How to make a movie in New Zealand

Idealog talks to Kiwi filmmaker Guy Pigden about financing films, finding crews and how digital distribution is the future.

Idealog: How do you get a film funded in New Zealand? 

Guy Pigden: Well I guess there are three different ways that you can get money to make films: The first and primary way is to go through the New Zealand Film Commission. So they’re government subsidised, they’re given a certain amount of money to spend on films and the development of films per year, and everyone is trying to get money from them. They can finance a movie all the way through production, and you can start from the ground up and go through their different steps to receive funding. That’s how we did our first film. 

So they’ll fund everything from writing a script, all the way through to post-production, going to festivals and things like that? 

Yes. It's not a huge amount of money in that development process, so you couldn’t expect to just live of the money you’re given, but they will give you funding for scripts. Then you go into early development funding, where you take the script into the next series of drafts, and then you get production funding and so on. And there are smaller subsets of that where you get inched along in the process. 

And they’re quire prescriptive about that? It’s a case of ‘do it like this and this and this’?

Yes. You write the script and you take it back to them, they assign someone to you who recommends changes, you do those changes, do that re-write, and you bring it back to them. Then they say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to go on to the next phase. So they have input through a third party. 

So you’ve been through that process?

Yes. My first film was Escalator-funded – an initiative where $250,000 was given to a new feature filmmaker who hadn’t directed something before. The idea was to develop new talent, but it was a lot more hands off for [that process]. If they approved your pitch and your production model and script you were just given the money to go off and make it. It didn’t have to go through all the normal phases you’d have to go through for a bigger budget film, where there would be sign-offs on different versions of the script and who was attached to do this and whether you had a distributor attached and whether you had outside funding and stuff like that. The Escalator fund is now defunct but they’ve got several different initiatives that are similar. 

And that’s equity funded? 

Yes. Although, it’s an interesting thing. They’re given money to give away basically, so it doesn’t matter if the film makes money. Obviously they want you to make money if you can, and the more successful you are the better for everyone, but these films don’t have to make money in the same way that studio films in America have to make money to be considered successful. 

What’s the second way?

The way that is now most in vogue for low-budget features is through crowdfunding. Kickstarter, Indiegogo, stuff like that, where you basically pitch for people to give you money for your feature. That’s how we funded our second feature film, Older, which we raised money through crowdfunding along with some money of our own. 

Why did you go the crowdfunding route this time, instead of trying to tap that vein with the Film Commission that you'd successfully mined before? 

Well the Film Commission weren’t really interested in this particular script. So I couldn’t get it in the door there, but I thought it was a very strong idea, and I thought that it could be done really well without a huge budget, so I would try doing it a different way. 

The big problem for the Film Commission is that, to a degree, their job is to say ‘no’ to people, to reject the majority of applications at some point through that process. They simply to do not have the money to make all the films or even all the good films or even all the films by great filmmakers, and so we have to find models to work around that to still be able to make feature films in New Zealand.

So I was looking at trying to create the low-budget template that I’d seen embraced a lot more overseas and applying it to this film. 

Which platform did you use?

Indiegogo. 

Why them?

Indiegogo is good because you don't have to raise all of your money. With Kickstarter, if you don't reach your goal you don’t get any of the money, whereas for Indiegogo, you can just get whatever money there is, and they just take a slightly bigger percentage of it, if you don’t hit your goal. 

How successful were you?

From our point of view it was very successful. We only raised about $6000, but I only anticipated raising about $5000 anyway, so I’d created a production budget around it costing $5000. It would have been great to have gotten more, but that’s what we were aiming for to be able to shoot the film, and shooting when we wanted to do it, which was almost straight after the campaign finished. 


Image: Filmmaker Guy Pigden

Is the crowdfunding route something you plan to use again in the future? Or is it a well that you can only go to so many times?

That’s a really interesting question. To a degree, I think yes, you can’t go to that well over and over, but it also depends on how the first thing you make turns out. If it turns out really well then people are like ‘Well, that was well worth my investment’. If it doesn’t, people become jaded, so I think it largely depends on the quality of your output after a campaign. But it’s certainly something I’ll look at in the future.

For us – my company along with my partner Harley Neville as Pigville Productions – we do have a big internet following and a big fan base that we want to keep expanding, so I think that in the future, and we're seeing it already overseas, that the gap between your audience and the content you’re putting out is getting narrower and doesn’t have to go through all these avenues. And by bypassing those avenues you can make more content and your fans can receive more content and you sustain each other in a way. And I think that's really the future for lower budget film making. 

And what’s the third way?

The third way is to get private investment from overseas. You’d then have either the Film Commission come to the party once you’d secured a certain amount of financing, or that financing is raised completely overseas through either a distributor or presales. 

