Skip to main content

'The Patriarch' & Producer Matriarch Robin Scholes – Equity Crowdfunding Reaches New Zealand

Just over a month ago, Pledgeme and Snowball Effect became New Zealand’s first equity crowd funders, licensed to act as intermediaries between entrepreneurial companies wanting to sell shares and investors wanting to buy them. This week, The Patriarch, through Snowball, became the first feature film to seek equity crowdfunding in New Zealand. It may not be the first feature in the world to be equity crowd funded but it’s close.

New Zealanders have engaged with equity crowdfunding before, when Spanner Films, led by New Zealander Lizzie Gillett, produced Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid in the United Kingdom and later provided a step-by-step guide to their model. Also in the United Kingdom, Simon West (Tomb Raider, Con Air) is using equity crowdfunding to raise money for his Salty.

The Patriarch, from the novel Bulibasha, is the fourth feature from a Witi Ihimaera story. It follows Whale Rider (2002, wr/dir Niki Caro), Kawa (2010, from Nights in the Garden of Spain, wr Kate McDermott dir Katie Wolfe) and White Lies|Tuakiri Huna (2013, from Medicine Woman, wr/dir Dana Rotberg).

The Patriarch’s producer, Robin Scholes, has teamed up with director Lee Tamahori, whose Once Were Warriors (1994) she also produced. The writer is John Collee.

This felt like a fine opportunity to interview Robin about The Patriarch and her role as a woman producer. Although I’ve often interviewed writers, directors and actors who also produce, I think Robin’s the first producer I’ve interviewed since Karin Chien, way back, and the first New Zealand producer. Robin provides a great place to start. Like Karin, she’s a legend.

The Once Were Warriors premiere
l. to r. Neil Roberts, Cliff Curtis, Robin, Temuera Morrison, Garry McAlpine, Lee Tamahori 

What’s The Patriarch about?

It’s based on my favourite Witi Ihimaera story, Bulibasha, King of the Gypsies. I came to it through listening to it being read by George Henare. I thought then, and still do, that it is Witi’s most filmic book.

Robin and Bulibasha
It’s about two families, the Mahanas and the Poatas, who have forged a life and livelihood for themselves shearing sheep in the rugged countryside around Gisborne. The rivalry between the two families is intense and traces back to the time when Tamihana Mahana, the patriarch of the Mahana family, rode up on his white horse and rescued his wife, the beautiful Ramona, just before she unwilling married the ugly Rupeni Poata. The patriarch is growing older but he still dominates his family until one of his grandchildren, Simeon, begins to challenge him. It’s like the young bull fighting the old bull, each recognises the power of the other. The story unfolds with extraordinary twists and turns.

Stylistically it will look like a western, with huge landscapes and lots of action.

Who’s involved as cast and crew?

Temuera Morrison in Once Were Warriors
The only person we have offered a role to is Temuera Morrison, who played Jake the Muss in Once Were Warriors. We realised we needed an actor of his experience and mana to play Tamihana Mahana aka The Patriarch. This is a very layered character. He’s a self-made man, born on the wrong side of the tracks and married to the beautiful, regal, and high-born Ramona. He’s done what he thinks is the best for his family – but he’s missing out on the one thing he most wants.

What drew you to the story?

I think most people have to chart their own course between destructive and constructive forces and stories about this really appeal to me. I love stories that show the complexity of people – that people can do what might be considered the most terrible things for what they believe to be the best of reasons and that the best things can grow out of the darkest hours and moments. Also that people can justify and live with seemingly conflicting beliefs in their own lives.

I’m a bit sad that the screenplay isn’t written by a New Zealander. Why did you go offshore?

I work with New Zealand writers all the time and this is the first time I’ve commissioned a non-New Zealander. It was because John and Lee really clicked. John writes big epic-scale Hollywood films as well as small intimate stories and he just seemed perfectly suited.

Why do you need to crowd fund? You’ve attracted New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) and New Zealand On Air (NZOA) funding for development and production. You’ve got various other investors, including, I understand, Peter Jackson. You have a distributor who’s also invested. You’re in a different position than producers without this level of support.

