None of the fun of the fair

Here, for your edification is a piece I wrote last quarter for Take, the New Zealand Screen Director's Guild Magazine. For subscription details you can visit their site If you've got any tales of work done for free in New Zealand's film and television industry please email me. I'm writing an update to the article below after hearing reports of work being done for free on advertisements, which usually pay extremely well.

Emerging director Briar March’s office is neon-lit and carpeted in a tired shade of brown. At 3am and after an early start, she’s heading into the final stretch of preparation for the music video she’ll be directing the following day. Like a lot of directors Briar is a perfectionist, sensitive to the smallest detail in her films. Even working with a dedicated crew and producer, she won’t rest until every element in the video she’s planning is ready to be realised on screen. And, like many of the crew and production staff who make music videos, she won’t get paid for any of the time she spends, or the ideas that end up in the finished product.

It’s no breaking news that New Zealand film and television have small budgets. The current funding structure for shorts and music videos is taken for granted by the executive producer, production co-ordinator, director of photography, independent producer, two established directors and two emerging directors that Take spoke to for this article. They’re more interested in making moving images than in arguing with the status quo. Nevertheless, an inspection of free work in New Zealand’s film and television industry highlights some interesting contradictions.

Music videos and short films are common genres where directing is undertaken without payment, or for very little. According to Linda Halle, Adviser for the Screen Innovation Production Fund, short film funding is designed to cover production costs but not commercial wages for those who work on the film. The intention is to realise shorts that would otherwise never make it to the screen, either because of their experimental nature or the inexperience of the director. Arguably, short films tend to be formally innovative and artistically driven. They certainly exist independently of a broadcaster’s commission - distribution and finding an audience come later down the track.

Music videos, in contrast, are promotional as well as creative enterprises. Designed to showcase a song and the artist that performs it, they’re advertising an independent artist or a record company to a particular group of people. For some bands, New Zealand on Air provides $5000 of funding intended to be topped up by the artist’s label. Of course if the artist isn’t signed to a label, the video might be made for only that $5000, unless money comes from somewhere else, sometimes the artist and often the director. Bands who don’t qualify for government money sometimes self-fund their music videos which is good for their image. And directors know that the more money they invest in a video, the better it will look and the better their chances of getting work from it later.

Briar March, director of the digital documentary Allie Eagle and Me, has twice preferred to make a music video on film rather than being paid for her creative input. Amit Tripuraneni, director of the digital feature Memories of Tomorrow, has also made two music videos. When making the second he chose to take a minimal day rate and work on digital video, a medium he’s interested in exploring. Greg Page, Fish n clips directing veteran, has directed many music videos and he estimates about 90% were without pay. Both emerging directors are happy to get directing experience while Julian Boshier Knows that his free work on early Shihad and Head like a Hole music videos is what propelled him into directing videos with budgets supplemented by record company money.

Likewise Director of Photography Richard Harling believes that new directors working without pay on music videos are being served because music videos can become excellent "calling cards" and are a great experimental forum. Julian attempts to always pay his crew because he knows that he as director will get all the kudos if the video does well. Richard also points out that it’s very important for a musical artist to trust the vision of an credible director with a strong concept when that director works for free. Despite the promotional aspects of music video production, Julian, Greg, Amit and Briar have both exercised considerable artistic control over their music video directing. Briar believes this might be because they are working independently of a production company or large record label who therefore don’t exert control over the content of the music video. And the music artists working with all four directors have secured government funding or given their own money but been content to leave visual realisation with the director.

So music artists and emerging directors can benefit from the current system, getting to make and be seen in edgy, innovative material that can further the careers of both parties. Arguably the film and television industry also benefits because government funding and some money from the music industry is being made available to pay for goods and services in film and TV, particularly equipment hire and technical expertise.

However music videos are made on a wing and a prayer. Favours are called in, cheap deals are sought and as Kristian Eek, independent producer, points out, everyone on a crew, not just directors, puts their time and skills into projects for nothing or reduced rates. Even established music video production company Fish ‘n’ Clips must stretch their available budgets to get things on screen. According to Executive Producer James Moore, their policy is to try to get directors 10% of a total budget. However when the total budget is only $5000, this represents $500 for days of work. And, because it’s extremely difficult to get a music video on-screen for that amount of money, it’s not always possible to get a director the full 10%. While there are compensations for working like this, there are also drawbacks, and not just for emerging directors.

