As the magical creatures of Middle Earth prepare to resume venturing through Auckland, New Zealand, for Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” prequel series, the mythical world of Pandora has been bursting into life for James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels in Wellington, just one hour’s flight south. Meanwhile, on the South Island, stars like Viggo Mortensen are planning to embark on “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” in Dunedin, while a game-changing production studio has been proposed for Christchurch.
As filming hubs like Los Angeles and London continue to face restrictions and increased health and safety costs amid the coronavirus pandemic, New Zealand called “action” on international productions in June.
“I think the pause was beneficial to all of us because we were grateful to finish our film healthy and safely,” says actor Kirsten Dunst about returning to work on Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” “We pushed ourselves more because no one knows when we’ll be able to work again.”
“Everyone was very gung-ho,” adds the film’s production designer Grant Major of his first day back on set. “We all loved the film, actors and director, so were pumped to get going and do the best job we could.”
That can-do attitude is what will likely tide the industry over despite Tuesday’s late-night announcement that the country will enter a three-day lockdown, which went into effect at midday Wednesday local time. The measures came after Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern confirmed four members of an Auckland family tested positive for COVID-19, acquiring the virus from an unknown source. The cases ended the nation’s 102-day streak of having no new community infections (cases have been limited to the strictly-quarantined border).
While New Zealand dropped to level one — the lowest of a four-level alert system — on June 8, the Auckland region is now on level three restrictions until Friday, meaning residents are asked to work from home, only interact with people in their household “bubble,” and practice social distancing and mask-wearing in public. Filming can continue if strict health and safety protocols are followed.
Several international productions were in pre-production in Auckland at the time of the announcement, including “LOTR,” Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sweet Tooth,” anime adaptation “Cowboy Bebop” and “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” directed by Peter Farrelly. The New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) tells Variety that the Auckland projects are now continuing with pre-production, but working from home.
The remainder of the country — including Wellington, where the “Avatar” sequels are filming — has been placed in level two, which encourages mask-wearing and social distancing and allows social gatherings of up to 100 people. Large-scale productions such as “Avatar” can continue under level two screen production rules, such as physical distancing among crew and following recommendations for scenes involving intimacy or fighting.
“Avatar” has played a significant role in the booming period of screen production New Zealand has experienced in recent months, thanks to being one of the few largely coronavirus-free locations with strong filming infrastructure, highly skilled crews, incentive schemes and award-winning VFX and post-production houses. What may have once seemed a deterring 12-hour flight across the Pacific, presented itself in June as an opportunity to get on a plane and wake up in Middle Earth, ready to make movie magic. Cameron has even expressed his wish to “make all my future films in New Zealand,” in a letter to the government.
And while the virus’ community comeback impacts the level of precautions that must be followed on sets, Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford is confident the sector can continue to thrive.
“We have guidelines in place to allow filming to continue, provided productions meet health and safety requirements,” he says. “Going hard and early with our response provides the best chance we have to continue taking advantage of the huge boom our screen sector is experiencing.”
Indeed, while the prospect of needing to enter level four again looms in the minds of many locals, New Zealanders have proven their ability to come together and tackle the virus at any given alert level, and when it comes to screen production, the country remains in a better position than many other filming hubs.
Border exemptions keep business moving
Of course, getting there requires the golden ticket of a government-approved border exemption, followed by two weeks of quarantine. “That was the most challenging part,” Dunst says. “Having a 2-year-old in a hotel room for two weeks!”
The exemptions are part of the economic recovery efforts which have helped the industry bounce back and keep locals in jobs. Prior to March’s shutdown, around 2,000 New Zealanders were employed on foreign productions and 47 local projects were active. “The pandemic was going to have a devastating effect on our screen sector. People were very worried,” says NZFC CEO Annabelle Sheehan. “It became a matter of thinking through the elements that needed to come back into place for production to resume.”
The first step was commissioning the Aotearoa Screen Guild to work on post-pandemic protocols to ensure health and safety on set, says Sheehan. Then, the priority was working with the government on border permits for foreigners involved in large-scale productions pumping substantial jobs and money into the economy.
The guild created filming guidelines for the four alert levels, and although the country dropped to level one in June, Sheehan says most sets have since been exercising extra caution and operating at level two recommendations, which indicates that projects outside of Auckland are not being significantly impacted by the change of alert level.
