Filmmakers still question official interference

AUCKLAND — Incentives from New Zealand’s film-friendly Labor government have helped Kiwi film blossom.

It helps that the politicians have one of the world’s most successful filmmakers, Peter Jackson, with a ministudio and the globally recognized f/x studio Weta Workshop in their backyard.

But even critics who complain about the Kiwi government’s increasingly hands-on approach to the film biz admit that the years of nurturing have paid off.

Soon after it was elected in 1999, it instituted, as part of what it called its “cultural recovery package,” a $20 million film fund that spawned a successful slate of midsize-budgeted movies.

Lobbied by Jackson back in 2003, the government then created the Large Budget Screen Production Grant, giving a 12.5% cash rebate on New Zealand spend to big-budget Hollywood movies.

And this year, it beefed up its sales agency, New Zealand Film.

It doubled the annual allocation to its main agency, the New Zealand Film Commission, increasing its budget $6.5 million per year to $13 million.

Are Kiwi filmmakers applauding the government-appointed commission?

“Not at all,” says Don Reynolds, a producer on the Anglo-New Zealand co-production “River Queen.”

“The commission is like all state funding agencies around the world — it will be treated as the scapegoat. It’s fair game,” he says. “The people who criticize the NZFC are people like myself, who have applied and been turned down for funding.

“When you are the only source of local funding, you turn down a lot of people who don’t think that it was a good decision.”

Indeed, many in the industry are skeptical about the commission’s power and its members’ lack of filmmaking experience.

They attribute a recent run of respectable box office returns not to the commission’s savvy but to the arrival of a second source of money — the Film Fund.

That fund was aimed at experienced filmmakers and with films budgeted at $6 million to $15┬ámillion. It backed Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider” and Roger Donaldson’s “The World’s Fastest Indian.”

It is credited with developing a whole new class of movies with midsize budgets compared with the typical Kiwi budget of $3.5 million to $4 million.

The fund requires 40% outside financing and has pumped coin into seven movies, including upcoming titles “The Ferryman” and “Perfect Creature.”

The eighth and last allocation is expected to go to Caro’s feature “The Vintner’s Luck,” based on the novel by Elizabeth Knox.

But rather than a hike for the fund at the start of this year, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that extra cash would go to the commission.

Penelope Borland of producers’ body Spada says some producers are passionately against the commission resuming its monopoly and lobbied the government to alter its plan.

Change did occur after a series of meetings run by the commission with an independent moderator, David Cullwick.

Diplomatic marketing man Cullwick was appointed to chair the Film Commission board, which also obtained five new members.

And the commission has promised to spend $4.5 million a year on bigger-budget movies under its own new program started on July 1. It is called … ahem … Film Fund 2.

The rules will be virtually identical. Supporters of the commission, such as producer Trevor Haysom, point out that not all the recent Kiwi film successes have been through the Film Fund.

But filmmakers are individualistic.

Some of the bad feelings reflect reservations about the growing dominance of the government in deciding the future of the local film biz — or at least the part that is not owned by Peter Jackson.

Bigger producers with their own overseas contacts are wary about the commission requiring funded projects to be sold through its sales operation, New Zealand Film.

“Film sales is a tough business, and people ask whether propping up an undersized (sales operation) is the best way to spend film money,” says Tim Thorp of screen industry lobby group the Screen Council.

Some in the local film sector are appalled by Investment New Zealand, a government agency that sees itself as the main marketer of New Zealand to Hollywood.

They complain that a government bureaucrat with limited biz knowledge is making decisions affecting the income of the industry, leaving the industry’s locations office Film New Zealand to deal with day-to-day problems.

Says Thorp: “There have been changes, drawing the lines over when the government agency runs things and when the industry body does. Changes are expected.”

But with international film finance drying up, the Kiwi film industry is more reliant on government coin and leaving politicians to oversee much of the industry.

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