Weta Digital's record of five Academy Awards for best visual effects is a source of considerable pride for this country. New Zealanders, it is widely believed, are world-leaders in this sphere of film-making. But can that be so when the Wellington-based company has requested 526 temporary work visas for foreign workers? This wholesale hiring for the second film in The Hobbit series raises valid questions about whether the local workforce is gaining as much from Weta's success as is imagined.
The subject is especially relevant given that the Government offered very generous tax breaks to Warner Bros and was prepared to ditch part of its workplace law to ensure The Hobbit was filmed here. A law change, championed by Sir Peter Jackson and passed under urgency, clarified when someone was a contractor and when they were an employee.
This meant, essentially, that local film crews would have to settle for less than they would earn in Hollywood for the greater good of the country.
What it has not meant is that, as might have been assumed, New Zealanders comprise the vast majority of The Hobbit workforce. Last year, Weta also applied for 369 temporary work visas.
This situation might be explained by not enough New Zealanders having the skills that Weta needs. Its quest overseas will certainly supply these because our immigration law requires non-resident applicants to have at least three years' feature-film experience. But the same law also requires Weta to show it could not employ locals in the same roles.
The Council for Trade Unions, for one, believes it has not done this satisfactorily. It cannot find the widespread advertising that might be anticipated. Jobs are advertised on Weta Digital's website, but whether this fulfils Immigration New Zealand's expectations is debatable.
If there genuinely is a lack of skills in this country, that raises other questions. It seems extraordinary, given Weta's role in the likes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar, that New Zealanders still do not possess the skills. More than anything, it suggests there is no resolve to employ locals.
It cannot be coincidental that Gerben Cath, of the South Seas Film and TV School, has noticed the number of trainee positions on big films has dwindled over a decade. Before then, a lot of the school's graduates got their start working as trainees for Sir Peter in productions predating Lord of the Rings. As these people have advanced, it appears they have not been replaced in anything like the same numbers.
Helen Kelly, of the Council of Trade Unions, suggests the present situation highlights a lack of commitment to building up the local workforce and talent pool. The size of Weta's immigration request lends weight to that.
We are yet to see evidence that Weta has done all it can to employ New Zealanders, and it needs to answer the questions raised by its widespread use of overseas workers. Pursuing this path does not seem to be in the best interests of the industry or the country.
The concessions that kept The Hobbit here are only a short-term salve. Other countries will always be ready to offer better deals. At some stage, local film-making will have to survive without the benefit of subsidies and suchlike.
Ultimately, the skills and talents of New Zealanders must be sufficient attractions for Hollywood. Unfortunately, the trend at present is taking the industry in the opposite direction.