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Sir Peter’s bum film review: a writer’s perspective

A writer’s perspective on Peter Jackson’s report on the NZ Film Commission

Ah my precious, revenge is sweeeeeet!

That’s what Sir Peter Jackson will be chuckling to himself as he leafs through the pages of his dam-busting critique of the New Zealand Film Commission, a body he’s had his fair share of run-ins with on his way to global moviemaking super-stardom.

Imagine you’ve had a massive fight with the taxman over how much you owe, then the Prime Minister specially picks you to come up with a plan to re-engineer the bureaucratic monolith that has been messing with your life.

That’s the sort of gift PJ was handed by John Key when he was asked, along with Aussie film industry financing veteran David Court, to shake down the commission and suggest a better way of developing and funding movies on the public’s dime.

In fact, Sir Peter is a huge supporter of the local film industry and new film makers and believes we do need a film commission. So the bad blood doesn’t count for much. What does is PJ’s understanding of the creative process of making movies and his sense of where the priorities should lie.

While he has become an über-producer/director of Spielbergian proportions, Jackson is a writer at heart and has frequently commented that the most important part of the film making process is doodling around on bits of paper dreaming up plot, dialogue and piecing together the script. In Jackson’s view, its all about the script.

As he notes in the report: “In Hollywood, scripts are often sold to studios and producers for seven-figure sums—such is the value of a great screenplay in this industry.”

In all the US screenwriting trade journals that wannabe screenwriters like me pore over for motivation, the buzz is always about which scripts are hot, which writers are breaking new ground and which agents they are signing with. Here, it’s all about the producers—which production company is flavour of the month, who has an ‘in’ with the commission.

Jackson recommends a fairly substantial overhaul of the commission that shifts the focus from supporting producers to nurturing creative talent. He proposes giving commission development staff more responsibility in the creative development process and more control over what films get greenlit.

In essence, he’s saying that you can’t polish a turd. If the script is hopeless and the director doesn’t know his first acting turning point from his third act denouement, no amount of slick production and careful business management will save it from a straight-to-DVD release. Therefore, the commission needs to spend the bulk of its time and energy on emerging writers and directors.

Fledgling writers in this country are terrified of the Film Commission. I have friends who agonise over writing emails to the commission, who get flustered when they bump into development staff on the streets of Wellington. As Sir Peter says, the commission is the only game in town when it comes to funding movies, so if you get onto its radar you want to make sure you make a good impression before the development staff get tired of you.

Traditionally it’s been almost impossible to get a foot in the door at the commission as a writer unless you have a producer ‘attached’ to your script. The commission runs an annual competition called the First Writer’s Initiative, which is the only way for writers to pitch screenplays on their own. Hundreds of people apply.

I was lucky enough to have my script picked for First Writer’s a few years ago and spent a great weekend with screenwriters Robert Sarkies, Gaylene Preston and Graeme Tetley discussing the craft and workshopping the script. But that was it.

The next steps really involve a writer teaming up with a producer, which to many of us is like approaching the bank about getting a mortgage. You’re worried you’ll be ripped off or sign your life away without reading the small print first.

Jackson sums it up well: “The commission is essentially forcing writers (those who wish to earn a living as a writer, and therefore seek funding) to enter into a legal relationship with a producer at a time when they are most disadvantaged from a negotiating perspective”.

Instead, he says, the commission should focus on finding and developing the best screenplays and then wave them in front of producers who can compete for the best material. There’s a little bit more of the Hollywood system in that approach, but Jackson’s referencing of UK production company Film4 is probably more relevant to us.

Film4 is very writer- and director-focused, says Jackson, and the results speak for themselves. Recent Film4 movies include Slumdog Millionaire, In Bruges, Nowhere Boy, Hunger and The Last King of Scotland. Film4, the film production arm of Channel 4, has a similar annual budget to that of the New Zealand Film Commission.

The last ten years of the Film Commission has been about nurturing producers, the people who get films made. Good job, but we produced a lot of dud films in that period and relatively few gems.

Now our greatest film maker is telling us that if we want to produce great cinema we need to get back to basics and concentrate on the people who come up with the compelling, original dramatic ideas. If the commission adopts even a third of Sir Peter’s recommendations, it will be much better for it.