Few industries are so instrumental in shaping our national identity, and few can compel the government to create new employment laws on the hoof. But is the film industry all it's cracked up to be – or is it just cracked?
You may well be Bored of the Rings by now, but its runaway success illustrates the fact that for better or worse, the rapidly diversifying screen entertainment sector has become an economic and cultural touchstone for this country. And when Avatar, which was worked on by Wellington’s Weta Digital, and partly filmed in the city, became the highest grossing film in history, it created US$2.8 billion worth of reasons for New Zealand business to take all the magic-making very seriously indeed.
Few other industries can compel our government to create new employment laws on the hoof, as was done to facilitate production of The Hobbit, and few others are currently making such a strong bid to shape our national identity. It’s clear filmmakers don’t just come here for the landscape, but also because we have people with the right experience and expertise to help them tell their stories.
Those at the top of the tree are making good money on this, but what about the rest? The project-based, part-time and freelance nature of much of the work makes it hard to accurately assess its real economic importance, and there are signs that part-time is becoming almost no-time for significant segments of the workforce.
Dollars and sense
A recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers suggested that in 2008 the film and television industries’ direct contribution to GDP was $1.27 billion and its total contribution was approximately $2.54 billion. This equates to 1.4 percent of GDP. At the time this was seen to compare favourably with the wine industry’s contribution of 0.84 percent. The report also estimated that the average direct gross value added to the economy per employee in the industry was $133,000, compared with an average of $81,000 across the whole economy. These figures mean jobs in this sector are high-value, and the report claimed the industry supported 21,315 ‘full-time-equivalent’ roles.
A Ministry for Economic Development (MED) review of that report suggested the figures might have been slightly skewed by the use of a snapshot of full-time equivalent jobs, instead of taking better account of seasonal fluctuations. That said, in the 2010/11 financial year, the Screen Industry Survey carried out by Statistics New Zealand put gross revenue of the entire New Zealand screen industry, including movies, television programmes and advertising, even higher than the PwC estimate, at $3 billion, with the production and postproduction sector accounting for 47 percent of that. It put average wages, leaving aside the very small sums earned for film exhibition, at around the $75,000 mark. This easily outstrips the $42,000 average for wage and salary earners and reinforces the idea of film and television as big payers. The survey showed that revenue took a hit in 2007, but appears to have been climbing steadily ever since.
Behind the figures are people like actor Grae Burton. Burton has appeared in several TV series and commercials over the years and is a committee member for Actors Equity New Zealand. Last year he pulled in $40,000 while hustling around the entire creative arts sector, including acting, filmmaking, theatre direction and video production, and described how, in his view, actors are being asked to do more and more for less and less.
It would be easy to think of actors as, ahem, minor players in the sector, but their availability and quality is a key factor in how much filming is done in this country. This makes sense when you consider how expensive it can be to relocate people here. New Zealand is a 14-hour flight away from most of the world’s big filmmakers and 12 hours out of sync with most of their time zones. Big-name actors and expensive film crews, just like top music acts, aren’t always that keen to get marooned down here away from family and professional commitments that are probably based in the US and UK. At the same time, the lack of scale and opportunity within New Zealand make it impossible for all but a few full-time actors to make their living here.
Graham Dunster of top acting agency Auckland Actors tells me acting fees have not increased significantly in the past decade, while costs and competition have. He believes the sector is not doing enough to foster individual Kiwi stars, with TV companies in particular preferring to shift the limelight around, often simply plumping for the cheapest available actor who will meet their immediate needs, rather than entering into any kind of long-term relationship.
I also spoke to one of the country’s busiest and most experienced production managers, who asked not to be identified. She has worked on major feature films, as well as documentaries and TV advertising. She hadn’t found work from the end of November until early February and said she was operating at about 60 percent of her capacity. She blames the high value of the New Zealand dollar and the unwillingness of blue-chip companies to spend on big-budget advertising while the world economy remains in the doldrums.
“You look at television – all the ads are very low budget,” she says. “Nobody is spending money.”
Dunster’s assessment is that since about 2010, something like 80 percent of the high-quality end of television advertising work has dropped away.
John Barnett, chief executive officer of South Pacific Pictures, also acknowledges that not many offshore productions are filming or in postproduction here right now, partly as a result of the high dollar, although he adds that the largely grant-funded domestic production for the New Zealand market remains steady.
However, his own company has seen a decade of year-on-year growth and has 500 employed on its current projects.
When things go wrong for many of these people they don’t tend to show up on the unemployment figures; many of them don’t claim benefits and either do something else in the low periods or just wait around for their next contract.
One of the most successful firms at the moment is Auckland’s Toybox. The firm’s design, animation and live action teams have worked on top advertising projects, including New Zealand Transport Agency’s now iconic ‘Ghost Chips’ ad. Bruce Carter is creative director and is also creative director for AnimalLogic, which has produced award-winning design, animation and visual effects for film, television and advertising. AnimalLogic’s movie credits include Babe, The Matrix, Moulin Rouge, 28 Weeks Later, Australia, 300 and Happy Feet.