Music videos made for $5000 mean the music industry, including some of the world’s largest multi-national companies, gets edgy, original moving-image work for free. That work is paid for by the New Zealand government, obviously, but also indirectly by film and television and other industries. When independent directors make a video they often borrow equipment from schools or friends to off-set production costs. Money that would be used to pay for cameras, peripherals and editing is channelled into other areas of production, which takes it away from equipment hire companies. And Greg Page and Julian Boshier note that often when these companies are used to provide equipment for a shoot, they offer enormous reductions in hire costs just to support a creative enterprise and to garner goodwill from directors and producers who may one day go on to make more highly funded projects. However, more of an issue from a director’s perspective is the fact that emerging directors who work for free draw subsidies into music video production from a variety of other industries, including Film and Television.

No one that Take spoke to knew of anyone making a full living from music videos and anecdotal evidence indicates that many directors don’t stay working in the genre once they start to get work in television commercials. James Moore thinks this is because the money from TVCs is simply too good in comparison. Directors, with some exceptions, tend move on to greener financial pastures after cutting their creative teeth. This begs the question of how young directors support themselves while getting crucial early experience and how directors keep themselves in shoes if they continue with the genre. Briar March has worked short contracts as a director’s assistant at commercial production companies and is also on the PACE scheme provided by WINZ. Amit Tripuraneni is teaching at South Seas. Greg Page directs TVCs and Julian Boshier runs a camera hire business, while James Moore lived at home for the first year that he directed – having his rent and food provided subsidised his film and television work. All five have drawn or continue to draw money in wages or benefits from sectors outside the music industry to support themselves while making music videos. Because music video funding doesn’t pay what it costs to get a director on-set each day, fed, clothed and rested, the net effect is that directors subsidise the music industry by getting money to do this from other sectors.

All the directors that Take spoke to trained at educational institutions to get some of the skill-set they use when directing. When they choose to work for free in film and television they’re effectively paying twice to learn how to direct. Once in fees at film-school, and again by giving up their director’s fee for the productions they first work on. This is a far cry from the days when directors like Max Quinn at Natural History New Zealand were paid to train, and reflects the deregulated and unregulated state of film and television in New Zealand since the 1980s. Film-schools are the only parties consistently making money from this arrangement and in our small film and TV industry, the number of graduates produced each year means fierce competition with no guarantee for directors of anything except a sizeable student loan. This is not a job for the faint-hearted.

Julian Boshier feels that people emerging from film-school now have an extremely good attitude to the business, being willing to compete to get experience on-set and work their way into the roles they want. Every job is a chance to meet people and establish a working relationship that might generate a good deal or a paid job. However Julian is also quick to point out that this enthusiasm for unpaid work can wear very thin after someone gets established in the industry. For this reason, most established directors work commercially some of the time and creatively, for very little, some of the time. In some senses it could be argued that television commercials pay for music videos and shorts by subsidising directors’ incomes. Arguably the entire moving image industry in New Zealand is supported by the willingness of professionals in it, including emerging directors, to take a pay-cut in order to do something they believe in, supplemented by the only part of the film and TV industry that can afford to consistently pay commercial rates.

Emerging directors need to think about the knock-on outcomes of working for free in the context of an on-going involvement in the film and television industry. While directors don’t tend to stay making music videos because it’s so hard financially, music videos continue to get made because emerging directors want to get a foot in the door and will make what compromises the structure of the industry demands. By doing this they continue to indirectly subsidise music video production, including the government funding available, and a financially unsustainable production environment is able to stagger on. In addition, the large number of people paying to train and then working for free to make a “calling card” coupled with a tiny, government-subsidised industry means that even good moving-image work may not result in regular paid directing gigs, in spite of a sizeable student loan. However while it’s convenient and obvious to say that film-schools should be more regulated and that the film and television needs more funding, there are no easy answers. Film-schools themselves sustain a certain proportion of directors because they employ them as teachers. And in a situation where the market is too small to sustain an independent film industry or high-end music videos, increased funding must come from central government and this might impinge on the creative freedoms music video directors currently enjoy.

In a situation where every bit of the pie is pretty damn tiny, directors who want to keep working in New Zealand carry the burden of deciding what compromises they’re willing to make to get established and what consequences they’ll bear further down the track as a result. A solid standard of living that involves owning property isn’t on the cards. At this moment in New Zealand’s film and TV industry, you gotta feel the fear, ditch the mortgage and do it anyway.