On “The Power of the Dog,” Dunst says her temperature was taken daily and masks were worn, but she felt “very comfortable.” Major adds that crew tracked studio entry and exit on an app and signed weekly health declarations, while cleaners “circulated all day.”
Projects only involving locals have also been exercising extra caution, with Jordan Mauger, assistant director on a New Zealand series, noting that sanitation stations and distancing are the new normal.
However, some shoots require close interaction, which is where workers have been able to proceed with a level of comfort that’s scarce elsewhere. “Power Rangers: Dino Fury,” for instance, is currently in pre-production and scheduled to commence shooting in Auckland in October, with sanitization stations, workers signing in and out of set and a bubble system restricting interaction between different departments.
Ultimately, though, scenes will film normally providing alert levels allow them to do so. “‘Power Rangers’ involves combat, stunts and person-on-person fighting,” showrunner and executive producer Simon Bennett told Variety prior to this week’s lockdown. “If everyone had to distance, it wouldn’t be ‘Power Rangers.’ If we were to move to a higher level, we’d have to be very careful about how we worked, but one of the advantages is that most people fighting are wearing masks … the superhero kind! And the masks, costumes and props are heavily disinfected between use.”
Containing the latest outbreak and keeping foreign production rolling as much as possible remains important to the sector, given that the seven productions are injecting 3,000 jobs and NZ$400 million (US$262 million) into the country. Twyford says border exemptions for “Avatar” alone enabled 400 locals to resume working in June. Meanwhile, for the 20 Japan-based stunt performers and six U.S. actors permitted entry for “Power Rangers,” the show’s employing 700 local crew and 2,650 performers.
Sheehan notes resuming production has been equally important to the global industry. “Production companies around the world partner with us to make films here. We’re conscious of that eco-system and the worldwide screen sector New Zealand is a part of. We’re also conscious countries are suffering. We want the world back to right, but want to ensure opportunities continue for content creation in the meantime.”
While New Zealand has beamed as a filming hotspot since Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies, and spawned substantial film tourism, interest has been surging in recent months. Since heading home from L.A., “The Frozen Ground” director Scott Walker has been asked to direct three American movies that are hoping to relocate to New Zealand from other locations. One hopes to use Otago to portray California.
Expanding for the future
Sheehan confirms there has been a significant increase in foreign queries and applications, and work is subsequently underway to “ramp up infrastructure.” Twyford already announced more than NZ$230 million ($151 million) of screen sector recovery funds and has plans to further aid the “booming” industry.
“The sector’s aware of gaps in our infrastructure offering, particularly with two large-scale productions based here [‘Avatar’ and ‘LOTR,’]” says Twyford, who hopes to develop local skillsets to support increasing production. Now is the time for New Zealanders pondering career changes to consider film and television, he says.
The need for a national infrastructure plan is an initiative in the sector’s Screen Strategy 2030, which is being finalized. “Having said that, our industry’s able to accommodate different types of projects and they don’t all need large soundstages,” says Twyford, noting that, in addition to its location shoots, New Zealand digital/VFX houses are “consistently attracting projects.”
Boosting such capabilities, Weta Digital has partnered with Avalon Studios and Streamliner to launch a LED-stage virtual production service.
Other projects include a studio facility proposed by Mauger for Christchurch, which could attract millions to the Canterbury region, where Disney’s “Mulan” was partly filmed. “It would be the first purpose-built studio in the South Island and start a whole industry down south,” says Mauger, who has applied for government funding. “The new COVID-19 outbreak exposes the need to spread the industry to wider regions throughout New Zealand, rather than cluster it in Auckland and Wellington.”
The Eastern Screen Alliance, meanwhile, wants to transform popular wine region, Hawke’s Bay, into a filming destination, and is working with a domestic company on a proposed studio.
While such plans could further open up the country to Hollywood projects, domestic storytelling remains a priority. It’s why NZ$50 million ($33 million) of the government’s recovery package will benefit new local films and series. “Telling New Zealand stories to New Zealand and the world is a key driver,” Sheehan says. “And our creatives work across international and national projects — the two are closely-integrated.”
“It’s an exciting time because we’re an operating film industry, which can do all the big stuff,” adds Mauger, one of the Kiwis jumping between local and foreign productions. “There’s always been a feeling of, ‘What if we go back into lockdown?’ But with the ScreenSafe protocols, we have great ways of maintaining production under various levels.”
“We’re a small isolated country that can swiftly handle moving to various levels, which puts our film industry in a good place globally. We’ve done it once and we can do it again.”