“Factoring out Wingnut and Weta for a moment, the New Zealand industry is a cottage industry still debating and dealing with the same issues it was 20 years ago,” he says. “Clearly, Wingnut and Weta are world-leading centres of talent, creativity and innovation. And we have, of course, a unique world view born of a blend of cultures, history and landscape. But very little technical innovation emerges from our industry, which is still built on a Kiwi ethos of making the best of what’s at hand, flexibility and goodwill.”
Carter tentatively forecasts continued growth in his work, but believes short of a massive increase in population, New Zealand’s film and television industry is unlikely to radically accelerate in the coming years. “We need to create more centres of excellence in craft outside of Wellington,” he says. “We need to develop a community and culture of screenwriters. And we need to be more self-critical and rigorous during development, whilst learning to appreciate achievement.”
Dunster agrees on the need for more high-quality facilities outside the capital; ideally ones that aren’t tied to a single producer and so can be open to all-comers to use. “It’s difficult because if you look around the world at these facilities they are often idle,” he says. “But if you don’t have good enough sound stages then it puts people off coming here. They don’t want to be in a tin shed.”
Barnett, too, stresses the importance of technical innovation: “We stack up very well in the innovation stakes and most of that is driven by Peter Jackson and Weta. They have established a world-leading innovative centre and as a consequence, projects like Avatar are attracted here. But other companies like Natural History in Dunedin have also made their mark, and generally the view is that we don’t do it by rote. Increasingly, our technical scientific and creative expertise is more important than our scenery and willing crews.”
Dunster, perhaps unsurprisingly, adds that if Peter Jackson wanted to spread more of the wealth, he might consider putting more New Zealand actors in leading roles in his films.
Kiwi media moguls
Blockbusters are highly tuned money-making machines. The main thrust is the cash from the multiplex distributers and independent cinemas, then there’s the DVD to rent, the DVD to buy, satellite subscription deals like Sky Box Office, then normal satellite and television showings. But powering along beside this is an ever-widening bow wave of merchandising opportunities, book and television spin-offs, computer games, advertising tie-ins, product placement, multi-platform apps and endorsement deals. Then the studio makes a sequel.
All this has bankrolled some of New Zealand’s homegrown media moguls to make a big investment in the sector’s future. Peter Jackson and colleagues Sir Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk have ploughed millions into the creation of the Weta Digital and Weta Workshop facilities on the Miramar Peninsula near Wellington. However, especially when it comes to more domestic produce, the humble taxpayer shells out too. As Finnigan points out, this is partly because we are trapped in an international bidding war for hosting big productions.
“We have to make sure our incentives are right and that we’re not too small minded about what is ‘fair’,” he says. “There are a lot of countries that offer extremely competitive rebate schemes to offshore film and TV producers and we need to make sure we’re geared correctly in this area or we will miss out on some great opportunities.”
There are four main vehicles for this. The New Zealand Film Commission provides funding for script development and production costs up to a maximum contribution of $2 million for feature films and $1 million for feature length documentaries. The New Zealand Film Production Fund Trust, also known as the Film Fund, was established as a $22 million charitable spin-off from the Commission in 2000, and has invested in successful titles like The World’s Fastest Indian, Boy and River Queen, since then adding more than $7.5 million in returns in its first 10 years. And NZ On Air dishes out $127 million a year for television productions.
Dunster argues that without funding from sources like these, domestic TV production in particular would be extremely limited.
“We have such a small population, I don’t believe it is actually possible to make a theatre or television drama show and get a profit on it,” he says. Barnett disagrees, believing that it is possible for local productions to turn a profit.
He could only cite Shortland Street as a possible exception, which is wholly funded by TVNZ and works on big coverage for a relatively small outlay per programme.
Carter is one who believes that overall, this relationship may have become slightly unhealthy and would like to see new models developed with less reliance on government.
Dunster argues that the way some of this money is being dished out does not necessarily reflect the realities of the business. For example, he believes the bar on the Large Budget Screen Production Grant is set too high for the many US companies shooting pilot programmes for potential new series to qualify. The necessarily bureaucratic business of effectively giving government money away, here as in other industries, can also limit its effectiveness in a business based on flexibility.
Dunster says that in the past attention seemed to be focused on looking at bits of the industry in isolation.
“‘We will support the writers’. Yes, but they have to have their stuff produced and seen,” he says. “If the actors aren’t given enough opportunities to work then you won’t have them. The holistic nature of the industry seems to escape some of the people in Wellington, and there is a lack of understanding that this is a New Zealand business, not just a Wellington one. They are becoming more and more centralised and micro-managed. Everything is being drawn back to the super-ministries. And those people must have more things to do and less time than ever before.”
Steve Finnigan, managing partner and head of sound at post-production company Images and Sound in Auckland, describes how this might explain the intermittent nature of the business: “Perhaps one weakness in the NZ On Air scheme is that shows are often ‘greenlit’ at the same time, and therefore shot at the same time. This does put a lot of pressure on crew availability and can mean people are extremely busy for a concentrated period and then twiddling their thumbs for a few months before the next wave.”
Barnett goes further, suggesting that governments and many in bureaucracy just don’t ‘get’ the giant leaps the industry has made in the technical and creative spheres.
“The emphasis from many politicians is still on scenery, but location shooting is like a commodity – there are great locations everywhere and other countries offer better financial incentives. Our technical and creative capability will be what the world wants and will make us a price maker, not a price taker.”