NZ Update #20

Some Good Things: But *Problems Persist*

Roseanne Liang photo: Guy Coombes

I’m a huge Roseanne Liang fan.

For her stunning work on screen, like Shadow in the Cloud, winner of the Audience Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (now available here). For all the webseries she’s made with JJ Fong, Perlina Lau and Ally Xue, as Flat3: they’re highlights amongst a very strong group of local webseries that have transformed representation on our screens. (Be sure to watch Flat3's Creamerie (1), a dystopian comedy series ‘set in a post-apocalyptic future where a viral plague has wiped out 99 percent of men, and Earth has become a planet run by and for women’).


I’m equally a fan of Roseanne’s staunch hard work to improve things for everyone. Not surprisingly given the content of her work, equity matters to her. She’s one of the founders of the vibrant Pan-Asian Screen Collective, which supports New Zealand Asian filmmakers to define Asianess and Asian stories, to push back against stereotypes of what Asian is in New Zealand and to enrich cinema for all of us.

She’s also fearless about speaking out when necessary. For instance, in a beautiful recent interview with Sarah McMullan, she references the gender parity achieved by the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) (2), points out that ‘We don’t come close’ and critiques Te Tumu Whakaata Taonga (New Zealand Film Commission: NZFC).

Roseanne’s done well on the prescribed NZFC development pathways, from low to higher budget short films to features. She is ‘so grateful to the Film Commission for all of their support, and I haven’t had any negative experiences with them, but I know people who have.’

But, she continues: ‘They didn’t feel trusted by the Commission to make the film they wanted to make. I also know some talented people applying for support and getting turned away because they haven’t followed the prescribed steps. The Film Commission is not wrong with how they set out the pathways; it’s just that there are other ways of doing it, and there should be funding for those too.’

Roseanne’s voice is especially welcome as a counterpoint to regular headlines like “New Zealand’s booming film and TV industry in a ‘golden era’ thanks to Covid safe haven”. Because, as in other parts of the world, it’s still not really a ‘golden era’ for our women directors, in all their diversity. Or for women directors based outside New Zealand — other than Jane Campion — who might like to direct a particular project in this ‘safe haven’.

There’s some good news. Irirangi Te Motu (NZ On Air: NZOA) — which funds some features and webseries, like those from Flat3, as well as TV series — goes from strength to strength in its inclusionary practices. It takes seriously its statutory mandate to ‘reflect and develop New Zealand identity and culture’: its funding strategies are transparent, it produces an annual Diversity Report and in my experience it is meticulous with any inquiries under the Official Information Act (3). It has an ancillary and complementary relationship with Māori Broadcasting funding agency Te Māngai Pāho (TMP); they work together on some projects.

The NZFC has a different statutory remit and is far less transparent in its funding strategies than NZOA. But its Annual Report for the year ending 30 June 2020 records that 36% of films receiving development or production funding had Māori in two out of three key creative roles (writer, director, producer). And in that year, we do ‘come close’ to gender parity. The organisation met its goal of 50% women directors attached to projects receiving feature film development and production financing. But if we look closely at the five-out-of-ten new features funded for production that have women directors one, Night Raiders, is a co-production with Canada, directed by Canadian Danis Goulet. Another is Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog and a third is a jointly written and directed work: James Napier Robertson’s and Paula Whetu Jones’ Whina. As far as I know Whina is the only new feature with a woman writer or director who is Māori and not one of the features funded for production had an Asian or Pasifika woman writer or director.

Some excellent professional screen skills programmes have been packed with a diversity of women participants for years now, especially the Script to Screen initiatives. But so far they don’t seem to have made a lot of difference to the volume of feature films or series written and directed by women.

Script to Screen’s Story Camp Aotearoa’s latest group

Script to Screen’s FilmUp 2021 ‘our high-end development programme for writers, directors and producers who have already shown considerable talent and tenacity in their work’ also has a wonderful selection.

Script to Screen’s FilmUp 2021, left to right Chris Parker, Gwen Isaac, Hash Perambalam, Jessica Sanderson, Jessica Grace Smith, Julian Sonny Arahanga, Paula Jones, Pennie Hunt, Rouzie Hassanova

The same for Hunga Taunaki ā Rorohiko, the New Zealand Film Commission’s online mentorship programme. What a list!

