Don Blakeney, known to all his friends as Scrubs, did not like an American businessman he and his wife, Robin, had just met in New York. The American wanted to help sell the Geoff Murphy film Utu
that Blakeney had produced.
Robin said, "I admit he's not perfect, but he may be helpful. What's the problem?"
Blakeney finally figured it out. He said, "He's got to know how good the film is before I like him."
That remark sums up Blakeney's approach. He wants people around him who believe, as he does, totally and firmly in the value of the film Utu
. It is not just another business deal. It is a commitment to the idea of the film, the values it represents, its point of view. The film tells a story of Maori pride and revenge when Britain first colonised New Zealand in the mid-1800s.
In New York Blakeney has gathered around him some key people who believe the film will eventually make money.
Charles Richardson is the President of Triad, the publicity firm that handled Utu's
publicity. He is a gentle-mannered black who started his business in Harlem 10 years ago. He now has offices in midtown New York. Richardson said of the film, "Once I saw it, it captured my interest and attention. It's a strong film, it's captivating, it's informative. I didn't know anything about Maori culture and I thought it was the kind of film a lot of people in the States could appreciate from an intellectual point of view. Beyond that, it is also entertaining."
Jerry Pickman was head of sales for Paramount Films before he started his own distribution company, Pickman Films, 15 years ago. He has built up a considerable reputation in a lifetime in the film industry. With his laconic turn of phrase, he is a bit of a showman in his own right.
Pickman thinks Utu
runs the gamut of action and excitement through to the intellectual and philosophical. "Although it's set in New Zealand in 1870," he says, "it's relevant today in South Africa, Afghanistan and South America. It's relevant in parts of the United States.
"We think the film caters to an across-the-board audience, from top to bottom. And by virtue of the personalities in the picture, the action, the colour, the background, the history, the novelty, the unusual elements of the film, you open up another whole civilisation."
The film these people are talking about is not the same film the New Zealand public saw two years ago when it became the country's second-highest grossing film. The director, Geoff Murphy, also made the country's highest grossing film, Goodbye Pork Pie
. Blakeney took the original version of Utu
around the world last year and found, at best, only qualified interest.
"We didn't even think of recutting it, but it kept coming up," Blakeney says. "It was not what Geoffrey wanted to hear, obviously, and it wasn't what I wanted to hear. As it happened, it took almost a year to do and terrific heartache and soul-searching. But with the reviews we've had and the general interest, the facts are, we did the right thing. There's no doubt now."
Blakeney trimmed 15 minutes from the film, tightening up sequences all the way through. More than that, he changed the basic structure of the film. He focussed much more firmly on the rebel Te Wheke's point of view. And he recut the bush court-martial scene at the end into a series of flash-forward scenes, culminating in that final powerful moment of Te Wheke's execution.
The film's director, Geoff Murphy, chose not to take part in this work, although he agreed it could be done. "Geoff's attitude was - and I think it's fair - that the recut was a marketing exercise, not a production exercise," Blakeney said.
"He assumed and trusted, rightly, that there was no intention that the spirit of the film be changed in any way."
Blakeney remixed the mono sound into Dolby stereo, enhancing the emotional impact of the film. To top it off, he refined the advertising concept of the meaning of utu
from the straight-forward "revenge" into the more complex "point of honour".
Pickman applauds the result. "In the old version it wasn't until the end of the film that you knew the interrelationship of the people and who the protagonists were, all of whom have a reason for utu
. In the new cut it becomes almost episodic through the picture. You relate to the characters faster by understanding what the situation is."
Blakeney is supervising every aspect of the film's marketing and release. In New York he has spent three months full time finding out the hard way how the American system works.
"The thing about the movie business is that the success of a film isn't necessarily to do with its quality", Blakeney says. "It's one of those things that no one really knows about.
"But it seems quite clear that a film has to grow from something, it has to have a status. It's either a big film or it's not. But when you market a film from New Zealand there's no precedent of a film working, so how can you be taken seriously, how can you get people from the industry to watch the film, let alone the public. That's the number one problem.
"The only way is always in our own mind, and in the way we conduct ourselves, to regard Utu
as being a major world film", he says, almost as if it were a religious precept.
