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When local newspapers complain about traffic jams caused by Nicole Kidman filming (in New South Wales’ picturesque Byron Bay) and Natalie Portman stopping Sydney traffic by wearing revealing shorts, there is a sense that normality has returned to everyday life in Australia. The film industry is back in production high gear.

Indeed, films starring Zac Efron (“Gold”), Chris Hemsworth (“Escape From Spiderhead”), Joel Edgerton and Tom Hanks, are all currently lensing in different parts of Australia. Portman is preparing to shoot Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” while Kidman and Melissa McCarthy were recently shooting Hulu miniseries “Nine Perfect Strangers.” George Miller is shooting his “Furiosa,” a “Mad Max” spinoff, for Warner Bros.

Neighbor and sometime rival New Zealand is equally busy. Disney’s “Avatar” movie franchise and Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” TV series are
both moving again after a coronavirus hiatus. A slew of local movies is also now shooting.

Both countries are known for offering significant financial incentives, mostly in the form of rebates, and also through rarer federal grants, in order to attract large international film and TV productions. Both enjoy currencies with favorably weak exchange rates against the U.S. dollar, and are English-speaking territories that contain large pools of experienced crew and talent-friendly locations. But all those attributes mean little if the country is under
COVID lockdown.

For a while that was the case in both Australia and New Zealand, as government leaders locked both countries into rigid self-isolation from March onwards. The resulting impact on film and TV can be seen from the latest Drama Report published by Screen Australia, where the lost last three months of the 2019-’20 financial year to June 2020, caused a 18% plunge in full-year production spending.

According to the report, eight feature films were stopped by the shutdown and even more TV productions were hit. But many TV productions were able to restart shooting in June, including Network 10’s “Neighbours” and the second season of “Five Bedrooms,” and season two of children’s series “The Bureau of Magical Things” for Netflix and Network 10.

TV’s V-shaped recovery was not matched immediately in film, in part due to lingering insurance problems.

But governments in both countries were quick to develop on-set production protocols, and to redeploy finance that would support restarts, overcome the problem of obtaining production insurance and lock in future productions — both local and international.

“Two major things happened. The first is that we’ve continued to really manage the virus and kept cases low. Secondly, the government back in July announced that additional funding to the location incentive — an additional A$400 million ($300 million) for an extended the program over a couple more years,” says Kate Marks, CEO of Ausfilm. “Government and industry really came together this year and worked closely. Particularly,
on that opportunity for these international productions.”

Significantly too, key overseas cast and crew were given priority immigration treatment, with screen agencies arguing that restarting production creates an economic multiplier effect with benefits for local crew and businesses. But the high-fliers were not exempted from quarantine and had to hunker down in hotels for two weeks on arrival.

The local sense of fair play all round meant aggressive media scrutiny of the arrangements for James Cameron and Jon Landau (entering New Zealand for “Avatar”), Alan Sugar (entering Australia for “Celebrity Apprentice Australia”) and Tom Hanks (entering Australia for “Elvis”).

It appears to be paying off. “The next six to nine months is looking to be buoyant with both international and New Zealand productions, and with workforce development and expanding facilities to be announced in the future,” says Philippa Mossman, head of international attraction at the New Zealand Film Commission.

The obstacles thrown up by the virus has accelerated innovation. New Zealand has seen a rise in delegated productions or remote directing — something made possible by digital production techniques and made necessary by the difficulties of international travel for most Americans. The number of co-production enquiries has also shot up, according to the NZFC, suggesting that New Zealand will continue to be attractive long after a vaccine has allowed restarts elsewhere.

International productions currently lensing in New Zealand include Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop,” Warner Bros Television’s “Sweet Tooth,” A24’s “Mr. Corman,” “Avatar” and “Power Rangers.” Local films in production include: “Millie Lies Low” (producers: Desray Armstrong and Angela Littlejohn), “Whina” (producers: Matthew Metcalf and Tainui Stephens), “Punch” (producers: Robin Murphy and Catherine Fitzgerald), “Muru” (producers: Reikura Kahi, Selina Joe and Tama Iti) and “Nude Tuesday” (producers: Emma Slade, Virginia Whitwell, and Nick Batzias), with “Going Going” (producers: Philippa Campbell, Georgina Conder) up next.