Greg Bruce talks to TV and movie production veteran John Barnett, a maker of pictures that come from the heart.

At one stage during his more than 20 years at the head of New Zealand's pre-eminent screen production company, South Pacific Pictures, John Barnett's development team reported to him that, of the 28 projects they had made, 26 of the ideas had come from the same people the company always worked with, two had come from Barnett himself and 1400 others, mostly from complete randoms, had been rejected.

In an industry as full of idealistic, unrealistic dreamers as the film and television industry, that last number is no great surprise.

The surprise is that Barnett made sure that every one of those not-very-good ideas was considered and replied to.

"People would send stuff in every month, and they would say, 'You're the only people that will actually acknowledge us.' I think that's important. I think If you're a creator out there and you're doing all this stuff and you send it off to people and they never acknowledge you and they never give you any advice, it's a lonely world."

Advertisement

It wasn't straight altruism — it was also a way to strengthen the firm. For instance, somebody's idea might have sucked, but their presentation of it might have demonstrated promise enough that they might warrant a job at the company as a writer. That happened more than once. Also, bad ideas help you find good ideas.

"If you only ever paint one picture you're not sure if it's the best picture in the world or the second best picture in the world," Barnett says, "But if you look at 100 pictures you can say, 'Definitely those are the three best and those other ones — you should get another job.'"

THE CREATION of great pictures is the central premise of Barnett's position at the pinnacle of his industry. He is the force behind some of New Zealand's best and top—earning movies — Whale Rider, Sione's Wedding, Footrot Flats — and some of our most seminal and unique television.

At next week's television awards he will be be honoured as a "TV Legend", though when describing himself he prefers the noun "Facilitator" and the adjective "Determined".

"I look for ideas," he says, "and do my damnedest to get them realised."

The achievement he's proudest of is Whale Rider, but he also talks a lot about the type of television we make here, and particularly the television South Pacific Pictures made here: shows like The Almighty Johnsons and Outrageous Fortune, which have been picked up internationally in spite of — and maybe because of — the limitations involved in making television here.

"Yes, they're New Zealand stories and yes, they're New Zealand characters and yes, they're set here, but the same emotions are the emotions that people see everywhere else and that's what makes them. No one buys them because they New Zealand shows.

"All of these shows are about life and they're about hate and they're about jealousy and they're about success and they're about loss and they're about victory and defeat, and those are the things that happen in people's lives."

Good television is about heart, Barnett says. And though he thinks South Pacific Pictures had and have plenty of shows with heart, he says it's a quality that you see elsewhere in New Zealand too.

"If you've ever driven past Maori TV on a Friday afternoon when they're shooting Homai te Pakipaki, there are all these people sitting outside in vans, waiting to go in, coming in for a good night. They come in and they sing and I think the winner gets $1000 and it's enormous fun. And if you're going for all the glitz and glamour of an Idol or an X Factor, there will be a whole lot of people who would say, 'Oh you can't compete against them with the two and six you've got to make a show,' but the truth is the heart of the show shines through."

AS MUCH as he's a creative force, he's also a business genius. In the 1960s, at a time when there was no independent television production in New Zealand, he started an independent television production company.

In the early 1970s, he and a bunch of business and publishing luminaries bought and rejuvenated the National Business Review.

Later that same decade he also became John Clarke's manager, negotiating one of the biggest selling records in New Zealand history, Fred Dagg's Greatest Hits. In the 1980s, he picked up the distribution rights to Peter Jackson's first film and in 1993 he took on the top job at South Pacific Pictures and in 1998, led a management buyout of the company.

The buyout was set up when he first joined South Pacific, which was then part of TVNZ.

Barnett had it written into his contract that if TVNZ was ever to sell, he would have first option to buy.

When he later invoked that right, he says, TVNZ was not happy.

"In one year they sold the Natural History Unit and they sold South Pacific and I think they sold the National Film Unit at that point, so they sold all those three and a couple of years later those three businesses all made more money than TVNZ.

"That was a bad time for TVNZ."

Barnett's approach to the screen business has always been to take a chance. He says, "I heard This quote the other day that I thought really summed it up. 'You look to the possibility of success rather than the fear of failure.'

"And I think that fear of failure rules far too many decisions in far too many organisations. You don't get anything if you're scared of failure."

His approach to the screen business has not necessarily been to move quickly, though. It was 17 years from the idea for Whale Rider to its first screening.

He has a movie now that has been in development for 18 years.

He believes three things are critical to success. The first is passion and the other two are patience and persistence.

SINCE BARNETT left South Pacific Pictures in 2015, he's been as busy as he ever was, maybe busier because there's not an army of people behind him any more.

It's just him, in his impossibly beautiful Ponsonby home with its wide view of the city skyline and Hauraki Gulf, pushing on with his slate of existing and new projects.

At 72, he says he has no disappointments. He doesn't believe in dwelling on the past.

"I can think about shows that didn't get made but you don't look back really.

"You're always thinking, 'Oh well, put that in a drawer — maybe it will have its time, but let's keep moving forward.'"