The once-sunny $3.2 billion screen sector, which provided nearly 30,000 jobs in New Zealand, is suddenly in the grip of its longest winter. Fallout from Covid-19 has suspended big-ticket international productions indefinitely and forced our suddenly-amputated local industry to grapple with filming in an age of social distancing. Matt Nippert goes inside the sector to assess the damage to, and prospects for, an industry that recently was complaining of labour shortages and heralded by the government as the future of work.
The canary in the coalmine was no bird, it was a Beast. In early March producers of the survival thriller, slated to now be entering pre-production in Auckland, announced a pause the production company later said was to "help prevent the further spread of the coronavirus".
The Weekend Herald understands that despite New Zealand being home to only a handful of confirmed cases at the time, complex international financing for the film played a role in pushing global concerns about Covid-19 to the fore.
Felicity Letcher, a co-founder of prop-maker Main Reactor, now finds herself chairing a hastily formed pan-industry Covid-19 action group scrambling to triage local productions to provide defibrillation and prevent the entire sector flatlining.
She describes a week where a string of suspensions and cancellations of production in New Zealand followed the lead of Beast — including Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst's Netflix film The Power of the Dog, local Bain murder drama Black Hands — as "a string of dominoes".
Pure domestic productions — like South Pacific Pictures' Shortland Street — began radically scaling back the number of people on set as public health authorities began stressing the dangers of crowds and the importance of social distancing, before ceasing entirely as the level 4 lockdown, and an uncertain future for all, loomed.
Letcher says the screen sector is "very people-hungry, just like tourism" and is similarly vulnerable to the sudden cessation of international travel and crowds. "It's absolutely decimated the industry," she says.
And until very recently, the sector had been in rude health. According to Statistics New Zealand the sector generated $3.4 billion in revenues in 2018, providing 29,700 jobs to 16,200 people — largely in production and contractor roles.
Over the past two decades the sector had grown off a modest domestic base, fuelled largely by the use of subsidies to lure big-budget Hollywood projects whose production budgets stretched to nine figures and employed thousands of locals at a time as cast and crew.
Chief amongst the current crop of these tentpole productions were the long-gestating Avatar sequels being shot in Wellington and Amazon's Lord of the Rings television series based in West Auckland. Combined, they were expected to see more than a billion dollars in local production spend in the next few years.
Both projects suspended live filming shortly before lockdown, and it is now unknown when — or in what form — local activity will resume.
Many in the sector are still struggling to process the seismic shocks of the past month. Screen industry veteran John Barnett, who produced some of the country's most-loved shows and films like Whale Rider, Footrot Flats, Outrageous Fortune and Shortland Street, speaks for many when assessing recent events.
"Who'd have thought that, in the first instance, a virus in China could stop workers cutting trees in Gisborne?"
Newly-appointed New Zealand on Air (NZOA) boss Cameron Harland, who had only four days at his desk before lockdown turned his sector pear-shaped and sent him home to work his new job, says screen workers are used to stop-start work and changes in circumstance but recent events far exceeded any expectations.
"They're a pretty resilient lot, but this is absolutely at the far end of extreme," he says.
South Pacific Pictures boss Kelly Martin is hopeful of restarting
shooting once the country moves to a level 2 footing — with appropriate new safeguards put in place — but says for her industry there will be no going back to the golden days of an age ago in February.
"I think the world has changed for everyone. New Zealand is one thing — we're thinking we may be able to get up and running relatively soon — but what's going on in the US and UK? We don't know what that's going to look like," says Martin.
Letcher says under lockdown the sector is now 97 per cent unemployed, and even best-case scenarios of a restart will see widespread hardship and a lack of work.
"It is going to be a very long winter. You can't sugarcoat it for anyone," she says.
The starkest and clearest concern is the end, in the medium-term at least, of international live action production in this country. Even if New Zealand manages to get its own outbreak under control, the days of talent and executives jetting in from Los Angeles to Auckland or Wellington for a quick week of filming or a weekend check-up on their billion-dollar investment, are over.
Large-budget productions typically have hundreds of people on set. Even if international flights resumed, or private jets were chartered, likely quarantine requirements will add a month to every visit. Any return to business as usual for international productions will require eradication, or vaccination, by all parties involved — especially the United States which is presently the key source of funding, talent and audience.
And insurance in the age of Covid-19 is likely to prove another fearsome hurdle, as a fast-moving virus makes hedging the risks of a renewed outbreak — which could shut down production for weeks if not months — currently unpriceable.
"The uncertainty is what everyone finds so frightening," says Barnett.
And he says this new reality hasn't yet sunk in for some: "You can find people who are counting on there being a solution, but they don't want to face the reality that this is going to be bad, and a lot of people are going to get hurt. These productions are going to be a long time coming back here."