The mentees

Renae Maihi will be mentored by writer-director Dame Gaylene Preston to further develop a feature film thriller. Catherine Bisley will be mentored by writer-director Alison Maclean to further develop a feature film drama. Hiona Henare will be mentored by writer-director Tusi Tamasese to further develop a feature film drama/romance. Pennie Hunt will be mentored by writer-director Rob Sarkies to further develop a feature film drama. Chelsea Preston Crayford will be mentored by director Christine Jeffs to further develop a feature film comedy/drama. Pulkit Arora will be mentored by writer Duncan Sarkies to further develop a feature film comedy/drama. Rosie Howells will be mentored by writer Nick Ward to further develop a feature film comedy/drama. Matasila Freshwater will be mentored by writer Briar Grace-Smith to further develop a feature film comedy/crime. Albert Belz will be mentored by writer Glenn Standring to further develop a feature film horror/thriller. Nate Tamblyn will be mentored by Narrative Designer Nick Jones to further develop an interactive story for a role playing game.

The mentors

And we do get to see a few more New Zealand women-directed films. Niki Caro’s Mulan came out on Netflix in 2020. After Shadow in the Cloud came Poppy, written and directed by Linda Niccol and the first production to start up again after lockdown. Power of the Dog is debuting at Venice soon. Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith’s Cousins, from Patricia Grace’s classic novel, caused delight when it was introduced through ūkaipō screenings around Te Ika-a-Māui (North Island), private screenings that give key cast and crew the opportunity take the film back to their tūrangawaewae before its cinema release. It reached Aotearoa New Zealand’s top twenty movies for all time, has been released in Australia and thanks to Ava DuVernay’s Array will reach selected cinemas in the US, Canada and the UK; and Netflix.

Gaysorn Thavat’s The Justice of Bunny King is out shortly, after being selected for Tribeca.

In addition, Loren Taylor has shot Going, Going, her long-awaited first feature.

But there are continuing problems, with the level of investment in projects developed by women and with infrastructure that employs them.

Continuing Problems
The New Zealand Government invests large amounts in subsidies for the film industry, through the New Zealand Screen Production Grant (NZSPG, formerly Large Budget Screen Production Grant), administered by the NZFC. This investment is sometimes controversial.

from Showtools’ short clip about its careful research

But not because of its tiny investment in projects directed by women. Between 2015–2019 — the latest available details — projects directed by women received only 0.97% (yes, the decimal point is in the correct place) of the almost $374m allocated. Some of this outcome is due to producer choices of course, but an incentive within the incentive, based on a comprehensive — and intersectional — gender policy, could quickly change that.

As the SFI points out in its latest report ‘we [wherever we are in the world]can only achieve the highest possible quality if we take advantage of all our expertise and talent, excluding no one because of their gender or other grounds of discrimination’.

The report also summarises the effects of poor working conditions. ‘Work environments in which violations and discrimination occur risk becoming deprofessionalised, in the sense that energy goes to addressing various forms of violations. It also steals time, and therefore money, from the production.’ And, because ‘the film industry is largely a freelance industry, where personal networks are important for future job possibilities, this can lead to a culture of silence in which one is afraid to stand up against colleagues and decision makers.’

Poor working conditions are top of my mind this week, when I heard two stories that broke my heart, about extraordinary women in the screen industry being bullied and harassed and exploited at work, by women as well as by men.

Although the Screen Women’s Action Group (SWAG) continues its fine work through Professional Respect training (4), safety issues are absolutely not resolved. This week’s stories are not isolated incidents. In a culture where women storytellers are undervalued and under-resourced, it’s not surprising that sexism, racism, bullying and harassment can flourish, in conjunction with employment practices that exploit workers under contract. New Zealander Malcolm Angell’s recent tragic death because of the conditions he was employed under in the Canadian VFX industry could have happened here. I’m told that there have been similar deaths here in the past. And I know how often the mental and physical health of many people employed in the industry, particularly women, is affected by their working conditions.

