Hang Time – Employee Owned Filmmaking

Steve Barr reports from the set of Hang Time. A New Zealand feature with a unique funding model.
Written by
Steve Barr
Published on
Tuesday, June 4, 2024

The New Zealand screen industry has a bottleneck problem. There are too many talented artists
and craftspeople, with too few opportunities to demonstrate their talents or reach the next rung in their career ladders.

This leads to an imbalance of supply and demand, where almost everyone trying to make their living in production has seen their ‘mates rates’ turn into their real rates, and even experienced creatives and crew are offered work for the generous remuneration of “Sorry mate, the budget’s really stretched, but you’ll get great experience and exposure.” This isn’t to say that the funding bodies and producers are greedy or malicious. They’re trying to compete in an international marketplace against filmmakers who have more resources, more opportunities, more outlets, and more movie stars who live just up the road. Budgets are being pushed lower while international audiences’ expectations are getting higher.

So New Zealand projects are forced to reduce our budgets, while also maintaining the confidence of our overseas partners by hiring internationally recognised HODs and creatives. So far, most productions have been trying to keep business as usual, just with less money. Rates are getting lower and shoot days are getting fewer. The businesses are still divided between employers and employees, owners and hired guns. Whether or not a movie makes money doesn’t matter to most of the crew, because they have no stake in that movie’s success - they showed up, did their jobs, and then moved on to the next gig.

Cinematographer Brandon Te Moananui and 1st AC Dylan Patel on the quad dolly.

That business model is proven. It works. Those gigs can be great when we get them. But in our increasingly insecure industry, that doesn’t have to be the only way.

Wellington filmmakers Casey Zilbert and Steve Barr recently did a national tour of their comedy film Hang Time, taking the cast on the road to Blenheim, Christchurch, Wellington, Napier, Taupo, Hamilton, and Auckland to host event screenings with wine tastings, merchandise, and Q&As. The road show was an experiment in bringing back a distribution model that hadn’t been done since Scarfies, and before that since the days of BLERTA.

But their experiments didn’t start there. The movie itself is a crew-owned business, where everyone in the cast and production crew has a stake in the film. “When you don’t have the money to pay people what they’re worth, you have to offer something else of value” says Zilbert. 100% of the producers’ gross profits has been allocated to the cast and crew, with the roles that require more time and expertise getting a higher percentage, but with no one expected to be a hired gun. With a cast of 5 and crew of 6, everyone got a significant slice of the pie.

Sharing the producers’ gross isn’t the only way the producers offered value to the other filmmakers - for many of the cast & crew this was a step forward in their career. The project had a first time director, first time DoP, first time Production Designer, and was the first feature film of 40% of the core cast. “When you’re the caretaker of millions of dollars of someone else’s money, you always want to lower your risk - but unfortunately that usually means younger or less experienced crew members don’t even get considered for important roles,” says Barr.  “If you make movie where people are investing their time, you can roll the dice on new people ... and for us the dice were loaded, because we knew that everyone on the crew was ready to show the world what they could do.”

Director Casey Zilbert discussing a scene.

Treating the crew as partners rather than employees also improved the quality of the movie. Everyone was encouraged to share their ideas, and work across departments. “I’ve worked in four film systems — L.A.’s studio and indie systems, China, and New Zealand — and New Zealand crews are the best I’ve seen, especially with smaller crews where people have to know how to do more than one thing” says Barr. The results of this production model have been successful. Hang Time was invited to Melbourne International Film Festival’s Breakthru screenings based on a rough cut, and the wine movie is about to have its North American premiere at the Sonoma International Film Festival in Napa Valley, one of the wine growing capitals of the world.

This collaboratively-owned way of making screen content probably won’t become the new normal - most crew will continue working for hire in shoots with significant budgets, not sharing in the rewards if the project becomes a success but also not sharing the risk of the project fails. But for crew members looking to have an ownership stake in their work, this could become a viable way to invest their time and advance in their careers.

Director Casey Zilbert.

Says Barr: “For me, the movie will be a financial success when everyone in the crew earns more than they would have earned if we just paid their rates. If we can do that, I’d be comfortable going back and asking everyone to do it again. We could do a movie like this every year, taking creative risks and testing new ideas, instead of just trying to do things the old way — developing a screenplay for years, then building a package for another year, then trying to raise money for another year ... and then not getting enough traction and shelving the project. You have to do that process if you want to work with larger budgets - but if you treat other filmmakers like partners instead of employees, you can skip a lot of that fundraising and get busy actually making things.”