Lord of the Rings had been scheduled to take a months-long writing break for creatives to finish, but shooting is now indefinitely suspended. A source on the Avatar production told the Weekend Herald producers updated crew earlier this week: "They're basically in a holding pattern. All sets are down in Stone Street [in Miramar]: They'll be haemorrhaging money."
Some parts of the sector may survive the coming chill, with the Weekend Herald understanding some non-filming production work on Lord of the Rings is continuing, and while Avatar has ceased live-action filming, special effects work in Miramar is continuing.
Weta Digital, by far the largest single employer in this sector with a 2000-strong workforce and annual revenues of $200 million, did not respond to
inquiries this week about its work under Covid-19 and on
South Pacific's Martin says this slice of the industry had once been a source of strength, but its void was now a glaring weakness.
"We've become very, very reliant on the international sector — and that's what bolstered us over the past few years. That is all going to dry up for a long time, and no one knows for how long."
Independent director Jonathan King, responsible for Black Sheep and Under the Mountain but now a film lecturer at Massey University, says this scenario of international productions suddenly ceasing had always been a clear possibility if New Zealand had failed to keep up in the subsidy arms race.
He says while the Covid-19 was an unexpected trigger, the feared apocalypse has happened anyway. "They said we would grow our own intellectual property while we gave massive support to these overseas productions, and it's clear we didn't. We've 'grown' an industry that has nothing to work on now."
Both the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) and NZOA have rolled out quick-response development and content funding injections for the sector — $1m from the former, $400,000 from the latter — but both the funding bodies and the industry acknowledge old models need to rapidly change.
NZFC boss Annabelle Sheehan still believes Hollywood will return, but says how long winter will last is "very uncertain".
"I think a lot of people are speculating the world has changed forever, but I do believe there is a future for big budget productions — but we will certainly need to learn some innovative ways to get them made with less people in the same room," she says.
But in the short term at least, the world will change, and the NZFC will necessarily refocus on pushing local productions. "Everybody's got to look at redoing how they're operating."
NZOA's Harland, who arrived in his hotseat from an industry role at Weta Workshops, has a bigger budget for content than Sheehan, but sees a similar role for his organisation in trying to staunch some of the bleeding.
"We definitely see a role in trying to ramp up local production as a means of getting those skilled and talented crew back to work," he says.
"I don't think anyone knows how long the borders will be closed for, but it'll be quite some time and New Zealand will be functioning in a relatively decent way before that happens. So if we can get local productions up and running, and get people employed, that's what we'll do."
The practicalities of restarting filming, even for smaller domestic productions, are mind-bending.
Some formats seem tailor-made for pandemic lockdown, but Barnett sees fish hooks. "Can you imagine Big Brother with social distancing? That'd take all the fun out of it."
Barnett says producing drama faces obvious challenges: "Think about hair and makeup — you can't maintain social distance while doing that. Almost all the dramas you've got are up close and personal."
Not that these are insurmountable. Barnett says reducing numbers on set, to fit under whatever cap the ministry of health decides necessary to manage the risk of transmission, could be achieved by breaking crews into blocks with pre-production and the art department doing their work first before those responsible for live filming step in. "It might add 20 per cent to the length of a shoot, but it would be doable," he says.
Martin, whose domestic productions are in lockdown hiatus, is already planning for what restarting at level two will look like — and already there's some rapid rewriting of scripts and looking at fencing off certain on-set teams into bubbles.
"There will be adjustments: Social distancing between those actors in
will make for quite a change," she says.
Probably the biggest workstream of Letcher's Covid action group is the rapid drafting of new health and safety policies, which are watching related development elsewhere and are a rapidly evolving work in progress.
She cites attempts by sporting leagues in Australia — the AFL and NRL — to reboot in months by creating radical bubbles around teams as intriguing. "You would look to create that around key productions, around those who actually need to be physically present for production."
A likely gradual easing of restrictions will likely see smaller productions — documentaries and television commercials — be given the green light first, before larger sets are cleared for action.
And despite the rapidly-hardening frost, there is some hope that New Zealand may be spared the worst — and indeed be in a position to prosper in the days to come. One positive in the current crisis is dramatically increased demand for content as people spend more on screens, and production suspensions will soon see platforms find their cupboards bare.
"We need to stand up our domestic production first, and show international producers we can film here. Show them we know how to do it safely, and trust us to do it," says Letcher.
She says New Zealand's progress in flattening the curve could well see the country become the first in the English-speaking world to resume screen production. "The conversations we're having internationally shows there's a massive appetite for product, and we know that content delivered soon is going to be getting a premium — we need to take advantage of the situation we're in."
But Martin warns that this hope needs to be tempered by a realisation that even a future local boom won't be able to fill the void left by Hollywood: "Focusing on the local production sector will create a decent amount of work. Whilst not everyone who might have been on Lord of the Rings or Avatar will be working straight away, there could be opportunities for a decent number."