Hundreds of jobs are disappearing from the film industry as big foreign productions go elsewhere, with many saying a drawn-out government review of incentives is to blame.
The slump is hitting hardest in Auckland, where the screen production and post-production sector have boomed on the back of a stream of long-run TV productions, from Hercules and Xena in the early-1990s to Spartacus, which finished last October, and feature films.
Experienced technicians and creatives - from lighting crews and prop makers to post-production businesses - are taking side jobs or moving overseas as the industry's biggest slump in 20 years takes hold - and nothing is on the horizon in terms of substantial foreign productions.
"People are dropping out of the industry because they can't survive, becoming builders' apprentices or scaffolders," says production manager Charles Knight. Auckland industry jobs are estimated to have fallen from 6,000 to 4,000 in the past year.
Lighting supplier Tony Blackwood, who built up his business over 20 years, has parked up his trucks, reduced crew and is seeking work outside the industry.
"It's pretty serious when you've got a wife and family and business to support. I've got a lot invested in my rig and lighting and it hasn't been touched since Spartacus. I've never had a year like this before.
"The reality is without (competitive) incentives people don't come here and it's a matter of time before businesses fold."
After a two-year review, the Government last month opted not to increase the 15 per cent grant available for large-budget productions - an incentive used by several countries to entice foreign productions because of the economic benefits they generate.
Since setting its rebate in 2007, New Zealand has fallen behind rivals including Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa - and they are now getting films that would otherwise have come here.
"The headline incentive is the first aspect of business attention," says leading producer Chloe Smith, while the higher value of the kiwi dollar and limited indoor shooting facilities in Auckland also contribute.
David Rowell, co-owner of StudioWest, says inquiries from producers seeking space have plunged from two or three a day a few years ago to as few as one a month. "I think the Government's really got it wrong here."
The decision to leave the rebate at 15 per cent ignored the recommendations of industry bodies Film NZ and Film Auckland and Ateed, the Auckland Council's economic development body. Auckland industry leaders have met Economic Development Minister Stephen Joyce seeking transitional arrangements to help the sector to adjust.
Ateed chief Brett O'Riley says the Government has made a conscious decision not to react to the incentives offered by rivals and wants the industry to move to a model less reliant on fee-for-service work.
"If we were able to secure one or two major international productions in the meantime that may give the industry some breathing space."
But Mr Joyce says the interim help sought would need taxpayer subsidies of up to 35 per cent of the production costs for three movies touted. He suggests the council consider topping-up the Government scheme.
Auckland Mayor Len Brown says he is very concerned about the industry's challenges and wants discussions with Mr Joyce "at the earliest opportunity".