Monday 14 June 2021

Film subsidies and election campaigns

I'm a bit skeptical about campaign finance restrictions in general. Money probably does less to buy votes than is generally expected, especially when we consider that candidates with a better shot of winning probably draw more money in the first place. And restrictions in one place can often just make things bulge out in another place

But we have a fairly extensive set of rules, as well as prohibitions on a lot of speech activities that might influence people during election campaigns. Third parties need to be registered and their spending is tracked. Billboards and hoardings have to come down on election day, and you aren't supposed to even tweet about your preferred party on election day. Both rules seem increasingly anachronistic where more people vote at advance polls, but the rules are still there.

So things could get really really weird if the proposed film about the Prime Minister's response to the terrorist Christchurch mosque attacks goes ahead. 

The Electoral Commission doesn't consider books about candidates to be election ads or otherwise subject to regulation, so long as the books are sold at commercial rates. And they've suggested applying similar logic to a film about a candidate. 

You could then wind up in a spot where, prohibited from seeing tweets about candidates, all hoardings pulled down, you could nevertheless hear ads for a movie about the Prime Minister while driving past billboards for the movie about the Prime Minister on your way to a movie about the Prime Minister before heading out to the polling booth, where everyone would be banned from wearing political party regalia that might unduly influence you.

Movies, best I'm aware, tend to have rather more substantial marketing budgets than books. Pretty common to see billboards and ads for movies. A lot less common to see them for books. 

And then we start thinking about the film subsidy regime.

If the movie about the Prime Minister were considered an international film production, it would get 20% of its cost back as a rebate from taxpayers - with an option for an extra 5%. If it were considered domestic, it would get 40% up to $6 million, and an option for additional grants beyond that.

Total campaign donations and loans to campaigns, in 2020, were about $7.5 million. A party's election spending limit was just under $1.2 million.

So you could easily wind up in a spot where taxpayer subsidies for a film about the Prime Minister, released during an election campaign, advertised heavily during the campaign, and shown on election day exceeded the total combined campaign expenditure of all political parties. That seems, well, really big relative to the scale of NZ election campaigning. 

I don't know if there's a fix to the campaign spending rules to deal with this kind of mess, were it ever to eventuate. But there's a simple fix to the film subsidy rules. Some projects are already ruled out. There's a line excluding film grants for pornography, for example. 

Add in a line excluding grants for films about current MPs or those standing for office. 

I covered this in this week's Dom Post column.

I'd tweeted suggesting this back on Friday morning when the film was announced. The usual film-subsidy fans and Labour supporters got mad at me, until the emerging consensus was that the film was bad because they hadn't actually gone and talked with the survivors about centering the Prime Minister in a film about the attacks. 

But to be perfectly clear:

  • I'm not saying Labour or the PM had anything to do with the film, or knew about it, or encouraged it, or anything like that.
  • I'd have said the same thing about a hagiography of John Key a decade ago, or about an attack film on Ardern today, or about some "Air New Zealand: The Chris Luxon Story" film today, or about a movie about a Green MP's refugee childhood in New Zealand, or about a Green MP's human rights work serving as lawyer for an accused war criminal. Too easy to imagine too many MPs being able to be cast as heroes or as villains depending on the slant of the team making the film. Taxpayers shouldn't be funding that.
  • I'm not saying that they'd definitely get the grant or that they even applied for it yet, but the standing rules make the project look eligible and that would be part of any sensible marketing campaign for investors in the film at Cannes.
  • I'm not saying that the film will definitely go ahead; lots of films will get pitched at Cannes and not find backing. All the more reason to get the rules changed before folks start signing contracts based on expectations of coming subsidies. 

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