers both large and small, it is unlikely that the familiar story told in this report will change in any dramatic way. Without meaningful interventions targeted at the industry status quo, the industry will fall further and further behind a changing America.
And, according to the WGAW reports, offering access programmes may not resolve the problem:
In the past, the Guild has found value in the establishment of access programs and many such programs have been implemented by our employers. However…we must seriously consider whether access can be truly provided by programs or if it is people who provide access. Ours is a business based on personal relationships and social contacts. Work is distributed most fundamentally on the basis of a hiring party’s personal knowledge of a writer’s talent, commitment, character, work ethic, and overall appeal. This requires a social integration within the professional community and a personal access to company decisionmakers that is too often lacking for our colleagues who happen to be neither male nor white… It is abundantly clear to me that diversity in hiring requires a firm commitment on the part of decisionmakers…to actively seek out and read the work of writers who are women and people of color.
Sir Peter and David Court had the opportunity to consider these excerpts from the reports, included in my submission along with references to the full reports. But for some reason, although they also had statistics that show that women, and particularly Maori women, are in the same position as women and people of colour in Hollywood, the Jackson/Court review fails to address this aspect of talent scouting, except possibly in one little bit of subtext within the discussion about the NZFC’s short film fund. A few years back, the NZFC devolved responsibility for the short film programme—funding around ten short films annually—to three producer groups, who each run a share of the programme for a couple of years. And although women’s short films—at least to 2007—consistently did well at the desired ‘A’ list festivals, investment in short films written and directed by women has steadily decreased in  the last few years. One commentator, Gordon Campbell, has drawn attention to inconsistency in the review’s consideration of this programme. He notes that:
The review considers short films to be an inadequate and unreliable gauge of feature filmmaking potential [but] urges the FC to take the short film approval process back in-house and…integrate it more closely with its talent fostering activities…are short films a good or a bad platform for developing talent? The review offers statistics to prove that they aren’t—but then underlines their more integrated role in future as one of its main recommendations.
I think that a possible subtext I identified may explain this inconsistency. Within its short film discussion, the review lists a group of short films and their makers. Each film except one—Taika Waititi’s Two Cars One Night (2003)— was made between 1989 and 1994 and “played a significant role in getting their directors into feature films”, long before the NZFC devolved the short film programme, when Sir Peter himself was also interacting with the NZFC. Of the eight directors listed, three are women—Alison Maclean, Christine Jeffs, Niki Caro, and one, Taika Waititi, is Maori. One is Gregor Nicholas, whose feature Broken English is “notable for being one of the few films in which NZ’s dominant Pakeha culture hardly features”(NZonScreen). Ellory Elkayem seems likely to belong to a non-dominant immigrant culture because of his name. Is this list in the review to demonstrate that the short film ‘pathway’ once supported diversity and will again do so if the NZFC takes back control of the programme? (The list may also be there to provide examples of talented filmmakers who unlike their contemporary—Sir Peter—chose to leave New Zealand and might not have if the review's suggested three-tier system had been in place: Gregor Nicholas, Ellory Elkayem, Scott Reynolds, Alison Maclean; Niki Caro and Christine Jeffs also travel overseas to work. Or, it may just be a list.)

Unfortunately, the evidence shows that any implication that the NZFC-controlled short film fund supported diversity in future feature filmmaking is false. There have been significant problems for women in the transition from short films to features within processes entirely controlled by the NZFC, as well as in the NZFC’s devolved Headstrong feature initiative, and now in Escalator/Te Whakapiki. Taking the short film programme back in-house won't help with these problems. The intensity of the search for talent will be unsuccessful unless it includes strategies for seeking out talent from groups that have been underrepresented in feature filmmaking for a long time, for whom there are audiences out there. And the strategies need to be integrated into every single NZFC programme.

