ORIENTAL BAY – WINTER 2011 – NIGHT

Oriental Bay-Winter 2011-Night
South Pacific Pictures (SPP) produces television drama series (The Almighty Johnsons, Outrageous Fortune, Go Girls, Nothing Trivial, Being Eve, Mercy Peak, Shortland Street) telefeatures (Stolen, Spies & Lies) and feature films (including Whale Rider, Sione’s Wedding, My Wedding and Other Secrets). And I loved it when I saw that half those selected for SPP's Emerging Writers Lab were women. Warm congratulations to them: Lucy Zee, Rosetta Allan, Hannah Banks, Shoshana McCallum, Miriam Smith. Who knows what projects these writers will be involved in, and as media converge, does it matter as much as it used to? But chances are, because SPP makes movies as well as television, some of the women in the lab will go on to write features. And that excites me.

I'm even more excited to know that about half of the Emerging Writers Lab applicants were women: (86 out of 175). This is a record to celebrate. Somehow, SPP’s established a culture where women writers are welcome, and flourish. And somehow, women screen writers know that, and want to participate, in a way that doesn’t happen in the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) programmes, or in the V48 Hours.

For almost seven years to date I’ve researched women’s participation in scriptwriting for feature films and on the various pathways to feature films in New Zealand. Although I haven't explored writing television drama as a pathway to feature films, because from the outset I thought—like Jane Wrightson the CEO of New Zealand On Air (NZOA, the state funder of television)—that “…feature film people are often not at all interested in making television—and the reverse is also true”, I've followed the New Zealand Film Commission’s (NZFC) short film and feature film development and production programmes, the now defunct Screen Innovation Production Fund funded jointly by the NZFC and Creative New Zealand and the annual V48 Hours. With intermittent exceptions, in all these initiatives, women writers have participated less than men. In particular, the NZFC doesn’t attract us or invest in us in the same way it attracts and invests in men. In the years I've recorded, I believe that the NZFC's invested equally in women writers only once (though it's come close in one short film round): in its first Escalator Te Whakapiki low-budget feature film programme, where women wrote and directed two of the four greenlit projects—now in post-production. And even that time, there were few women writers and directors among the applicants.

When I emailed SPP to explore why half their lab members were women, I’d completely forgotten what I wrote, a year ago, about John Barnett, SPP’s CEO:
He's also the only [New Zealand producer] 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 [that other New Zealand writer bastion of gender equity] because I benefited from that.
I’d also noted, in my thesis about women and feature film development in New Zealand, that a number of women who wrote and directed feature films–or who would write and direct them–were employed at SPP to produce, write and direct television. For example, credits for first season (2001) of the award-winning and Emmy-nominated SPP series Being Eve included Vanessa Alexander (who wrote and directed the feature Magik and Rose) as producer, Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Vintner’s Luck) and Briar Grace-Smith (The Strength of Water) as writers and Armagan Ballantyne (The Strength of Water) as a director.

And having forgotten all this, in my email I asked (*blush*) whether SPP had taken on board that it was good business sense to produce stories written by women, and with women as central, complex and active characters, for television and for film.

Here’s part of the response to my email, from Jo Johnson, SPP’s development executive. In the nicest possible way she told me off for my dim-witted question, because, as she reminded me:
For more than ten years, at least half of South Pacific Pictures’ television series and feature film output has been created and written by women and have women as central characters… [She lists the titles.] … This is not ‘good business sense’, but because the women involved are the best creative talent available and the stories depict a mix of characters from the real world.

We have never found gender to be an issue with respect to employing creative personnel, be they writers, directors, production designers, editors, composers etc.

We did not choose the successful applicants for our Emerging Writers Lab based on their gender or ethnicity; they were chosen on their writing ability and previous industry experience – it is by chance that we have ended up with an even balance of women and men.
Why does SPP employ women who are the ‘best creative talent available’ as script writers, in contrast to other producers, here and overseas? Why does it create so many interesting women characters? (I’ve written before about the reality that there is no woman character in New Zealand film who is as unforgettable as Cheryl West in SPP’s Outrageous Fortune.) How has it created a culture that takes women seriously as creators, as central characters, and as audiences?

One reason, as I wrote a year ago, has to be John Barnett himself. A Sunday Star Times clipping from 2009 highlights his attention to women’s roles, and adds more evidence to support Jo’s staunch response about the centrality of ‘by and about women’ to SPP’s work. In the article John Barnett’s comments refer to three SPP features. In two of these comments, about Whale Rider and Sione’s Wedding he refers to the role of women in those movies.
Whale Rider is about the role of women, about the role of power—is it inherited or shared. People in Korea, people in South Africa said ‘That’s about us’.
Of Sione’s Wedding:
We’ve done a deal with a very big American producer who wants to shoot the same story in Irish Catholic Boston. Because he says it’s about immigrants, it’s about mothers who are strong, it’s about priests who give the boys a hard time, it’s about boys who misbehave.
Another significant reason for SPP's culture, although Jo Johnston denies it in her initial email, is likely to be that it makes ‘good business sense’ I think; SPP’s attention to gender enhances SPP’s business, where losing money is apparently a rare thing. (The third feature film mentioned in the Sunday Star Times article, We’re Here To Help–about one man’s fight with the Inland Revenue Department–is discussed because it lost money.)

