Movies about politicians should not be tax payer funded

Dr Eric Crampton
The Dominion Post
14 June, 2021

A movie about the Prime Minister’s response to the Christchurch mosque attacks looks less likely by the day. That is for the best.

On Friday, plans for the movie They are Us were announced. By Friday afternoon, lack of consultation with the survivors and their community was obvious. On Saturday, Prime Minister Ardern confirmed that she had had nothing to do with the film and suggested that she should not be its focus. And by Sunday, Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel said film crews would not be welcome.

So the film now seems rather less likely.

But the film also opened a far less important, but still interesting, question about how New Zealand’s film subsidy regime interacts with New Zealand’s campaign finance legislation.

Had the film been rather less tone-deaf in its pitch, we could have wound up in a rather awkward situation.

Going into the 2023 election, voters on their way to the polling stations could have driven past movie billboards highlighting Rose Byrne’s version of the Prime Minister, while campaign hoardings were prohibited.

Political party expenditures are strictly monitored and constrained. Campaigning by third parties is also strictly regulated. But Hollywood marketing budgets could have backed a film showing the Prime Minister at her best, as she sought re-election, and not been covered by New Zealand’s campaign finance regime. 

And taxpayers would have funded it. International films receive grants of up to 25% of the film’s production costs. Up to $6 million is available for domestic films unless they qualify for additional funding under an Additional Grant.

Political parties face election spending limits of just under $1.2 million. In 2020, donations and loans to all political parties totalled just over $7.5 million. The subsidy taxpayers might have provided for a film about the Prime Minister, on its own, could have dwarfed the total combined election expenses of every political party.

On Friday, I asked the Electoral Commission how it would think about a film about the Prime Minister being released into an election campaign.

The Commission could only provide general guidance. They said that whether a film would be considered an election advertisement would depend on the content and who published it. They noted that books about politicians published independently and sold at commercial value are not considered election ads. The rules are unlikely to cover ticketed shows. But a free screening of the film might be a problem.

It seems that so long as the film were independently produced, it would not run into trouble with campaign finance rules unless there were free screenings.

Whether or not They are Us is ever produced, the potential for substantial taxpayer funding of films about those standing for office, where those films are not covered by campaign finance regulations unless there are direct links between the film and the party or candidate, seems a problem.

It is not hard to imagine films casting MPs standing for re-election either as heroes or as villains, depending on the inclination of the filmmaker. Parts of the American right seem to really hate our Prime Minister. They could propose a film setting her in a dictatorial role, locking the country up in April 2020 and banning travel, ignoring that we then could live Covid-free, and release the film during the next election campaign.

Those films could receive taxpayer funding. If you think that the granting agencies would show some discretion, think again. Remember that taxpayers already subsidised a military propaganda film for Chinese state-owned companies.

Once produced using taxpayer funding, the films could advertise heavily during an election campaign. So long as the productions were independent of candidates and parties, ads for the films could blanket television, radio and billboards without falling afoul of campaign finance rules.

The Commission’s existing rules seem about right, or it is at least hard to see how to solve the problem without creating larger ones. But should films about candidates for election really draw taxpayer subsidy?

The simplest fix to the potential problem would add two lines to the current screen production grant criteria.

The criteria currently exclude funding advertising; discussion and current affairs programmes, pornography; training programmes; interactive digital games; and, production of public events like sports.

A one-line addition could also exclude funding productions about candidates for election.

Those wishing to make films about election candidates should at least be doing it on their own dime.

If the film-subsidy evangelists are right that productions simply would not happen without those subsidies, exempting films about current politicians would have forced the producers of They are Us to rethink their film’s focus at an earlier stage. This too would have been for the best.

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