Darnell Hunt, the regular author of the WGAW reports, made the following statement in the 2009 edition, which included statistics that showed continuing Hollywood resistance to inclusion of a diversity of talent: 
Many observers point to the election of America’s first black president in 2008 as confirmation that this nation -- in which more than half of the population is female and nearly a third is non-white -- has finally turned the corner and embraced the diversity that increasingly defines it…The Guild encourages the broader industry to rethink business-as-usual practices on the diversity front. The Guild encourages key industry players to join with it to establish clear goals, reasonable timetables, and effective mechanisms for progressive change...It’s extreme folly to continue to do the same thing and to expect a different outcome. Breaking out of the stagnation in writer diversity documented in the last few WGAW reports will require bold, new approaches. Only then will we begin to make appreciable progress toward catching up with a changing America. Only then will we move closer to making sure that all of our stories are told.
 Bill MacKay Cuba Street (a little closer to the NZFC offices)

We’re fortunate in New Zealand in that we can legislate so that the state sector—here the NZFC—has to actively seek out and nurture a much wider range of talent than is sought after in Hollywood, to break out of a stagnation that’s similar to the one Darnell Hunt describes. Because New Zealand is a signatory to CEDAW, women may also consider litigation if the NZFC ignores their right to participate in public life through filmmaking.* Maori too, may be able to litigate on the basis that the NZFC has breached their rights under the Treaty of Waitangi. (In Hollywood, older screenwriters have sued agents and studios and producers, who have carelessly referred some writers as ‘too old’; these white male writers are in a much stronger position, having once been ‘insiders’, than women or people of colour who have always been outsiders and with whom, I imagine, the groups being sued are already careful in their language, to avoid being sued.)

Even with good legislation and good strategies it can be difficult. In a recent article, Satyen K Bordoloi reported that although the Swedish Film Institute has had a formal goal for some years to have 40% from each gender in key production roles, only 25% of films have women directors. As here in New Zealand, women are equally represented at film schools and feature strongly as producers. They also write 40% of all scripts. But women directors are not, according to Pia Lundberg,  head of the Institute's international department, applying for funding. So the institute is discussing new programmes to stimulate young women filmmakers and discussing a fixed quota, although “Many people don’t find quotas for women to be the best way to promote women”. Jan Göransson, head of press at the Institute, says “The figures are much more depressing when you consider women directing commercials in Sweden”. And Bordoloi includes a story that seems to imply that even if Swedish women directors can get state funding, they may find it difficult to access complementary funding in a world that does not yet fully acknowledge women as audiences. He writes:

But quota and subsidies aside, what is important is the treatment meted out to those that have proved their worth. Two-time Oscar nominated actress Liv Ullmann, who was director of the Golden Palm Nominee at Cannes film festival, Faithless, has not made a single film since 2000. Ullmann says, “I have had three films finished in script and casting but there was so much problem getting money despite a cast like Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet among others that I gave up”. Being a Norwegian, she has been trying to make her films in Norway. She is directing and acting in a play now.
This was a particularly poignant story for me because Liv Ullmann was the only director I invited to direct my first screenplay, in 2005, because I wanted someone who would look at New Zealand with completely fresh eyes. She wrote me a beautiful letter explaining that she had her own film projects to concentrate on. (And as I wrote more scripts, that beloved baby screenplay went into a file box, now joined by some siblings, as I work my way through my apprenticeship.)

I really do believe that New Zealand could be the first country in the world where women write and direct half of all feature films. Yes, in general, within our film culture storytellers who are men flourish much more easily than their women peers. Yes, at the moment men write and direct over 80% of our features. Yes, men are the primary beneficiaries of the programmes run by the NZFC; little if anything has changed for women filmmakers since the NZFC acknowledged it had a ‘gender problem’ at the beginning of 2008. Yes, the problem’s probably exacerbated by its invisibility in the Jackson/Court report. Yes, when women filmmakers tell me their stories—our stories—about their experiences, sometimes I cry.  But. New Zealand is the first country in the world where women got the vote. We have internationally recognised women writers and directors as models: Alison Maclean, Christine Jeffs, Fran Walsh, Gaylene Preston, Jane Campion, Niki Caro, Philippa Boyens (in alphabetical order). We have other immediate models. As I've noted before, women writers publish, sell, and receive awards for, a very high proportion of New Zealand's fiction and poetry. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens' contributions are integral to Peter Jackson's own work, New Zealand's most successful, international, filmmaking enterprise. And partly because we live in a small country, and far away from large populations, we have some other advantages.