What are the challenges of going that route? 

It’s not something I’ve done, but it’s something I’d potentially be looking at for the next film. Obviously to secure investment you want to be a ‘name’ or a brand or have a body of work that people can see and respect and trust. They want to know you can deliver something good and that can make it harder when you’re just starting out. 

One of the new Film Commission initiatives is that they give you a certain amount of money to create a show-reel or a proof-of-concept trailer which basically shows what the film might be, how you’re going to shoot it and to give your investors faith that they can support the film. 

So for a New Zealand artist is it a case of simply consigning yourself to working with these ultra-low budgets or moving offshore? Is that something you just have to accept?

I think that as a New Zealand filmmaker you know that no matter how big your film is, it can’t really be bigger than $4 million, in terms of how much you’re ever going to get for a feature film over here, at least from the New Zealand Film Commission. That means that your ideas have to, to some degree, reflect that. I don’t know whether it’s a case of accepting that but, maybe accepting that, unless you’re going to find outside financing from overseas, that you are going to be working on a smaller scale. If you really, truly want to make truly big films, then you do have to, at some stage, transition to Hollywood. 

Is there a middle ground between those two extremes – the micro-budget and the Hollywood blockbuster – in this country? Is there that sort of medium budget, indie movie market in New Zealand? 

You’d almost say that most of the budgets coming through the Film Commission are almost at that scale. A $4 million dollar film is, by any overseas definition, a small indie film. Films over here did used to cost more – $6 million or something like that – but the Film Commission is looking at developing $1 million films and even lower than that with their low-budget initiatives. And I think that that area is what you’d call that middle ground. 

Do these budget concerns bleed into the way films are distributed here?

Starting out, the thing I soon learnt is that if your film costs a couple of hundred thousand dollars, but it’s going to cost at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars for the P&A spend, you’re doubling your film’s budget and hoping then that it makes another $500,000 before you’re back to square one. That, as a distribution model, is not the best way to do it at all. 

So are you looking at other models – on-demand and streaming services for example – and thinking ‘that’s where the future is’?

Yes. Video on-demand, streaming and downloading, even when you’re thinking about selling it you’re factoring in all of those things. I think what some content creators such as myself might end up doing is signing these smaller deals with a streaming service like Netflix, to provide them with several movies over four or five years, that don’t cost much to make. That’s happening in the states on a bigger scale and I think that is definitely a new, interesting model that will be happening as we go forward. 

What peculiar difficulties are faced by filmmakers working within these smaller budgets? I can imagine that, when you’re not paying people a great deal, you might face challenges around things like crew reliability for example. What’s the hardest part of working this way?

There are two things.

I think the fundamental challenge is that the problems that arise in filmmaking are usually solved by money. Money being thrown at a problem. Say you ran out of time on a day so you need an extra day to shoot, or if a special effect goes wrong so it becomes a visual effect, or, say, the edit’s not working so you need more time to cut it, all of those things are normally fixed by money, so when you don’t have money you have to think very, very creatively to work around all those issues. You’re at an inherent disadvantage because you don’t have that way to solve these problems that a bigger film would have. It’s that triangle of good, fast or cheap. You know, pick two. Now I think that you can make good-quality low budget films but it’s going to take a lot of time to get them to that same point. 

The second thing for low budget filmmakers is that there is no consideration for low budget filmmaking, even within the industry. No one is comparing your film to another film that cost $100,000. They’re comparing your film to all the films they’ve ever seen from Hollywood, all the films from overseas as well as all the films that come out in New Zealand. So the idea that you can say ‘Look I only had a tiny fraction of the resources of all these other film so you have to judge me like that’, that will never happen. It’s difficult to make a good film even when you have all the resources, we see that over and over again, and it’s infinitely more difficult to do that when you don’t have those resources, but you’ll still be judged by the same criteria as if you did. 

But as for crew, you can ask a lot of people. There are a lot of exceptionally talented people out there who will come and work on good projects. People are always attracted to strong scripts and to interesting ideas no matter what. This is basically an industry of very passionate people and you can capitalise on that when you don’t have money, if people believe in what you’re doing. It’s certainly possible to bring together a great amount of talent, you may just not have them as long as you otherwise would. 

And it’s a pretty sexy industry too, right? There must be that natural attraction. Who doesn’t want to work on a movie?

Exactly. You’re all sitting there making something and at the end of the day, that time and those hours spent, you’re going to see the results of that and that’s going to be around forever. Everyone has the belief, and you have to have that in this industry, that whatever that thing you’re working on is the thing that’s going to be great. 

Pigden has a new movie, Older, currently in post-production. Visit the Older page on Facebook, or oldermovie.com.