David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

How Key's Tinseltown trip kept NZ industry in frame

Avatar producer says the Prime Minister's visit to Los Angeles helped the film industry put a face to the country's pro-film initiatives and was one of the reasons he will be back to make the sequels.

John Key (centre) with James Cameron (right) and John Landau, who says the Prime Minister's visit helped to put a face to New Zealand's initiatives. Photo / Supplied
John Key (centre) with James Cameron (right) and John Landau, who says the Prime Minister's visit helped to put a face to New Zealand's initiatives. Photo / Supplied

For John Key, it was a Los Angeles party with the opportunity to cut deals on an international level.

Hosted at home by Oscar-winning producer Jon Landau and director James Cameron, Mr Key was introduced to the most powerful figures in Hollywood.

"It's not just two old film-makers," said Landau, recalling the October dinner with Prime Minister John Key. It included some of Hollywood's most influential players from major studios including Disney and Warner Bros at "chairman level".

"People in Hollywood were able to see there is a face behind government, a face behind initiatives. We've all gone to countries where things get muddled in bureaucracy.

"He was very personable. He spoke about the big picture of New Zealand, and not just about the film industry, and the role the film industry could play in that."

"It really spoke to the studio heads and said New Zealand is a country which is committed to making production work. The evening went extremely well from a Hollywood standpoint."

It is perhaps a sign of the closeness which has developed between New Zealand and Hollywood that Landau's comments came on a return to New Zealand to farewell Weta digital effects producer Eileen Moran at a memorial service in Wellington. He will speak at the service, attended by New Zealand's ever-widening film-making family with its increasingly strong links to Hollywood.

It is a section of the community which, according to the briefing given to Mr Key before his trip, helps contribute $3 billion revenue to the economy. While the figures appear to include everything from television broadcasting to cinema works, the briefing said the area attracting the biggest grants and most publicity - screen production and post-production - grew from $313 million (0.25 per cent of GDP) in 2005 to $638 million (0.47 per cent of GDP) in 2011.

The briefing, released to the Green Party, also told Mr Key most were "of varying tenure and sporadic duration with some relatively low and middle-income earnings". Most workers were contractors, Mr Key was told.

Landau said those working in the industry were the driving force for him and Cameron to return to New Zealand for two sequels to Avatar.

While scenery and incentives were often cited as the greatest inducement, with Mr Key highlighting a "workforce which is not heavily unionised", Landau has a simpler explanation.

"We didn't come here for the location. We came here because of the industry and the support it gets from the Government. Avatar - we didn't film on location at all. We're coming back to New Zealand to film Avatar [2&3] because of the people."

He said there was an excellence which, for example, was reflected in work done by Sir Peter Jackson's Weta studio. He urged a visit, saying "you owe it to yourself" to see cutting-edge, high-quality work. "They're continually advancing everything here."

The stance was also reflected in Mr Key's briefing - it stated 73 per cent of businesses had a change in technology (against 56 per cent in other industries) and 16 per cent invested in research and development (against 5 per cent of all businesses).

While the Large Budget Screen Production Grant - $360 million since 2004 - gave good financial reasons to return, most competing for business offered incentives. The scheme was estimated in the Prime Minister's briefing paper as "middle of the pack".

"Every bit of money helps in that, and that's a big factor as well. In today's business it is not easy to get any movie green-lit." He said the "sense of pride" and quality of work in New Zealand set it apart.

"What Jim and I love about working in New Zealand is everybody is passionate about their craft. That comes across in the quality of their work.

"New Zealand people in general are very proud of who they are and their heritage and they want to show the world that. In the film industry they get to show that on a stage where the world really sees it."

Told Kiwis had done well out of it, with industry recognition, he laughed, replying: "Hollywood has done well too."

The growth potential in New Zealand was also an important part of the country's potential benefit to Hollywood, he said. While perception focused on the Wellington industry, Auckland's studios and facilities were getting greater recognition abroad.

"It is not just a one-trick pony and that is where I think great growth potential exists."

Landau said the growth was to the benefit of the communities in which the films were made. "The spending is so diverse. When a film comes to New Zealand, they might hire 200 local crew. But they might also put up 100 people at local hotels. Those people have to go out and eat.

"People on the production have to go and use the local stationery store. They have to go buy lumber to build with. They have to bring in a caterer on the set. It goes on and on and on.

"This isn't just someone coming in making widgets and the spending only goes to widgets. The economic impact of a film on a community is quite significant."

He rejected claims of low wages. "When we came here, we looked for the best of the best."

He rattled through names of those he had met and hired, listing those outside Wellington brought in to work on Avatar. He also rejected concerns about youth workers being vulnerable.

"We're not looking to find the youth but for those who might be out there doing that, and to those who are criticising it - the youth are your future.

"If those people don't have the opportunity today, they will never have the opportunity in the future."

- NZ Herald

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