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Kiwi Pix Grab H’Wood’s Eye

Director Peter Jackson recalls walking into exec suites in Hollywood and seeing “eyes glaze over” when he announced he’s from New Zealand.

No longer. Now the typical U.S. maven gives the Kiwi visitor at least half an hour of his time because, as Jackson wryly observes, “No one wants to miss the next ‘Piano.'”

Kiwi helmer Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” followed by Lee Tamahori’s New Zealand-record-grossing click “Once Were Warriors” and Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” have opened eyes in the U.S. and overseas to the abundant creative and commercial potential of the once obscure nation.

“The Piano” grossed close to $40 million in the U.S.; “Creatures,” currently on 50 U.S. screens, has earned $2 million so far. Both films are via Miramax. “Warriors” opens in the U.S. in March, from Fine Line.

The upshot is that Kiwi film production has doubled from its average annual output of a modest four pictures. New Zealand Film Commission execs expect the total to rise to eight or nine in the 1994-95 fiscal year ending June 30.

The mounting pool of foreign coin pouring into New Zealand partly is a payoff from the NZFC’s drive to boost production by attracting investment from offshore sales agents, distribs and co-prods.

In a major policy switch, the NZFC decided last year to phase out responsibility for selling films it co-finances, to encourage producers to court private investment.

“New Zealand producers are doing a good job, structuring some excellent deals,” says Richard Stewart, an Aussie who was appointed NZFC CEO one year ago. He notes that deals have either been closed or are in negotiation with U.S. distribs New Line/Fine Line and Samuel Goldwyn, Aussie sales agent Beyond Films and the U.K.’s Portman Global.

NZFC marketing chief Lindsay Shelton contends that “The Piano,” “Warriors” and “Creatures” have stretched the parameters for Kiwi product. “With those films we had top distributors in each territory willing to pay money (upfront) and to commit substantial money to P&A,” he said.

Shelton believes the current crop of Kiwi filmmakers have developed a “clear insight into audiences’ needs.”

Jackson detects another factor that is prompting U.S. distribs to tap increasingly the creative wells in Australia, New Zealand and the U. K – “a lack of originality has descended on traditional Hollywood output.”

“Everyone was saying 1994 was a bad year for Hollywood films,” he says. “So Hollywood is looking (abroad) for the originality which has deserted them.”

Jackson typifies an unusual breed of filmmaker who’s happy to make films with overseas partners – but insists on shooting them at home, on his own terms.

Currently he’s prepping “The Frighteners,” a ghost story he penned with writing partner Fran Walsh, toplining Michael J. Fox, for producer Robert Zemeckis and Universal; it’s due to roll here in May.

Beyond that, he’s developing projects via a first-look deal with Miramax.

After “Heavenly Creatures,” Jackson exec-produced “Jack Brown Genius” with debut helmer Tony Hiles, co-funded by Germany’s Senator and the NZFC. Jackson also directed second unit and masterminded special effects in the pic about a man who learns to fly when a 1,000-year-old monk literally enters his head.

German broadcaster ZDF and the Berlin Film Commission co-financed “Flight of the Albatross,” a family drama about a German teenager who goes to New Zealand and falls in love. It’s written by “Once Were Warriors” scribe Riwia Brown, directed by Werner Meyer, and repped internationally by U.K. sales company Portman Global.

In post-production is “Bonjour Timothy,” a New Zealand/Canadian co-prod with Cinar.

Some Kiwi filmmakers appear to be pushing the envelope in their choice of subjects. Stewart is confident several projects will soon secure funding, including “You’re My Venus,” toplining Rena Owen as a transvestite who becomes a transsexual to help her career and love life. Directed by Stewart Main (“Desperate Remedies”) and produced by Jonathan Dowling, it’s being mounted as an Australian/New Zealand co-prod, with funding from Australia’s Beyond Films.

Stewart also rates highly the chances of “The Enlightenment of Jesse Edwards,” a drama about a man just released from prison, from producer-director Larry Parr; “Chicken,” Grant Lahood’s comedy about a singer who stages his own death as a publicity stunt, then discovers someone really does want to kill him; and “Broken English,” a romance being developed by “Warriors” producer Robin Scholes and helmer Gregor Nicholas.

Surveying a lively production landscape, Stewart echoes the concern of many industryites: “We have to be able to sustain that.”

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