Man in the frame

When Dave Gibson started out, films were things you shot movies on, not something you watched. Nikki Macdonald talks to the new Film Commission boss about how far the movie business has come, and where it’s going.

Dave Gibson must be a master of knowing nothing.

For more than three decades, the film-maker steered his production company through booms and busts, via winners and duds. In an industry so unpredictable that screenwriter William Goldman famously claimed, “Nobody knows anything”, The Gibson Group survived when all the other little soldiers were knocked down dead.

By last year the 61-year-old’s succession planning was so far advanced he was starting to drift in mid-morning. Terrified of letting his career dribble to a close, he figured he’d round out his vast suite of television credits with a couple of movies, then get out.

But then the job came up – boss of the country’s biggest film funder and the film industry’s chief whipping boy. Who could resist

Eight months into the role, Gibson already looks at home in the Film Commission’s harbour-view Wellington office. Bruno Lawrence squats in one corner – the puppet, that is, from Gibson’s political satire Public Eye. There are no suits and ties or bureaucratese in this government-owned company. Gibson is relaxed in dark jeans and sneakers; the candour cultivated by 37 years as your own boss has yet to be ground out. When he realises he has been too upfront, he periodically apologises: “I’m not very good at this, am I”

But it’s precisely that straight-talking pragmatism that has got him this far, and that has the film industry celebrating his five-year appointment. That’s the same film industry that, in a 2010 review led by Sir Peter Jackson, called the Film Commission contemptuous, micro-managing and a social welfare department creating a climate of dependency.

But then, Gibson can afford to be relaxed, at least for now. New Zealand film-making is in a golden period. Taika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows has taken $2.5 million at the box office; gritty chess drama The Dark Horse has charmed critics; and next month Toa Fraser’s Maori language action epic The Dead Lands will be launched.

They also happen to be the three New Zealand films playing at Toronto Film Festival, where Gibson will spend much of next month promoting Kiwi cinema.

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Add to that the April extension of incentives for both international and New Zealand screen projects and Gibson is feeling more optimistic than he ever imagined possible since taking the job at a time when film crews were being axed and producers were glumly waiting by the phone.

“I’m going to be able to go away at Christmas and have a couple of beers and feel damn good about life,” Gibson jokes.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether this film bubble is tough enough to ride out ballooning budgets and the rising tide of digital piracy, internet streaming services and media fragmentation.

The Film Commission didn’t even exist when Gibson made his first commercial film – a $1000 promo for the Transcendental Meditation Society.

A farm boy from Pahiatua, he was supposed to become a teacher, like his mother Christabel. Against her advice, he celebrated his release from boys’ boarding school by enrolling at teachers’ college. Despite scoring a few dates with the endless supply of girls, it only took six weeks to work out it was “boring as hell”.

He moved to Victoria University to study education and English, but quickly got waylaid by movie-making. He bought a Super 8 and shot his mates at Leon Russell’s concert at Auckland’s Western Springs. Then he graduated to a 16-millimetre wind-up Bolex camera, which he used to shoot films for the university’s drama society, which at the time featured luminaries such as Paul Holmes.

He can’t quite pinpoint what it was about film that seduced him. Yes, he has childhood movie memories – the Saturday serials that accompanied feature films were often more compelling than the feature, but 1953 drama The Cruel Sea stands out.

“I think I just liked playing with it. It was something that seemed intriguing and interesting. I liked the look and the feel of it. When I look back now I think it’s probably a story-telling thing.”

At the time, Wellington’s screen industry was concentrated in the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. NZBC’s vast Avalon complex, about 20 minutes’ drive north of Wellington, was built while Gibson was at university. For a time, the studios remained in town, so Gibson made some of his early film contacts working part-time ferrying sets from Avalon to town and lumping them up to the 7th floor. On New Zealand’s first sitcom Buck House, Gibson met comic genius John Clarke, who voiced one of Gibson’s first films. “That was lost under someone’s bed somewhere in a flat”.