The budget is large, and is based on the size and scale of the story. We have a big cast and lots of action sequences. These will look great on the screen but cost more than films with just a few characters and limited locations. We have a huge amount of support and have achieved 95% of the funds through a variety of sources. I’m really grateful for that. We decided to raise the last 5% through equity crowdfunding when an investor unexpectedly had to pull out. We’re interested in seeing how equity crowdfunding can help to grow awareness before the film is released, and we’re keen to give New Zealanders an opportunity to share in the success of this very New Zealand story.

Support from Peter Jackson was a bit of a leap taken by one journalist. I was asked to explain the term contractor investors and I told him that sometimes service providers, including people and post-production houses like Park Road Post and Images, reinvest some of their services and fees. From there the journalist made the leap to say that Peter Jackson was investing in the film and that is untrue. I was really upset when I read the whole article, which really seems to be having a go a crowd funding in general. It felt as though he hadn’t read through our carefully drafted information and confused non-equity funding with equity funding and funding of breweries with funding the arts. Then he or his editor gave it a catchy title that bore little resemblance to the content. Thankfully our investors read things very carefully.

What is the difference between funding beer and funding the arts? 

Regarding the Renaissance Brewing offer made by Snowball, the funding investors were buying a stake in a business that has already been established and needs more capital to grow. The brewers have a business plan that is based on previous profit and loss scenarios and can demonstrate how the business will grow when it received extra capital.

The Patriarch offer is still very calculated. Wild Bunch, the accomplished people who are selling the film, have given the prices they believe they will get from each territory when they sell the film for (and importantly they send a big vote of confidence by paying for the right to sell the film). Based on Lee’s previous films, you expect the film will do well and return a good profit for the investors.

However the BIG difference is that you cannot ask anyone to invest on the basis that Lee’s films have done well in the past. You have to work out a way in which, as much as possible, you can protect the private equity investors both in terms of their capital and the interest on their capital. The ONLY way you can do this is to project the pessimistic case scenario.

You base the amount of private equity investment on the lowest prices the sales agents think they will get. In addition the government funding bodies like the NZFC and NZOA need to agree that they will allow the private equity to come out first.

This doesn’t happen automatically. For them, the funding of each film is unique and there is no formula that can be applied to any two films. They need compelling reasons, such as wanting Lee to make another film in New Zealand, to stand behind the private equity investors.

That journalist lamented the idea that some films might not return 100% of their cost. Our intention is to make a great film that can do even better than Once Were Warriors and return profits to all the stakeholders for a very long time. The offer highlights the pessimistic case scenario and that in turn is done to respect and protect those investors that know the least about the film industry.

Why equity crowd funding instead of the more usual crowd funding through Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Pledgeme or Boosted?

Equity crowd funding is the latest twist in a long story of innovation in film financing, and I’m very passionate about it. I began to explore the possibility of having private equity investors as part of the overall funding structure for The Tattooist in 2005, after I met a professional investor James Dean. He made me realise that, if we wanted non-film industry equity investors in film we needed to allow them to get their money back before the film industry expert investors. We were able to do that in the case of The Tattooist and that's been our approach ever since, with refinements that enhance the return for private investors.

All crowd funding depends on many people (the crowd) contributing relatively small amounts of money to support a business or project. With the technology to reach a crowd directly, it’s putting those direct links to good use. It’s fascinating going onto these sites and seeing the range of projects – from science, sport and community – as well as arts-related campaigns that are going on.

Most platforms are based on a rewards system. Rewards can be a whole range of things from someone jumping into a lake a number of times while shouting a pledger’s name for example. On a charitable foundation’s platform, like Boosted, donors get a tax benefit.

In contrast, equity crowd funding is designed to raise growth funds for businesses. In return, investors receive shares in the company and share in the success of that company, or in this case, the success of the film.

Until now, it was very expensive and time-consuming for a company to offer shares to the New Zealand public, so ordinary members of the public were unable to invest in the majority of Kiwi companies. Most Kiwi companies were restricted to investors who were close friends and family, or some other form of ‘eligible’ investors.