Some of the most persistent problems are within projects that benefit from all that New Zealand Screen Production Grant money. Exposure last year of our ongoing #MeToo moments, at Weta Workshop and Weta Digital was just part of this.

New Zealand’s latest #MeToo Moments
The latest revelations started in June 2020, with Layna Lazar’s tweet.

Layna’s story

In July, they continued with the results of an investigation by TVNZ journalist Kristin Hall that moved from Weta Workshop, owned by Sir Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger, to Weta Digital, 67% owned by Sir Peter Jackson, Dame Fran Walsh (also then directors of the company, with Sean Parker and Joe Letteri: four more directors were added in mid-December 2020) and Philippa Boyens.

Weta Digital told 1 NEWS it’s aware of ‘historical behavioural issues’ and the company has changed.

It said the complaints ‘do not reflect the Weta Digital of today’. But Weta Digital staff disputed that.

And by 10 September, the Workplace Relations Minister, Andrew Little, became involved and called for an independent inquiry into Weta Digital.

Then, on September 18 Kristin Hall reported that Sir Peter Jackson and Dame Fran Walsh had ordered an investigation.

They invited Miriam Dean QC to head the investigation, perhaps not a good look, for an ‘independent inquiry’. It would have been better if the state had become involved, given the seriousness of allegations about behaviour that seems to have continued in Weta Digital over a long period of time.

All QCs have the skills and experience to inquire into anything and Miriam Dean had undertaken reviews of the Auckland City Council’s council-controlled organisations, electricity prices, the Department of Corrections handling of prisoners’ mail, the Accident Compensation Corporation’s dispute resolution processes and the Fonterra botulism scare. But QCs also have specialist areas and Miriam Dean defines her practice as focusing on ‘commercial and competition law, arbitration and mediation’. Unlike someone like Frances Joychild QC and other human rights specialists, she had no specific expertise around harassment, bullying, sexism.

And although she’s familiar with the screen sector and used to chair the New Zealand On Air (NZOA) board, she also chaired the recent Screen Sector Strategy Facilitation Group, whose final report was very weak re safety and equity. This background didn’t inspire confidence in the report’s findings, alongside the fact that she was ‘invited’ and paid by the owners of the company she inquired into.

At first, it was uncertain whether Miriam Dean’s report would be made public.

But the report was published on 20 December, established some useful facts and made some positive recommendations. It found, among other things, that the company had ‘no written statement of its values, no code of conduct against which individuals can be held to account, and inadequate health and safety reporting as it relates to wellbeing risks’. It had 17 recommendations. One was about addressing the gender pay gap. Others recommended expanding a diversity and inclusion programme; starting a women in leadership programme; and introducing more transparency in decision making about promotions. There was also this one about the Board of Directors: ‘More effective leadership at this level should take the shape of formal board meetings, formal reporting to the board, formal minute-taking and active monitoring of compliance with health and safety obligations.’

Kristin Hall had reported a couple of days earlier that the review of the Weta Workshop allegations had quietly been released, finding that ‘the majority of the allegations’ in the social media post that sparked the review ‘were not substantiated’. Kristin added ‘I imagine this will be contested’.

She also followed up on Miriam Dean’s report.

Then the summer break came and the Weta Workshop and Weta Digital reports dropped from sight. Have the Weta Workshop review findings been contested? Who knows whether those recommendations to Weta Digital will be implemented? Who will monitor the implementation? No-one seems to have asked the new Workplace Relations Minister, Michael Wood to comment on progress.

In the meantime, unsafe work conditions continue to affect women more than men. And if they are employed, as the SFI report noted, they are also expected to shoulder responsibility for the work environment. And taking this responsibility is not for everyone because it can be too risky —

Unsafe working conditions lead to silence…As the film industry is largely a freelance industry, personal networks are an important factor in the creation of potential jobs. Several of the respondents attest that this also leads to a culture of silence in which one is afraid to stand up against colleagues and decision-makers, because doing so may affect the possibility of future work. This fear can be expressed in decisions to refrain from pointing out or commenting on discriminatory behaviour, because the victim does not want to be seen as ‘difficult’. Many also note that despite legislation, there is often no well- functioning process for whistleblowing, and that it may be unclear who has employer responsibility.

