Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Executive success: Money man behind movie magic

It's important to manage without getting in the way of the creative types, says Weta Digital's David Wright. Picture / Mark Mitchell
It's important to manage without getting in the way of the creative types, says Weta Digital's David Wright. Picture / Mark Mitchell

Go to the movies in Wellington and there will be a clutch of people sitting through the credits as the lights go up on the latest blockbuster.

They're the ones from the local film industry, paying respect to the work of colleagues, says Weta Digital chief operating officer David Wright.

The movie money man has been in that scrolling list a number of times since joining Weta Digital in 2008, just as the company began a period of exponential growth on the back of the Avatar film.

Having spent more than a decade managing finances and operations in the television industry, mainly at TVNZ, the appeal of bringing business acumen to a privately-held creative company lured him home from Auckland.

"For me it was all those elements that I enjoyed, but in Wellington with New Zealand's favourite company," says Wright, 52.

Wright's journey into accounting for creatives began after eight postgraduate years working in business advisory at chartered accounting firms.

He was seconded to Avalon Studios during a period of restructuring, to fill the vacated director of finance role, with a potential sale on the cards.

The contract role turned into eight years, during which TVNZ backtracked on its sell-off plans and allowed the studio to grow and diversify. Wright says it was a very entrepreneurial environment that gave him a chance to work alongside creative people who weren't necessarily interested in the business side of television.

"For me, the key to success that I've developed over time, it's just trying to keep out of their way and just make sure that you've got their back in a financial sense.

"That they're not overstepping the mark and getting themselves in strife, but equally, not being too overbearing and getting in their way to the extent that the project suffers or they feel stifled in their ability to deliver the best product they can.

"That's the balance you've got to find in our industry, whether it's television or in fact feature films as well - it's the same dynamic."

He says the best producers try to surround themselves with the best people, right down to the finance person, but whether they have business smarts or are naive to the business world, the common thread is their passion and dedication.

"The New Zealand film and television industry, it's not a place to make money really," says Wright.

"There are very few examples where people have had a lot of success and I guess I'm currently working for one organisation where that has happened, but that is pretty rare.

"The vast majority of the people who work in our industry are very dedicated and do it for the love of their project.

"The pain and anguish that they go through to just get their project on screen is something you can't help but admire."

Wright's eight years at Avalon, where he became general manager, was followed by four years at TVNZ's Auckland HQ, managing the in-house production facilities.

Between TVNZ and the Weta role, Wright spent a year working as a finance consultant to producers making feature films for the New Zealand market - an education in the multifaceted deal making needed to get even a relatively low-budget feature film off the ground, he says.

"It's almost as complicated as a public float in many respects, because you've got six different parties, all with different stakes in the project and trying to eke out their share and each has their lawyer.

"You end up with these unbelievably complicated production funding agreements signed by 12 different people and half of them are on the other side of the world.

"It's just an inordinate amount of complexity but that's how feature films are made in New Zealand fundamentally.

"Occasionally you might have one funded by a film commission, but the vast majority definitely aren't that simple.

"In many respects that's what's interesting about the business.

"You try to make sense of all of the different factions and bring them together in a common cause and if you can get it landed it's a very rewarding process that a film can ultimately be made."

Big project or small, the only way to work in the film industry is to be collaborative, says Wright.

That's reflected in the structure of Weta Digital, which has grown from 800 to 1600-odd people in the decade since Wright joined.

The business operates without a chief executive. Instead, a collective of executives work together and report directly to the owners.

"It's a very unique sort of environment," says Wright. With big egos driving film projects, the finance role is suited to the quiet achiever who makes sure all the underlying aspects are in place to underwrite success.

You're a support player in the team rather than leading the charge, he says.

If he was to pick a favourite movie project, Wright says it would be the Planet of the Apes trilogy, purely for the technology development it showcased.

However, weeks of work appearing for mere seconds in the finished product is an accountant's nightmare, he admits.

"It's just frightening if you dwell on it too much in the sense of thinking about the costs and the investment of time that goes into such a fraction of time -- one that is viewed in a second and then it's gone."

- NZ Herald

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Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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