New Zealand boosts film production

Small island looks to regain big profile

New Zealand’s footprint on international filmmaking belies its pint-sized population of 4 million. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy put the country on the production map, while international niche hits such as “Once Were Warriors” and “Whale Rider” cemented the rep of local filmmakers; TV’s “Flight of the Conchords” reminded the world of the talent teeming in the Kiwi land. Now after several years of almost-breakouts (“Eagle vs. Shark”), local helmers are poised to soar again.

“Whale Rider” director Niki Caro’s “The Vintner’s Luck,” in which she reteams with her young “Whale Rider” star Keisha Castle-Hughes, is vying for a high-profile festival slot this year. “LOTR” helmer Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn” will also hail from the island nation fondly dubbed the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Gross production levels in New Zealand peaked in 2005, fueled by Kiwi Andrew Adamson’s Walden Media epic “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and Jackson’s “King Kong.” Offshore production alone that year amounted NZ$667 million.

“Figures have been sliding ever since,” smiles Judith McCaan, chief exec at Film New Zealand, who is enough of a veteran to know there’s no shame in a slide from such lofty heights.

In 2006 offshore revenues reached NZ$447 million, and in 2007 they tipped NZ$370 million. Jackson’s productivity and the need to feed work through his Weta Workshop, which matured during the “Rings” cycle, is a significant player in the country’s international presence.

The Wellington-based multi-Oscar winner is overseeing the post-production of Spielberg’s Los Angeles-shot “The Adventures of Tintin,” which he is producing, in New Zealand. Similarly, Jackson-helmed “The Lovely Bones” was lensed in Pennsylvania but is being finished in New Zealand. Jackson’s two “The Hobbit” movies will commence production in the country later this year, but a national industry needs to be built on more than one man, prolific as he may be.

Resident television fantasy skeins “Power Rangers,” “The Legend of the Seeker” and “Spartacus” generate ongoing production activity in Auckland, and during 2008 five international features, in addition to the aforementioned Jackson works, lensed Kiwiside.

McCaan says the Large Budget Screen Production Grant, which refunds 15% of qualifying production expenditure, is a cornerstone of New Zealand’s industry. Rebate is equivalent to Australia’s and competitive with Canada and some in the U.S.

A study undertaken in 2006 by PricewaterhouseCoopers indicated that New Zealand offered 20% better production value than Australia, Ireland and Blighty, 25% better than Canada and 33% better than most U.S. states, but those 2006 figures don’t take into consideration global financial and currency changes and improved incentives in nearly all regions since that time.

During 2008, for example, the weak U.S. dollar reduced New Zealand’s competitiveness.

The country is infinitely more attractive now, though, according to McCaan. “The New Zealand dollar dropped from around U.S. 80¢ this time last year to now somewhere between 50¢ to 55¢ U.S.”

It’s not just the offshore sector that’s booming. Kiwis expect to be busy at Cannes servicing the spike in co-production inquiries as a result of the government’s introduction last year of a 40% Screen Production Incentive Fund for domestic shoots.

New Zealand’s domestic film industry is small and fragile, producing less than 10 titles a year. Market share last year was 1.7%, off from 4.8% in ’06 and ’05.

Ex-Polygram senior veep Graeme Mason assumes the top job at peak funding/sales org the New Zealand Film Commission this month, replacing Ruth Harley, who ankled in November to run Screen Australia.

Despite the uncertain financial climate and a change in government last November when veteran Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Labor Party lost to the center-right National Party led by John Key, the scheme appears to be safe.