Creating a space for creatives

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 05:00 10/08/2014
paula browning
CHRIS SKELTON / Fairfax NZ
CREATIVE: WeCreate chairwoman Paula Browning

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Paula Browning, chairwoman of newly formed umbrella group WeCreate, wants government mandarins to treat the creative industries as seriously as they do the dairying, tourism or information technology sectors.

With New Zealand basking in the success of Lorde and The Luminaries, the country's creatives would appear to be doing pretty well on their own. But Browning says Ella Yelich-O'Connor and Eleanor Catton are "outliers" and the sector is about more than extraordinary individual talent.

"We do need to make more noise about the others who succeed as well," she says.

"The overarching goal is to make sure we give the creative sector the best possible opportunity to grow and employ our kids. It's about making sure our kids have jobs and that we are exporting creative products."

WeCreate was launched with finger food, long speeches and live music in Parliament's Grand Hall late last month. Discreetly laid out on a table were copies of a PwC report that estimated the film, music, television and book-publishing industries directly employ almost 15,000 people and generate $1.6 billion of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

Although WeCreate is using pie charts and sausage rolls to woo the likes of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, for Browning the battle to promote the creative industries is personal.

Her youngest daughter, Samantha, is an artist who has a learning disability and needed support through her education, Browning says.

"She is certainly of the creative ilk and it makes you appreciate, when you have got that personal connection to someone in the arts sector, just how hard it is for them to make a living and how important it is that we have a strong creative economy to be a future for our kids.

"I know the Government has ‘a thing' about the next breed of scientists and engineers, but we can't all be scientists and engineers. Certainly in my household one of them was never going to be."

Creative people are often not businesspeople and for them to succeed they need businesspeople around them, Browning says. "We've done that in all sorts of things from house renovations to birthday cakes; she comes up with the bright ideas and I am the operations manager."

Browning's own background is in finance and accounting. She worked as an executive officer at Auckland's Royal Oak Primary School and later as business manager for Sport Auckland.

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But three years ago Browning was appointed executive officer and then chairwoman of the Copyright Council.

It is a job that requires a thick skin. Browning notes copyright has become a "bad word" to many New Zealanders as the conflicts surrounding Kim Dotcom, the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement and access to services such as Netflix have generated heated debate.

"I don't let it bother me," she says. "I am too passionate about it to let it stress me. Copyright is part of a business model and that is where the message gets lost. It's about having time to sell your product so you can generate an economic return.

"It would be great to shift the conversation from ‘I can't get Games of Thrones less than 12 hours after it went live in the United States'. OK, I get that point of view, but I am more interested in the economic conversation."

Browning insists there is no sinister subplot to WeCreate. The genesis of the umbrella group didn't lie in the boardrooms of Hollywood but rather in New Zealand's sponsorship of the Frankfurt Book Fair of 2012, which Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson described at WeCreate's launch as a huge success, with spinoffs for industries such as tourism.

In fact, WeCreate has made a deliberate choice not to get involved in the debates around copyright, Browning says, instead leaving those fights to its member organisations.

Without that common cause though, WeCreate's members might seem a disparate bunch.

As well as representative organisations from the book-publishing, music, film and television industries, a couple of computer games bodies have joined the bandwagon.

Browning mulls whether fashion might also come under its gambit and is wondering how far it should extend into the software sector. Talks with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals and InternetNZ are on her agenda.

Some interest groups, such as the post-production film industry, are already indirect recipients of significant taxpayer largesse, to which Wellington's economy is arguably now addicted. After some soul-searching, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce upped the rebate for spending on big budget films made in New Zealand from 15 to 20 per cent in December.

He did so against advice from ministry officials and with all the enthusiasm of an opium smoker who has just realised his habit is no longer purely social.

Other sectors, such as the book-publishing industry, feel like poor cousins.

"We have got some pockets of really good stuff. There is investment that goes into film and there is the work NZ On Air and Creative New Zealand does, but it is not consistent across the sector," Browning says.

"There is a literature arm of Creative New Zealand and there is some money that comes out of the Culture and Heritage Ministry to support local publishing because of the size of the market, but it sits more on the culture side than it does on the economic side.

"I don't think anyone has sat up and looked at the entire sector and asked ‘what works here, that we don't have available here?' There are components of the sector that probably don't have the same growth potential as others, but I think we need to work through that."

Browning also notes the sectors are inter-connected. "I am constantly having the film-boys on about the fact they wouldn't have a lot of their movies if we didn't have books."

One possible obstacle to greater recognition is that despite New Zealand's creative successes, we are still believed to be a big net importer of entertainment and intellectual property, so our bread is buttered thicker as consumers than as creatives.

Speaking at WeCreate's launch, Universal Music New Zealand director Adam Holt, said its "hope and dream" was that New Zealand could become a net exporter of creative intellectual property.

"This may have been a pipedream in the past, but seeing the success of Lorde, you start to think maybe it is actually possible."

It's an aspirational goal, he says. "There is a strong hope that New Zealand could become a net exporter of creativity but I certainly do not have a prediction of when. Work would need to be done on determining the current value of creative IP that New Zealand imports versus the amount we export and that would have to be done in every segment of the creative sector."

Sky Television chief executive John Fellet dropped something of a bombshell in 2012 when he said New Zealanders were probably paying the highest prices in the world, per capita, for hit television shows and broadcast rights to rugby. With the pay-TV provider now also competing with Telecom for the rights to stream programming over the internet to a new generation of TV viewers, there is potential for the arms race for overseas programming to grow fresh legs.

Faced with that, might not government officials be better off finding ways to reduce the country's creative import bill, before trying to find ways to foster export talent?

Browning responds that New Zealand is stuck in a difficult position as "a small player in a very large global market".

"A question is whether we should be looking to leverage our connection with Australia more. I know some content providers are starting to look at us as an Australasian market, rather than as Australia and New Zealand. In terms of getting better access to overseas content, if we were seen as a larger player, I think we'd get a better deal," she says.

- Sunday Star Times

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