One is a dual tradition of strong women. Maori have a long and unbroken heritage of powerful women. (Those of us like me who are not Maori are sometimes privileged to experience the present-day expression of this power, its grace and its tenacity and—if we’re fortunate—to learn from it.) And we all share the heritage of women who arrived in successive waves of colonists. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century in particular they had to be tough and flexible to survive. Back then, men were men and so were half the women, as my father-in-law, a Scot, used to say. Today—I believe—immigration to this remote place still takes guts and tenacity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that New Zealand was the first place in the world where women gained suffrage, and that, although there's ongoing discrimination, more women here take prominent roles in public life than in many other countries. It’s easy to imagine that we could take a much stronger role as storytellers for the nation and for the world. And this imagining is reinforced by our tradition of giving people ‘a fair go’, which may yet permeate the NZFC.

New Zealanders also tend to be outward looking and to be imaginative about where we look, for ideas and for audiences. Hollywood is not necessarily our starting point—or not our sole starting point—when we create intellectual property, to share on the world's screens. We’re a nation of travellers. Travel's in our blood. Not surprisingly, as all of us had to travel long distances to get here, over the last thousand years or so.  About a fifth of our population lives outside New Zealand, and many of us travel frequently and widely. Many of us are also recent immigrants or immigrants’ children. We’re from Europe and parts of Europe. From North America and its constituent parts. From South America. From the Middle East. From Africa. Our earliest and many of our most recent migrants came from Asia and from the Pacific.  We draw on multiple traditions, and this makes for rich possibilities. Some of us also draw on New Zealand’s unique indigenous heritages, and have done so in films like Once Were Warriors (written by Riwia Brown) and this year’s big hit, Taika Waititi’s Boy. And, of course, in the feature documentary, Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls.

These advantages, arising from a unique combination of geographical isolation and the resources to move beyond it—I believe—makes it very easy for New Zealand women to adopt Virginia Woolf’s statement (where at the beginning she substituted ‘woman’ with ‘outsider’): “For,” the outsider will say, “in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” As I work on this project (and Development-the movie is most influenced by aspects of European cinema), searching for other women’s filmmaking projects to enjoy and learn from, and for the audiences for Development, it feels essential that here in little New Zealand where—as Patricia Grace says—'the world is where you are' I also think of my country as the whole world. And I think it’s helped that I’ve taken it for granted that support and an audience will come from overseas as well as from here.

As I wrote the other day, our relationships enhance our performance: with Melissa Silverstein at big sister blog Women & Hollywood, and Kyna Morgan at sister blog HerFilm, with filmmakers and story lovers and others who share ideas and experiences, on Facebook and Twitter and in emails. Many of these people are listed in the sidebar. I’d hate to be without Lisa Gornick’s film drawings and The Kid in the Front Row’s blog. Without Cilla McQueen and her Serial. Or the lovely Anne Flournay and all those other webseries makers. And it’s warming to know—thanks to Google Analytics—that among those who read and return to this blog are people in Odessa (Ukraine—my favorite—if you read this, please write?) in Izmir and Icel (Turkey: ditto), in Berlin and Dublin, Chicago, various parts of England, in Vancouver, in Jackson Heights and other parts of NY, in Tokio and Djakarta, in Pantin (Paris: is that you, Sonia? Or are you the reader in Toulouse, closer to Marseilles?), in Houston and Philadelphia, Pelotas and Hong Kong, in various parts of California and Australia. All over the place, a surprising twenty-seven countries in the last month.

