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The decision to leave NZ

Johnny Blick, a respected TV Commercials producer, is off to London. He talks about why he is leaving, the state of the NZ TV commercials market and what advice he has for upcoming producers.


Respected producer Johnny Blick is off to London. He tells Ande Schurr why the time was ripe to leave, talks about the state of the NZ TV commercials market and shares some advice for upcoming producers.

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I had the pleasure of first interviewing Johnny when he and directing partner Mike Oldershaw had just established their production company, Waitemata Films, in Auckland, see The Making of a Film Company. Now, three years later, it seems a fitting time to learn again what lies behind his decision making process as he moves to the ever larger pastures of London. Perhaps then, as we read his words and feel his heaviness of leaving mixed with the satisfaction of an impending adventure, we can take a leaf from his book in terms of acting on the big things in our lives at the right time, and not letting that ripe season for change pass us by.

Why are you leaving NZ? Why was now the right time to go?

Well, there are a few reasons for the move, but the main driver is that my wife is English and we've had a long standing agreement that one day we would return to London and spend time with her family and friends. Her parents are getting on in years and we've been in NZ for over 11 years now - it's the nature of an international marriage - one of you will always have to compromise geographically.

Now is the right time to go for many reasons... the kids are at a good age to move - 6 and 9-years-old - without it disrupting schooling / exams etc. My wife works in the music industry and she wants to continue her career in London which is an epicentre of music. I'm talking to a couple of contacts about work - and although it's too early to say anything, the type of work I'm considering is really interesting and progressive. The size of the UK population and its proximity to Europe, means there are some amazing producing opportunities available that I wouldn't get here in NZ.

Also, growing up, my family traveled a lot and we lived in South East Asia and the US. I loved travel then and I still love it today. It's exciting moving to a new country.

I lost someone very close to me last year and as is often the case in an experience like that it makes you re-evaluate your life and priorities. We want to travel and have adventures as a family. Soon our kids will be at an age where they won't want to hang around with mum and dad, so we'll get out there and get amongst it before that happens.

Ultimately, as a family, we are ready for a new chapter in our lives.

When I last interviewed you, along with your directing partner Mike Oldershaw, you'd just set up Waitemata Films on Ponsonby Road. How have the last few years gone? Did you make the right move setting this up? Did the company develop in the way that you thought it would?

We opened the doors in September 1 in 2010 and my last day in the office was September 2nd 2013. So it's been three years to the day - almost. The last three years have flown by and they have been brilliant. We have had a great time. I am so glad we did it and I wouldn't change a thing. The company has always been of a size we could manage and still have a family life outside of work. Neither of us were interested in working till midnight building an empire. We are both family men and that hasn't changed.

The company is developing constantly and the coming year has a big focus on digital content.

In that interview, you said "The aspiration was always to own and run my own company the way I wanted it done". Have you fulfilled that aspiration?

Yes, without a doubt. We have run it successfully and with integrity.

Did you sell your half of the company or do you still own your share and thus have a distant yet  active role in the direction of Waitemata Films?

I have a small share holding and will be involved in the company's decision making, so yes, I'll maintain an active role albeit from a distance.

Capital City Film's Julie Elstone is now the Executive Producer, in your place. Why did you choose her and how do you feel she will contribute to the success of the company?

Choosing Julie was the easiest decision we've made. We are thrilled to have someone of her calibre and experience involved. She is passionate about film making and understands the business. She will encourage the directors to think big which in this market of reduced budgets is an important and often forgotten aspect of directing.

Julie is well respected, well connected and brings with her a reputation for producing high quality work. This fits with the Waitemata brand, so she is perfect. Her determination, drive and quality control will be contributing factors to the ongoing success of the company.

What has changed the most in the New Zealand TV Commercials market? How did you adapt to keep up both personally and as a company with director Mike Oldershaw?

A few things have changed.

Firstly and the obvious one is that budgets continue to be reduced and margins are minimal. So the financial risk on each job is very high.