In addition, women who are racialised as Black or Brown are often expected to embrace the role of a diversity expert whose task it is to educate and inform White employees and leaders. These women are also expected to be responsible for any problems linked to structural racism that may surface during a production. This leads to double work and ultimately entails a risk of exhaustion and burnout.

Against this background, this post was inspired by the text of a recent consultation paper on the NZFC/NZOA/TMP $50 million Premium Production Fund ‘designed to support the production of high-quality feature films or series dramas that tell strong New Zealand stories with international appeal’.

Gender Silence in the $50m Premium Production For International Audiences Fund
The Premium Production Fund is ambitious and exciting. It brings together the country’s three screen sector funding bodies —NZFC, NZOA and TMP — to support the local production sector to recover from COVID-19, by supporting high-quality productions that tell New Zealand stories for global audiences.

Its key objectives are to —

  1. Boost economic growth, through the attraction of international investment in New Zealand’s screen sector and give opportunities to NZ creators and IP owners to be competitive in the global market;
  2. Increase employment, through providing jobs to New Zealanders in the screen sector;
  3. Create cultural benefit, through providing the resources to tell New Zealand screen stories at a scale not previously possible and supporting Māori cultural aspirations;
  4. Respond to COVID-19, by distributing money quickly in the wake of the lockdown period to support the screen sector;
  5. Develop the skills and capability of the New Zealand screen sector by increasing international connections and driving long-term growth in the sector.

The fund has put aside $2m for development and asks for sector feedback about allocating at least 50% of it ‘to support Māori cultural aspirations and ‘how to maximise stories from diverse and underrepresented groups such as Pan-Asian and Pacific Island New Zealanders as well as LGBTQIA+ and those with a disability’. All good! But when I searched the document and watched the associated consultation webinar I found no reference to ‘gender’; ‘female’; ‘women’: there was nothing.

This matters. Because beyond the policy and practice failures across the funding bodies, gender is a significant factor for all women artists, whether above or below the line, cast or crew. According to a 2019 Creative New Zealand (CNZ)/NZOA report (screen workers were included in the research) last year the average difference in total personal income for men and women creative practitioners is 21%; for every $1 a male artist earns, a woman earns only 79c. If only creative income is considered, it increases to 45%, 55c cents for every dollar (yes!).

That 21% is much greater than the gender pay gap in New Zealand that affects all women and Māori, Pacific and Asian women even more and the 45% is just gobsmacking (5).

There was also a sharp reduction in women’s full and part-time employment in the second quarter of 2020, partly because Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting low paid jobs for women in the accommodation and food services sector, where many practitioners supplement their income from creative work. There are no figures I know of that show women’s share of income from the so-called ‘golden era’ of local film-making.

And thinking of the dearth — for example — of features directed by Māori women amongst the many features directed by Māori men, I believe that without explicit reference to gender there’s a real risk that any emphasis on the ‘Māori cultural aspirations’ and ‘diverse and underrepresented groups’ will maximise stories created by the men in those groups and/or stories about women created by men.

Do these funding bodies believe that women are no longer underrepresented and misrepresented on screen, behind and in front of the camera? Are women seen as irrelevant among Pan-Asian and Pacific Island New Zealanders, with LGBTQIA+ groups and with those with a disability? If so, why is the document silent about this? (And were the guilds, including WIFTNZ, also silent when asked for feedback?)

I stopped for a few months here: busy.

12 July 2021

Back again. Yes, it’s possible women are not a priority in this context. At the Select Committee meeting about the 2021/22 Estimates for Vote Arts, Culture and Heritage Riccardo Menéndez March (from about 15min 50sec below) asked a question about artist poverty. The Minister gave a response about encouraging artists to be more realistic in their estimates of payment for themselves when applying for funding.

Riccardo then asked what the Ministry for Arts Culture and Heritage was doing to stop CNZ from perpetuating gender and ethnic pay gaps.