The education degree never quite got finished. Before long, Gibson worked out people would actually pay him to make movies. Television was a closed shop but, if you made something educational, you could sell it to schools. In 1977, he rented an office on Courtenay Place and started Gibson Films. That’s films as in what you shoot on, not as in feature movies.

There was no answerphone so he would leave the phone off the hook when leaving the building, so important people thought he was on another call. The industry was so much in its infancy no-one seemed to care.

“We made a film about two kids on a high-country sheep station. We sold it to Encyclopaedia Britannica. They made something like 2000 16mm copies for schools, and every time they made a copy they paid us $100 or something. It was quite a lucrative business.”

It wasn’t just the office that was makeshift. Gibson’s first feature film The Silent One – which remains one of his proudest projects – was written by screen veteran Ian Mune. Mune remembers an “alarmingly confident” young man. “To a degree, he was making it up as he went along”.

The film was shot on tiny, ill-equipped Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands. They lacked a wind machine powerful enough to summon an epic storm, so they improvised.

“We bought an old DC3 plane, chopped the wings off it and then used the propellers as a wind machine.”

The feature was one of a lifetime of collaborations with wife Yvonne Mackay. The pair, who have now split, have two sons – comic-book artist Tim and Jamie, a teacher.

From the beginning, Gibson has treated film-making as a business and that won’t change now he’s spending the government’s money rather than his own. That approach risks rankling with the nation’s film-makers, but he’s unapologetic. Creativity and business, he says, are not unhappy bedfellows.

“If you write a poem with a piece of paper and a pen and ultimately you can’t sell it to anybody and nobody reads it, that’s OK because you haven’t used a whole lot of government money or borrowed money from people to do it. But, if you take significant amounts of taxpayer money, which most film production involves, the taxpayer has a reasonable expectation that they will get to see it, that they’re not just funding something for your own amusement. I don’t think that’s difficult or complicated.”

Which doesn’t mean that every film has to be a surefire blockbuster. Gibson’s vision of a successful film industry lines up five planets, shining equally brightly – career pathways, more eyeballs, culturally significant films, economic activity and amazing, original, satisfying films. Put another way, Gibson wants to go to a party in five years’ time and have a bunch of people from different ages, genders and ethnicities tell him they all loved a New Zealand film in the past 12 months, for different reasons.

The trick, of course, is picking those winners. Gibson wouldn’t have survived this long and bagged a swag of awards if he didn’t have an instinct for what works. But Goldman was right to an extent – everyone who has worked in film or TV has produced a dud. Sometimes critics hate it (2007 backpacker sitcom Welcome to Paradise). Sometimes critics love it but audiences don’t (1994 television drama Cover Story).

A clue to Gibson’s vetting process comes from a story Mune tells about Gibson stopping him mid-sentence during a dinner catchup.

“He said, ‘Listen, when people are trying to pitch something to me, I listen very carefully to everything they say. As soon as they use the word ‘But’, I ignore everything that preceded it.’ I thought that’s good thinking. You know what you are going to get next is their problem, and that’s where you start listening.”

Mune describes Gibson as “very hands-on”. A control freak, then He hesitates and laughs. “I didn’t say that.”

When it comes to movies, Gibson has diverse taste. His top Kiwi movie is Geoff Murphy’s Maori western Utu but he’s equally likely to be spotted at a blockbuster on Courtenay Place as at an arthouse movie. That’s if he’s not reading crime fiction, playing indoor netball or sailing his 100-year-old former fishing trawler Myrtle.

With some caveats, Gibson is optimistic about the future of the 90- to

120-minute feature film. He even thinks New Zealand movies could double their share of the box office from the present 2.5 per cent to 5 per cent. He wants to see more acting stars, more Taika Waititis working internationally, better support for up-and-coming talent, and a more flexible approach to funding.