Has it made a difference that SPP has been a central provider of television drama funded by NZOA for a long time? Have NZOA’s responsibilities influenced or reinforced the SPP culture?

Legislation requires NZOA to consider the interests of women, “to reflect and develop New Zealand identity and culture by promoting programmes about New Zealand and New Zealand interests and by promoting Maori language and culture” and “to ensure that a range of broadcasts is provided that reflects the interests of women, youth, children, persons with disabilities and minorities (including ethnic minorities) and also the diverse ethical and spiritual beliefs of New Zealanders”. And it’s noticeable that between 2007 and 2011 women wrote a high proportion of the telefeatures that NZOA funded: 50%. Except for Fiona Samuel’s work, they appear to foreground stories about men; and women direct only 30%. But that 50% of women writers is much higher than the 26% of writers in the theatrical features NZOA co-funded with the NZFC within the same timeframe.

And there's apparently no change forthcoming at the NZFC. In its latest newsletter, it recorded development funding for 13 feature projects. A man and a woman co-wrote Photos of Loving Summer (Katie Wolfe and Hone Kouka). And of the other twelve projects, women wrote only two: Vanessa Alexander’s Showband, which she will direct, and Fiona Samuel’s The Perfect Woman, which I wish she’d direct, but it has a male director. That’s 16% of the projects and 15% of the investment and follows a funding round where the NZFC didn’t invest in development of a single woman-written project. As I've written many times, this matters, because 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 screen-based storytelling is certainly part of public life.

I’d love to know why so many women writers applied for the SPP Lab, and whether their reasons were any different from those of the men who applied. At it’s simplest, here was a career opportunity. For the women, a much more accessible career opportunity than in feature films funded by the NZFC. But were they attracted to writing for television only, or perhaps webseries? Rachel Lang, one of SPP’s two lead writers describes this kind of writing as:
...all to do with characters, and the way they take on a life of their own in a television series, tell you where they want to go, end up writing you rather than the other way around.
Kate McDermott, who also writes for SPP and has written a telefeature, supports Rachel’s view and compares television writing with writing feature films and short films:
Writing characters for TV series is what I know best, and I agree with Rachel about the enjoyment of spending more time with the characters. Obviously that is going to be satisfying as you are developing them for 13 hours, and then (hopefully) another 13, and (again hopefully) another and another, whereas you only get around 90 minutes with a feature film character. Having said that, we usually meet a feature film character at the most important, significant time of his/her life, so it's a very different write. And a short film is another challenge altogether as you've only got a matter of minutes to get the audience to engage with or invest in your character.
Whatever the answers to my questions, because I want New Zealand to be the first place in the world where women write and direct half of all feature films, this seems to be a good place to stop writing in this blog. Or to pause. To celebrate SPP's work, which I think is globally unique. To place it alongside NZOA's achievements, and the work of the women whose telefeatures the NZOA funds. To acknowledge Gaylene Preston, who's moved between television and film, and between documentary and narrative features in a way that no other New Zealander has. To remember that Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens write Peter Jackson's films. To celebrate the mixed gender teams that have made this a great year for New Zealand independent film-makers. To hope that Women in Film & Television will take up advocacy for women in the industry, as 72% of its membership wants it to do. To hope that the NZFC and V48 Hours will learn from SPP and NZOA. That we'll all reflect on the artistic contributions of all-girl schools like St Cuthbert's, and consider whether all-women teams might also enhance New Zealand's film-making reputation. To hope that next year more than 12 1/2% of the films that the New Zealand International Film Festival selects will be written and directed by women, and more than 9% of the films selected by OutTakes. To reflect on whether feature films, made for that beautiful big screen, matter as much as they did. To finish some projects and take some risks. I may be back.

(And I'll keep updating the sidebar and the Development project FAQs. HerFilm's Kyna Morgan and I plan to work more closely together for a bit and I'm going to micro-post at the HerFilm FB page, as well as the Development FB. Her Film is now on Google+, too (just). If you have a film coming out and would like a feature here at Wellywoodwoman, let me know! Many thanks to Jane Harris for giving me permission to include the photograph below.)

Oriental Bay-Winter 2011-Night
photographer: Jane Harris

Comments

  1. Why do you not include female producers in your stats? It is insulting that you do not have the respect to recognize the work that female creative producers have done for the NZ film industry.

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  2. Hi Anonymous
    Thanks for your question, one I haven't had for a while. When I started to record and analyse the statistics, it quickly became obvious that there's no problem in NZ for women who want to produce—I include myself because sometimes I produce—and we make up roughly half of all producers. Every so often I check the stats for NZ women producers and they don't change; they're part of a global trend. I've also learned that many women prefer to produce stories men write and direct than stories women write and direct, which saddens me, because it means that women writers and directors may find it more difficult than men to find producers.

    Because of these statistical and behavioural realities I've focused on women as storytellers, as writers and directors, and the conditions that support or undermine their/our work. Because I know that research shows that the challenges we face are common wherever and whenever stories are told (see for instance Jonathan Gottschall's work), I'm surprised at and delighted with the exceptions, like the work that SPP generates. I also celebrate Gaylene Preston as a producer, perhaps the only NZ woman to produce/executive produce only women filmmakers' work. Happy to hear of others!

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