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New Zealand Production Turns to ‘Avatar’ Sequels in Post-‘Hobbit’ World

After 16 years, Peter Jackson’s sextet of Tolkien adaptations has come to an end. Yet the New Zealand film and TV business is thriving even without its signature franchise, turning the land that once served as Middle-Earth into a host of brave new worlds.

Despite a dearth of hobbits on set, 2015 has been a record year for international productions. Feature films and TV series alike are lining up to shoot there.

The biggest player in New Zealand’s next phase is Lightstorm Entertainment’s trio of “Avatar” sequels. The original “Avatar” had a local qualifying spend of NZ$362.8 million ($246 million) with incentives worth $35.8 million, but producer Jon Landau says it is more than just the coin that prompted James Cameron and him to return to New Zealand.

“Jim is not going back because of the financial incentives,” Landau says. “It’s part of it, but he is going because of the labor pool and the creative talent that is down there. And I think that says something.”

Cameron and Landau are not alone in spearheading the post-Tolkien production surge, with DreamWorks’ “The Light Between Oceans,” Walt Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon,” the Weinstein Co.’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” sequel, MTV’s “The Shannara Chronicles,” Starz’s “Ash vs. Evil Dead” series and Saban Brands’ “Power Rangers” all lensing or confirmed.

Most recently, it was announced that DreamWorks’ manga adaptation “Ghost in the Shell” would head to NZ in 2016, with Scarlett Johansson starring and Rupert Sanders helming.

Legendary Pictures wrapped holiday horror pic “Krampus” earlier this year and producer Alex Garcia says the combination of incentives and skills made the decision a “no-brainer.” He acknowledges the issue of distance from Legendary’s Burbank HQ, but says once there the quality of life on the shoot — based in Wellington, the crew was 10 minutes from Stone Street Studios and even closer to Weta Digital and Weta Workshop — made up for it.

“It was a fantastic experience overall,” Garcia adds. “The craftspeople are at the top of their game and the facilities are world-class.” Garcia also points to Weta as a major draw. For “Krampus,” he wanted to integrate both vfx monsters and physical creatures, and the ability of the twin Weta facilities to do that delivered a key skill set.

Philippa Mossman, head of international screen attraction at Film New Zealand, says, “We do have a talent for creating other worlds.” She points not only to Tolkien and the current slate of fantasy films, but also to the legacy of “Chronicles of Narnia,” “Bridge toTerabithia,” and even the TV series “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Spartacus.” These fantasy films sometimes leads to questions about whether crew can handle other types of projects, she says.

“But once people come to understand that, for example, we have also had ‘Mr. Pip,’ ‘Players,’ the TV drama series ‘Top of the Lake,’ ‘Walking With Dinosaurs, ’ ‘Bear Grylls,’ as well as 13 local feature films and TV dramas, that tends to shift the perception.”

Mossman says New Zealand is proud of its legacy of fantasy film, but is not just targeting genre fare. It also plans to shore up Asian productions and has its first official co-prod with India, “Beyond Nine Worlds,” due for release in 2016, and there have been three producer delegations to China since 2014.
But Hollywood isn’t decamping from New Zealand anytime soon.

As Landau puts it: “That combination of the cost effectiveness and the creative talent there is what keeps bringing us back.”

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