Robin explains
When I read about equity crowd funding I knew it was a really good fit with the equity funds we had already raised. It offers us an opportunity to connect with and listen to our audience. It also gives us an opportunity to give back, both by involving investors in the production process and through financial rewards if the film is successful... Along with the larger potential financial returns for big investments, investors will get access to some great additional rewards. For example, those who invest $5000 or more will be immortalised in the credits of the film, and will also get to attend the crew and cast screening. Those who want to invest $100,000 or more will actually become an Associate Producer for the film, along with film industry mentoring from myself!

It would have been more difficult to fit in rewards-based funding – as it is the Snowball Effects investors have the best of both worlds, rewards plus equity.

I contacted Snowball Effect as they were local here in Auckland. I had seen an article about them in newspaper and instantly thought, that’s what is needed for The Patriarch. I’m always looking for innovation in these areas and I knew it hadn’t been done yet in this country.

Will investors get a share of any profits, as well as their money back?

Investors get an accruing interest rate of 20% per annum on their initial investment until repaid, and then continue to make profits from a 20% corridor of income whilst the other stakeholders recoup their investments. Our crowdfunding investors then have a pro rata share in the back end profits of the film.

How risky is it to invest in The Patriarch, given that so few films make a profit?

Each film has a totally different profile of risk and reward, and each should be assessed on its own merits. Many films are unsuitable for private equity funding because they do not include the factors that typically lead to commercial success, like A-list actors or A-list directors. I believe that this film is a good investment opportunity, as reflected in Wild Bunch’s sales estimates for the film. A key reason for Wild Bunch’s confidence is the director and other team members associated with the film.

Lee Tamahori (r) directing Temuera Morrison in Once Were Warriors

What’s the minimum investment?

The minimum investment is $100. However people can invest any amount up to the maximum amount being raised.

Can people outside New Zealand invest? What’s their legal position?

The opportunity is primarily for Kiwis. Foreigners can invest, but the process is more manual to prevent the company and investors from breaching foreign securities law.

Can potential investors see the script?

There is a synopsis of the film on the Snowball Effect website, which will give investors a good overview of the story. People who invest $500 or more receive a physical copy of the shooting script, which will be a really great piece of memorabilia for film lovers to own. It’s very easy to request the full Investment Memorandum via the site which gives a very good breakdown of the whole project.

photo: New Zealand Herald/ Brett Phibbs
I loved watching you speak in Once Were Warriors – Where Are They Now. Your recent interview in the New Zealand Herald is very beautiful and I also enjoyed your New Zealand Onscreen clip, where you recount how you told Don Selwyn about how hard it is for women to work in film and he responded that it was more difficult for Maori. And that, I think was one reason you produced Once Were Warriors. Were you involved in choosing Riwia Brown to write Once Were Warriors? Did you believe that a Maori woman ‘had’ to write it? And if so, why?

Riwia was Lee’s suggestion. Riwia had never written a screenplay before. When we began the three of us mapped out the story on rolls of brown paper that we pasted up around the walls of an office at Communicado. Those rolls of paper were the blueprint of the screenplay. She and Lee combined their strengths in writing the screenplay. Riwia definitely bought a female voice and tone but Lee bought his sense of story telling and structure, his commercial sensibility to the mix. Each helped the other achieve what became the final screenplay.

I have a theory that as women we’re much more strongly represented as producers of feature films than we are as writers and directors because– (a) we’re good at it; (b) we’re easily seduced by golden boys and their stories; and (c) those golden boys and their stories are much easier to find money for.

You’ve always been aware that it’s difficult for women to make ‘our’ films. Your first credit, in 1976, is as a researcher on a film titled
Women (which I haven't yet seen). You’re a feminist, I understand. In the twenty years since Once Were Warriors, you’ve worked non-stop. But within that constant flow, you’ve produced just one film that a woman wrote and directed, Christine Jeffs’ Rain. Why have you not produced more features written and directed by women?

This question came up at [another legendary and feminist producer] Caterina de Nave’s memorial service. I got involved with Christine’s film because she asked me to and because I loved her short film Stroke. We weathered all the development up to the point where the film was funded but Philippa Campbell took over as producer for the production because I had simultaneously funded another film, Crooked Earth – directed by Sam Pillsbury.