Other distinctively New Zealand advantages are those clichés that have an underpinning of truth. For instance, people who came this far had to be resilient, and inventive, to work with little—like the famous no 8 fencing wire—because historically distance meant we had to be self-reliant and to work with what we had. Women here tend to be fearsomely competent in all kinds of ways. We also have the advantage—sometimes the disadvantage—that everyone knows everyone. Kyna’s recent response to a question from The Kid in the Front Row included a comment about the few degrees of separation in New Zealand and how they change the way we work:
For me as an American trying to focus on an American market for the film (Development) and building an American following for it, the cultural differences between the States & New Zealand in terms of marketing/advertising/publicity pose somewhat of a problem. The size of our countries (300+ million in U.S. vs. 4 million in NZ) is more of an issue than someone might typically think. Kiwis promote projects and causes differently than Americans do; degrees of separation are large in the States, very small in NZ. It’s a matter of me working with the filmmakers and doing my own research to understand differences in language and presentation between the cultures and how I can best tweak it for a US market.
I love the ‘everyone knows everyone’ aspect of living here because I love continuity, community and kindness, and being able to find almost anyone. But the closeness, the way we believe we know—and the way we sometimes judge—one another can feel uncomfortable.
Emily Corcoran, who made Sisterhood (see sidebar) is coming home from London soon, to shoot her next feature, The Stolen. Here's what she says, a slightly different take:
Corcoran said her Kiwi roots were a "huge advantage...You've been brought up to believe you can achieve have a wonderful 'can do' attitude and you're not limited by the concept that you can't achieve." She said that people could accomplish a lot in New Zealand if they put their mind to it, partly because of the smaller population. "It's three million people as opposed to 60 million people, and if people bring that attitude to London they'll do really well." Employers like the fact that New Zealanders worked hard, she said. Kiwis' ability to mix with people from all walks of life, in any situation, also appealed to people overseas.
All these factors make it possible for New Zealand to become the first place in the world where women write and direct half of all features. Let's hope that the reboot and remaking of the NZFC will reinforce my optimism, through strategies to address current systemic failures that undermine women filmmakers' projects.

Finally, just as I prepared to join The Kid's blogathon, the Australian Film Institute announced the feature film contenders for its annual awards. Women direct an astonishing eight of the seventeen films, 42%. Four of these women also wrote their films: Jane Campion's Bright Star, Belinda Chayko's Lou, Julie Bertuccelli's The Tree, and Claire McCarthy's The Waiting City. Rachel Perkins directed and co-wrote Bran Nue dae. Daina Reid directed I love you too. Nadia Tass directed Matching Jack, which Lynne Renew co-wrote with a man, and Sue Brooks directed Subdivision, which Janice Bradnam co-wrote with two men. Will Australia beat New Zealand to the 50% mark? Is this going to be like our netball competition? Have things for women filmmakers changed there since Ruth Harley left the NZFC to become CEO at Screen Australia? I promise a sequel...

Bechdel Test
Gordon Campbell  On the Jackson Film Commission Review
John Barnett discusses Film Commission review John Barnett, CEO of South Pacific Pictures, is the only NZ producer who has consistently spoken out about systemic problems at the NZFC. He's also the only one to embrace New Zealand's diversity in his feature filmmaking, cannily, over a long period, and to benefit from this. He knows about audiences. And I'm always grateful to him for his support of the script programme at the International Institute of Modern Letters, because I benefited from that.
The Kid in the front row The missing voice of women in film
Kate Rodger's Full interview with Meryl Streep TV3 News 15 July 2008. Kate Rodger now has her own film programme on TV3: Reel Late with Kate, Sundays 10.25pm.
Melissa Silverstein, Women & Hollywood Guess what? Women buy more movie tickets than men
Satyen K Bordoloi (IANS) Women can make movies: Sweden shows how
Writers Guild of America, West Hollywood Writers Report "Re-writing an all-too-familiar story" Executive Summary
Writers Guild of America, West Hollywood Writers Report "Re-writing an all-too-familiar story"
*New Zealand ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985; as a state, New Zealand—and its agencies, like the NZFC—must encourage the participation of women in public life on equal terms with men (article 7). And NZFC-funded screen-based storytelling is part of public life.
Kid in the front row
The intermittent sprocket
Memoirs of a word nerd
A nerd like me: Stuff and nonsense
Mike Lippert
Patrick O'Reily
Sofluid: Confessions of a screenwriter