Menéndez March: Thank you, and as a supplementary to that, in terms of the expectation that people’s labour is valued, are there any work or any directives or guidance around ensuring that we don’t see any inequities in terms of that remuneration — you know, the gender or ethnic gap ones?

Sepuloni: I think at this point in time it has been laying out that there’s actually an expectation that remuneration be a consideration when they are promoting applications to come forward for the funds, whereas previously it hadn’t. But in terms of arts overall, there has been a strong focus, particularly around Māori and Pacific, across many, if not all, of the funds that we have put out there as a deliberate attempt to ensure that we are reaching all of the groups that need to be reached, and disabled people too.

This isn’t exactly about the issue of whose screen projects get selected for funding and then provide remuneration to the makers. But it does seem to imply that women’s disadvantages aren’t a foregrounded issue in arts policy as a whole.

Gender and the Outcomes of the $50m Premium Production For International Audiences Fund

On 7 May, conditional production funding of $21 million across five applications was announced, after being approved by the independent funding panel, with members from the NZFC, and TMP lead by Independent Chair, Christina Milligan. Here’s where that $21 million is invested.

Better the Blood (drama series) written and directed by Michael Bennett.

Mystic (series 2 & 3) Written by Amy Shindler, Beth Chalmers, Hamish Bennett, Martha Hardy-Ward, Sam Shore, Briar Grace-Smith; directed by Aidee Walker, Caroline Bell-Booth, Laurence Wilson.

The Guinea Pig Club (feature, in development since 2012!) Written by Mike Riddell, directed by Roger Donaldson.

Our Big Blue Backyard (doco series #3) Written and directed by Judith Curran, Bill Kerton, Laura Evers-Swindell.

The Convert (feature) Written by Shane Danielsen with additional writing by Lee Tamahori, Bradford Joseph Te Apatu-o-te-rangi Maaka Haami. Based on a screen story by Michael Bennett. Directed by Lee Tamahori.

Of these five, both features and one drama series were written and directed by men and the features are both about men. Of the 17 executive producers and producers, 14 are men and 3 are women, astonishing given the high representation of highly experienced women producers in the local industry, about half of all producers the last I heard. And whatever happened to the ‘maximised…stories from diverse and underrepresented groups such as Pan-Asian and Pacific Island New Zealanders as well as LGBTQIA+ and those with a disability (both groups more difficult to identify among successful projects)’? Or are they to be ‘maximised’ only in the tiny $2M Development tranche?

In a global context, these results aren’t surprising. The SFI report showed that women in Sweden (even those in key positions) have access to significantly lower budget levels than men, and that the proportion of women in key positions declines as budgets increase.

In general, the report found, women receive lower budgets than men because female stories are seen as ‘narrower’ films entailing a greater financial risk. This in turn guides financial expectations, where statistics indicate a correlation between larger film budgets and larger audiences. The SFI researchers also found that both production and launch budgets, which are affected by audience estimates for a film, are strongly linked to the number of cinema visits. On average, films with higher budgets attract a higher number of moviegoers, which means that films created by women (who on average have lower budgets) are thus also seen by a smaller audience. Discriminatory structures thus result in more discriminatory structures.

There’s also perhaps the Covid factor. At times of societal stress, do decision makers revert to the safe and discriminatory, rather than embed new and more equitable behaviors?

I could write more and more grumpily, but I won’t. It seems that it’s gonna take a while longer for women writers, directors and producers to cut through to the trust required for taxpayer investment in their big budget projects, unless they’re writers and directors in a mixed group produced by men and with proven success in a first series, or with a proven doco series. Especially if they’re Māori women. Or women from elsewhere in Te Moana Nui A Kiwa. Or Asian women. And/or vibrant, exciting, innovative and hard working young women. In the meantime the women will all continue to struggle with that 45% income gap. With finding ways to tell their stories. And with the continuing health and safety problems in the big-hitting organisations. Sigh.


(1) ‘How we made Creamerie, , a pandemic black comedy, in the middle of Covid-19’, by Perlina Lau.
Creamerie is the post-pandemic comedy we need right now’, by Linda Burgess.