Secondly, an influx of foreign creatives - not just Executive Creative Directors - are coming from offshore. The knock on effect is disconnect and a diminishing lack of loyalty to the local NZ directors. The creatives often have offshore directors that they have established relationships with and they want to continue that working relationship.

Thirdly, awards are the currency of the ad agency market place.  If the creatives win awards they can then trade up to a better job / wage / agency. So, naturally creatives look to offer their best scripts to award winning directors to give themselves the best chance of picking up an award. Often these jobs are being offered to big international award winning directors. So the NZ directors are being overlooked for the best scripts and their show reels are suffering and their directorial skills are not developing to compete internationally anymore. It's a shame but it's how it is.

How do we adapt? - the directors need to challenge themselves to deliver better quality work.

Finally, on a positive note, clients are now approaching film companies to get digital content made, with little or no agency involvement. This is the area to watch. If film companies can nurture and develop this growing part of the industry then the industry will grow rapidly.

We enjoy this type of work. It's fun and more like the old days. Traditional film making. Agencies are important in TVC land, but the world of content can become the domain of film companies.

What will London be like? Will you produce over there with friends or will you be cold calling!? What is the state of the London TVC market?

London is buoyant - I'm told. It's a very busy market and has shaken off the recession and is moving forward rapidly.

It's such a big market and the work coming out of there whether it be TVC / Drama / Features / Digital content is very interesting.

I have no job to go to but I have some meetings set up. I have a small network in London that I will tap in to and there will be some cold calling too I expect.

I have one objective and that is to do work that excites me. It may be TVC's, it may be another type of film production. I can't wait.

Who wins in today's ever-changing digital marketplace? What particular qualities are needed in upcoming producers to stay ahead of the pack?

Ultimately the film companies will win in the digital marketplace, I think. As long as we remain better film-makers and are financially more competitive than the agencies we will pull more of the work directly from clients. This is the growth area of the industry.

For up and coming producers, I'm not sure that too much has changed. There's no substitute for on-set experience. A producer needs to know what each piece of equipment is and what its purpose is. A producer needs to know what gear they need to get the best images into the camera. Once they know how to make stuff, they need to educate themselves on post work flow.

Most up and comers under 30 years old seem to know how to shoot and edit. These are good skills to have.

Also it's really important to know how to deal with a client. Clients live in the corporate world and they expect to see a professional standing in front of them ie don't let yourself, or your director, walk into a meeting looking like a couple of disheveled scruffy homeless artists. If you look like you can barely afford a new t-shirt, why would they entrust you with $300K of their money? The client is spending a lot of money and they want to be assured you know what you are doing - presentation goes a long way to help with that. Step up and look like you belong in that meeting room.

What will you always remember NZ for both fondly and, also with some exasperation, if there is anything?!

We have had a lovely life here. It has been an excellent place to bring up kids. I will fondly remember many things.

From a business perspective, dealing with people is simple and straight forward. There is a level of trust - even between strangers - that is unheard of in most other countries. That is refreshing.

Personally, I'll cherish that I was able to be present during my kids early years and was able to be a very hands-on father. That will change now as I join the commuters in the London rat race of course.

The frustration for me is NZ's small population and the limitations that brings. It's difficult to push beyond a certain point in your career. I've lived in LA and I loved working in a city with endless opportunities. I'm looking forward to having that same dynamic in London. In cities like LA and London,  your limitations are only what you place on yourself.

Your brother James is in Madrid writing about travel and food, you'll soon be in London but your DoP Dad, John Blick, remains here in Auckland. Will he have to travel to see the grandkids or will you be making trips back here from time to time?

Are you kidding? My parents will be over like a shot. They love travel. We'll come back every two to three years for holidays to see family and friends but now really is time for my wife to reconnect with her family and friends.

Written by

Ande Schurr

26 Sep 2013

Corporate video producer and production sound recordist now based in Singapore after a 15-year career in New Zealand. Video clients incl. universities, tech startups, medical clinics and business consulting agencies. Sound clients incl. Netflix, Discovery, BBC, National Geo.