Having come from an era of self-taught talent that spawned greats such as Roger Donaldson, Sir Peter Jackson and Geoff Murphy, Gibson is critical of the endless stream of entry-level graduates churned out annually by film schools. Some of those government subsidies would be better invested in mid-career film-makers instead.

He’s also anxious to solve the two most common international criticisms of New Zealand movies. One is that they’re just not sharp enough. In the case of The Dark Horse, the Film Commission topped up the final edit, to get that extra edge.

“Sometimes, if you spend $10 on a film, to spend another 10c is a damn smart thing to do.”

The second criticism is that Kiwi films are sometimes undercooked. A good example is Hip Hop-eration – a feel-good doco about Waiheke’s geriatric hip-hop troupe.

With more money and “more showbiz” it could have gone global.

While Gibson insists he can’t remember what criticisms he contributed to the scathing 2010 Film Commission review, he is candid about the organisation’s shortcomings.

Funders have become so obsessed by “the craft of script” – whether or not there is the right turning point in act two – “that sometimes they forget to sit down and go ‘Does it make me go: Oh my god, I would so go and see that film’.”

And too many mediocre projects have been funded just because the people pitching them showed promise.

“It doesn’t matter how fabulous you are if it’s not a great idea,” Gibson told film-makers earlier this year. “Positive decisions will seldom be made any more on the basis of giving people a go. Those days have gone. This is not the kindergarten Santa pick.”

It’s that tough talk that makes industry veteran John Barnett, of South Pacific Pictures, confident the commission will no longer be a social welfare department. If you’re a writer no-one reads or a musician no-one listens to, “there’s a point at which you go and get a job in a shoe store”, Barnett reasons.

“For a few years some people have felt that they are entitled to get money to make a film that nobody is going to watch. That was indulged, to a degree.”

While there has been mostly positive reaction to Gibson’s appointment, criticisms remain.

Earlier this year Waititi told Your Weekend that the script funding process created a mentality that you needed a grant before you could write another draft.

“The commission has many projects that have been in development for between five and 10 years that still haven’t been made. It’s just not working, and it’s not their fault,” Waititi says. “The problem is people go in with half an idea, but they don’t really know what they’re trying to make.”

Some projects, such as The Last Saint (see below) are supported but then marooned, wasting that initial investment. From the 51 projects awarded a collective $892,000 at the same time as The Last Saint, Your Weekend could find only eight finished films.

As The Last Saint has shown, it’s now possible to shoot a film without Film Commission investment. That’s good for film diversity, but it also presents a problem, Gibson explains.

“I read stories about films I’ve never heard of opening as if they were major New Zealand films and they’re actually being shot for no money in some small town somewhere. Some of them are truly utterly dreadful and that’s going to make it harder to have a brand for New Zealand films.”

So what of the threat to cinema from video-on-demand and subscription movie screening services such as Netflix, rumoured to arrive here next year Gibson laughs at the mass panic about change. The arrival of VHS wiped out his school movie market overnight, so he adapted and branched out, including into interactive museum installations.

“Change is a constant,” he says.

And where’s there’s risk there’s also opportunity. His 2012 movie Fresh Meat made good money on United States video-on-demand sites.

The Film Commission has set up its own modest VOD site and is fishing around in vaults in Eastern Europe looking for master copies of old New Zealand movies so they can digitise the 100-or-so titles yet to be scanned.

They used the VOD site to livestream Kiwi movie Everything We Loved last month , on the same night it premiered at the film festival.

That demand almost crashed the site, so it will need a big upgrade before it can achieve the dream of offering a full back catalogue of Kiwi movies for about $5 per view.

However, Mune argues the “famously malfunctioning” commission will never be fixed without more money and the removal of ultimate decision-making power from a board of accountants, bankers and lawyers to actual film-makers.

“When he got the job I said ‘Congratulations, Dave. As we know, people from the independent industry go in with a lot of determination to stop the bullshit. Most of them last a week, the really tough ones do a fortnight, before they are the same as everyone else. So, we are going to be watching you, Dave.’ ”