(2) At the SFI, as described in an earlier post, when projects are of equal quality, gender and diversity issues affect the final decisions. The organization has developed three fixed criteria that lead to ‘quality’ — relevance, originality and craft; the SFI commissioners must use these when deciding if a project’s quality will ensure that taxpayer money will reach the Swedish audience. Competition sharpens. More people are included and projects have become more ambitious … a strategy where ‘quality’, ‘gender’ and ‘diversity’ are the paramount and equally important principles to use allocating funds.

Without this strategy, according to Anna Serner, taxpayer-funded films will not appeal to large enough Swedish audiences. It means, if I’ve correctly understood one of her earlier videos, that when projects are of equal quality, gender and diversity issues affect the final decisions. As far as I know, the strategy has always been justified as something to give the taxpayer value-for-money. It’s not there to provide women filmmakers with equal employment opportunities, though that is a by-product and both issues are, I believe, important.

(3) Thanks to the Broadcasting Act 1989, publicly funded broadcasting must reflect and develop New Zealand identity and culture by promoting programmes about New Zealand and New Zealand interests. Publicly funded broadcasting must also promote Maori language and Maori culture, and that is TMP’s primary focus. NZOA and TMP must also ensure that a range of broadcasts is available to provide for the interests of women; youth; children; persons with disabilities; minorities in the community including ethnic minorities; encourage a range of broadcasts that reflects the diverse religious and ethical beliefs of New Zealanders and the establishment and operation of archives of programmes that are likely to be of historical interest in New Zealand.

NZOA’s Scripted Strategy that references its cultural remit and an assessment process that includes consideration of whether a project will support and reflect ‘gender equality both on screen and within the production crew’.

Its 2019 research for its diversity report showed that just over half (53%) of its funded Māori, Pasifika and/or Asian drama directors were women, and 33% of the women directors were Māori, Pasifika and/or Asian. But 86% of actual funding for scripted projects went towards projects predominantly directed by men and 14% to projects directed by women. By 2020 ‘The total budgets for drama as split by gender of director are Male 46.7%, Female 53.1%,
Gender Diverse 0.2%, compared with the gender split of drama directors of Male 54%, Female 46%’, according to NZOA’s response to my OIA request.

When I asked about the strategies that caused this remarkable increase in actual funding for women-directed projects I was told:

‘There is no one stand-alone strategy. NZ On Air project funding is based on merit which takes in a number of elements. We can influence the range of above the line talents coming through by encouraging development opportunities for under-represented groups, such as women, pan-Asian, Pacific Island New Zealanders etc. For example the director’s attachment initiative with DEGNZ brought more women directors through and now means there are more women at a level of experience as directors who can be attached to a project applying for funding.

Our other professional skills programmes we support through the Industry Development Fund look to provide opportunities to extend the representation of under-represented groups generally within the production sector. It’s difficult to assess what specific impact they may have on women directors. However, with diversity data now being published annually people are much more conscious of issues of under-[re]presentation in key creative roles.’

NZOA continued: ‘An environmental factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is the number of women who head local production companies making drama and who also head the commissioning teams of the major platforms, these women have the ability to directly impact outcomes for these statistics.’

[@devt: The NZFC has a woman CEO and many women staff members and there are lots of women film producers so this is perhaps a moot point?]

At NZOA, ‘work is underway to build analysis tools’ to ‘collect data that includes production budgets’.

And finally, NZOA states, in response to a question about the huge difference between the gendered allocation by budget in the 2019 and 2020 reports: ‘with some of the guilds and also WIFT working/advocating in this space it’s likely that all have combined to bring about this result. With our limited resources, we haven’t done in-depth analysis to show either way whether this will be sustained or not going forward’.

(4) Developed by SWAG and Screensafe to support the new health and safety guidelines around harassment and in response to feedback from successful pilot workshops, the course addresses sexual harassment and harassment, definitions, disclosures, and respectful behaviours in the workplace. It’s primarily for producers, directors, and heads of departments but open to anyone from the screen industry and it’s free, with financial support from NZ Film Commission, NZ on Air and Te Māngai Pāho.


from Coalition for Equal Value, Equal Pay



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Stories by & about women artists, writers and filmmakers. Global outlook, from Aotearoa New Zealand.