Avatar's Kiwi connection new path for local film industry

By Christopher Adams

Avatar director James Cameron on set with actor Sam Worthington. Photo / Supplied.
Avatar director James Cameron on set with actor Sam Worthington. Photo / Supplied.

Work done by Weta Digital on the global blockbuster film Avatar marks a new direction in the way overseas studios approach New Zealand as a filmmaking destination, a industry executive says.

Penelope Borland, CEO of the Screen Production and Development Association of New Zealand (SPADA), says Avatar was the first example of filmmakers coming to New Zealand purely for technological know-how - rather than the country's stunning scenery, or the directorship of Peter Jackson.

She said the success of Avatar meant the scope for similar work in the future was "enormous".

Borland attended the Producers Guild conference in Los Angeles last June, where Avatar director James Cameron was a keynote speaker.

She said Cameron told the audience of prominent film producers "how fantastic" Weta Digital was.

"Weta Digital already had an extraordinary reputation because of Lord of the Rings and King Kong," she said.

"But [Avatar] was the first non-Peter Jackson film that's been released, using Weta Digital's capabilities, with a major studio. So it's fantastic for New Zealand."

Weta Digital's general manager Tom Greally said the company was delighted at the success of Avatar.

"We're rapt with how the film has done and how we can show off our talent," he said.

Borland said New Zealand needed a business superpower of the likes of Nokia, or a similar company.

"[Weta Digital] is it, and people don't realise that yet."

Weta Digital was the second or third largest employer in Wellington, she added.

Greally said the company employed up to 900 hundred contract workers at the peak of Avatar's production.

"We generally sit around the 650 to 700 mark on a normal basis," he said. "It's pretty big."

Greally said around 60 per cent of the NZ$307 million spent on Avatar in New Zealand would have gone on crew costs, with the rest going towards "technical infrastructure".

Borland said the criticism aimed at the NZ$45 million grant Avatar received from the New Zealand Government was "short sighted", as it overlooked the NZ$307 million the film brought into the New Zealand economy.

Large budget films (over NZ$15 million) are currently entitled to a direct 15 per cent grant from the Ministry of Economic Development.

Borland said much of the NZ$307 million would have gone to the salaries of New Zealanders working on the film.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman has said the NZ$45 million grant was "excessive" and the subsidy should be capped.

However, the call to "cap" film grants would be counter-productive, as that would encourage overseas producers to go elsewhere to make their films, Borland said.

"It's unfortunate that [the grant] seems to be turning into a political football."

She said the 15 per cent grant offered by the New Zealand Government, which comes in the form of a straight rebate on spending, was modest in world terms.

Some European countries were offering grants of up to 30 per cent, Borland said.

Grants in other countries were often given up front, rather than after completion of the film, as was the case in New Zealand.

Greally said grants offered by the Government to filmmakers were "absolutely critical".

A film industry of the scale New Zealand had would not exist without the grants.

"[The grants] give us a place at the starting line."

Film New Zealand acting CEO Sue Thompson said for the Kiwi industry to continue growing it had to keep marketing itself as a destination for high quality filmmaking.

"Weta Digital have never sold themselves as a b shop," she said.

According to Statistics New Zealand, foreign earnings for the Kiwi screen production industry were $542 million last year.

Research from accountants PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that the film and television industry contributed $2.5 billion to the New Zealand economy, as well as "contributing additional financial benefits to the country by enhancing international awareness and equity in the New Zealand brand".

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