He developed a long-term marketing strategy. First he wanted to know if he could release Utu
in a mass-market way, without special care and buildup, and make a hit. He tested that theory in France. He went with the most respected distributor there, Gaumont, who launched two versions: one with dubbed French dialogue, the other with subtitles.
did about as well as most other pictures," says Blakeney. It was a bad year and the film did not make much money. "But it meant that Utu
was still up there as a major release film for the world at large to see," he said.
"In the States we are again treating it as a major film, but we are starting on a building-block basis. Gradually, over a period of weeks and months, the public of America will become aware of this film called Utu
. They'll become aware that it's incredibly good, that it's powerful and that it must be seen."
For that to work, all industry experts agree, he had to launch Utu
in New York. Not only does that help to set the film up for the rest of America, it sets it up for a large part of the world. Potential buyers want to know if this New Zealand film can work commercially for them. The critical reaction and box office in New York helps to answer that question for everybody.
To pursue this strategy, Blakeney had to harness two major forces: a distributor and a publicity house. He chose Jerry Pickman, who concentrates on distributing specialist films, and Charles Richardson of Triad, a PR firm whose principals and employees are predominantly black. Triad could attack both the upscale white market as well as the equally important black minority audience.
Pickman could not only handle the money and the administration of prints and advertising materials, but he made sure that Utu
opened at a top-quality New York theatre, Cinema V's Beekman on the East Side. Although Pickman and Ralph Donnelly of Cinema V agreed that the film may not be entirely suitable for the East Side, they also felt that it should be launched with proper dignity.
As Richardson puts it, "It showed that we were going in a first-class way. It may not have made as much money as we'd like, but the majority of reviews were favourable to very favourable, which attested to the fact we were talking about a quality picture."
Richardson pulled in an independent film marketing consultant, Vicky Horsford, to take care of Utu
. She used many of the strategies developed while working for Columbia Pictures when releasing the film Gandhi
"You can have your marketing plans and strategy," she says, "but all the whizz kids will tell you that the most effective salesperson is the friend who tells you, you must go out and see this film. We had special screenings for civil rights groups, community groups, magazine and newspaper people, models, people who chat a lot. We call them chatter screenings."
did not follow the usual pattern for foreign film release in New York. Normally the director is flown in, the New York Times
and New York Magazine
may review it, and some specialist film magazines. The film runs for a few weeks in an art theatre, then goes on to the art circuit in other cities. Later, it picks up a little money in ancilliary rights such as cable television and home video release.
Blakeney opened it at a major theatre. He flew in the star, Zac Wallace, for promotion. Despite what Horsford called an "enormously small" budget, Blakeney had buttons, fliers, t shirts, stickers and posters.
"It's hard to walk 10 blocks in Manhattan on the Upper West Side or midtown without seeing an Utu
poster", Horsford said.
Zac Wallace was the jewel in the campaign setting. Horsford says "Zac is a real professional, he knows how to work the media."
Wallace, because of his background as an ex-criminal and as a trade union official, and because his face is the central feature of the advertising visuals, helped to get Utu
wide media attention.
Horsford says "Any time you have a person whose life is very rich and heavy in plot, that always makes for good media coverage. In the New York Times
Sunday piece the headline was: 'Out of Prison Into the Movies'. Even if you didn't know who he was and just saw the picture of him with the tattoos and headline, you had to read and find out what they were talking about."
Richardson says the success of the publicity is unbelievable. Reviews appeared in every major paper in the city, the New York Times
, New York Magazine
, the New York Post
, the Village Voice
, and the black papers. Some magazines picked up on it, and reviews and interviews were run on several radio and television shows.
Richardson has added it all up: "If we take into account what the reach is of these various magazines, and consider what it would cost for an advertisement that would take up the same amount of space, including radio and television, we have got more than a million dollars worth of unpaid publicity. That's a lot for this kind of film."
The review more than any other that put Utu's
prestige over the top, was Pauline Kael's in the New Yorker
. For page after page she extolled the virtues of the film (a "feeling of exaltation and spirituality ... hovers over this film"), Murphy's direction ("a joshing, razzing director") and the main characters, particularly Zac Wallace and Bruno Lawrence ("one with too much hair, the other with hair in the wrong place"). Perhaps the most extraordinary quality to the review is its perceptiveness. Kael not only praises the film, she picks up on the significance of even small details and illuminates their meaning.