This is not the answer any feminist wants to hear. Being a top director requires a huge amount of talent coupled with hard work, organisation and leadership skills. Very few people have these. If you asked me to name the A-list directors of our world it would be Peter Jackson, Andrew Adamson, Lee Tamahori, Niki Caro, Jane Campion and Christine Jeffs.  It’s an even split in gender and I’m therefore not sure how much the lack of women directors is gender dependant.

I don’t think there are barriers for women directors and I think there is a real niche in the market for films with strong female characters. My friend Isabella Galluzzo has been developing such a story and Sima Urale is attached. Jane Campion, Alison Maclean, Niki Caro, Katie Wolfe and the late Merata Mita are all successful directors and inspirational to all women who want to direct.

Over the same twenty-year period, there have been many many films and telefilms that Maori and Pasifika men have written and directed. Off the top of my head, the directors – many of them directors of more than one feature and also writers – include the late Barry Barclay, Michael Bennett, Peter Burger, Jemaine Clement, Toa Fraser, Himiona Grace, Tearapa Kahi, Greg King, Rene Nauhafu, Larry Parr, the late Don Selwyn, Louis Sutherland, Lee Tamahori, Tusi Tamasese, Taika Waititi.

The position of Maori men who want to write and direct is now very strong, no longer as difficult as Don Selwyn experienced it. Stories directed by and about Maori men are increasingly diverse and do well not only in New Zealand but around the world (I’m thinking of this year at Toronto
– Dark Horse, The Dead Lands, What We Do in the Shadows).

In contrast, in that time, only Marama Killen’s self-funded
Kaikahu Road has been written and directed by a Maori woman, although Katie Wolfe directed Kawa, Awanui Simich-Pene directed Riwia Brown’s Irirangi Bay (both for television), Riwia and Briar Grace-Smith have each written a group of produced features and Sima Urale directed Apron Strings. In addition, although The Patriarch is Witi’s fourth story to be adapted for a feature, not a single feature has been made from a Patricia Grace story.

Have you perhaps reached a place in your life when you can refocus your attention to stories by and about women, particularly Maori and Pasifika women?

That is such an interesting question for me. I do believe in the strength and beauty and talent of women and I believe women see things differently but in my experience this quality can be captured by men who are empathetic to women just as a male character can be written and directed by a woman who is empathetic to men.

Some of stories I’ve been attracted to are very female driven – I’m thinking of Warriors, Broken English, The Tattooist and Rain. Only Rain was directed by a woman, but a lot of the stories have had very strong female leads.

We did the Kate Sheppard story and that was written by Gavin Strawhan and directed by Peter Burger. I viewed Consent, the Louise Nicholas story and for me that was extraordinarily nuanced, beautifully balanced both in the writing and the directing. I’m sure Fiona Samuel bought a female perspective but Rob Sarkies did a wonderful job as the director. I do feel that having strong females in the mix, like Riwia and myself on Warriors and Fiona on Consent, adds a hugely valuable female perspective.

Overall I love the teamwork involved in creating stories for the big and little screen. Don Selwyn taught me to celebrate teamwork – that everyone can bring something to the table and each contribution can make the whole better. I also feel in my own life I’ve been very lucky to have been loved and supported by a husband who actually wanted me to succeed in my job. He pushed me forward as opposed to holding me back and my perspective about team-work is probably coloured by this.

In 1976 when we artificially bought together an all-women team it didn’t immediately create a harmonious female way of doing things. There were all the normal power, work ethic and sexual tensions that come into play when most groups work together. But would I like to work with more women directors? Yes, of course. Do I want to help create more opportunities for women writers and directors? – Yes of course. I’m totally up for it.


The Patriarch on Snowball Effect

Once Were Warriors Team Crowdfund Finance for New Film The Patriarch  (Video &

New Lee Tamahori Film To Be Crowdfunded (New Zealand Herald)

My view on women producers and the 'real niche' for strong and complex women characters, with links (scroll down)