The premiere of Utu
in New York was not the only New Zealand act in town. The Metropolitan Museum's major exhibition, Te Maori
, had opened three days earlier. More than a hundred Maoris invaded New York to introduce their sacred artifacts with the proper ceremonial rites.
Zac Wallace arrived about the same time. Immediately an unofficial rapport sprang up between the two events.
Two of the most knowledgeable artists with the Te Maori group, Napi Waaka and Kereti Rautangata, volunteered two hours of their time to do makeup Wallace for his best moko yet.
The high point came with the premiere of Utu
at the Beekman Theater on the Upper East side.
"I was emotionally very keen that the film have a Maori opening, an appropriate sort of opening," Blakeney said. "That came about in a spontaneous way because Zac was there. They could see we were opening the film. No one had to actually say: We want your help. The help came forward."
One of the leaders of the Te Maori group was the respected elder, Sonny Waru. He taught a karanga
to a Maori exchange student, Louise Nicholas, and the pouwhiri
to another, Kaylene Katene. Maori scholar Tipene O'Regan was enlisted to whai korero
at the end.
Chanting and wailing on the sidewalk of New York's Second Avenue, dressed in full Maori costume, cloaked and embroidered in brilliant red, white and black, Nicholas welcomed Wallace and all who were gathered there. Chanting and wailing, Katene replied.
Slowly, everyone filed into the theatre, the welcoming cries and answering chants filling the air.
When the theatre was filled, Wallace, O'Regan and Nicholas went to one side of the screen. In the darkened theatre they sang a waiata
. One by one Maoris stood up and joined in. They were dotted all over the theatre. They had come to offer their support to Wallace, the Blakeneys and the film Utu
As the music of the waiata
died, the sounds of New Zealand's native bush faded in and the opening image of the film brightened on the screen.
Ralph Donnelly was impressed. "It was a wonderful opening ceremony - certainly different and unique," he said. "We'll never see its like again."
Shortly afterwards, Utu
opened in two theatres in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles. Co-producer Kerry Robins kicked off the Los Angeles season with a hangi
in the theatre's carpark. Six hoggets, 200 shanks, 20 cases of beer and six cases of wine - all donated by New Zealand firms - were devoured by 600 people at an hour-long party before the film opened.
The reviews keep getting better. The praise now echoes the points Pauline Kael made. Warner Brothers' production executives in Hollywood ask for a special screening. The word is getting around.
With all the excitement, all the push, all the positive reviews and favourable word of mouth, the film has still not taken off. Pickman explains why in his usual laconic way. "Money," he says. "How you spend the money secondly, but first you need the money."
What sort of money is he talking about?
"How big do you want to make it?" he says. "How high is up? You've got to compensate for lack of credentials. And you've got to constantly remind the people that the film is out there. They just don't go there naturally."
What Blakeney has done is showcase Utu
on both coasts more successfully than the locals can believe. With his input, and the credentials and reviews he has generated, he is now in a prime position for garnering American investment money to release Utu
in a big way. Money for a few hundred prints, television advertising, the lot.
Pickman is unstinting in his admiration: "I've never seen anybody with the amount of energy that Blakeney has got, and he just never quits. He's a fighter, he's bright, he's articulate, he's a very nice man. And he has delivered on everything he ever said."
Blakeney himself simply thinks he has no option. "I've no way out, it's my job in life at the moment.
"It's been much harder, obviously, than anyone wanted. The reality is that New Zealand films have not performed in the marketplace well enough in relation to the amount of money they cost. So the job with Utu
is to make sure that that happens, that it does perform. The raw material, the production itself, is fantastic. It's good enough and evidence of that is coming in all the time. The difficulty is getting people to go. It takes an enormous amount of push and awareness."
"I think that is why the film is ultimately going to work," Horsford says, "because Don just doesn't take no for an answer. He hits the streets, he tries something, and if that doesn't work, well, he's not defeated, he just tries some other tactic."
Pickman, as usual, says it best. "The film's very much alive," he says. "You'll have to take a stick to kill it."
, New Zealand, 1984