The future of movies here is uncertain, writes Graham Skellern
Garry Little felt a sense of irony and frustration when the New Zealand-made 3D movie Beyond the Edge hit the cinema screens.
His company DigiPost had completed some of its best work, mixing 60-year-old expedition footage with modern day shooting for the dramatic documentary that tells the story of Hillary and Norgay's 1953 ascent of Mt Everest.
When the movie opened late last month, Little had closed the doors and put his business on hold in Owens Rd, Epsom.
DigiPost, Auckland's biggest and longest serving post-production and visual effects company, had run out of major contracts after completing its work on Beyond the Edge.
Herald movie reviewer Russell Baillie said Beyond the Edge "is a feat of visual editing, even if its often vigorously heroic soundtrack can make you worry it's going to trigger an avalanche."
Little, the managing director, had to let his highly-skilled permanent staff of 28 go. His senior colourist is selling wine online, and his chief engineer is working at a Middlemore conferencing facility. "Some are trying to be freelance contractors getting the odd day for commercial work, but the majority are unemployed. Their top skills are not being fully utilised.
"Come Christmas time some will have to make the tough decision of upping stakes and working overseas. There's plenty of work in Britain, for instance," says Little.
Before Christmas he will make a decision about whether to sell DigiPost's assets and walk away from the Auckland film industry after more than 20 years.
The Auckland industry has captured more than 70 per cent of the country's film and television productions, contributing more than $2 billion a year to the regional economy. Auckland has 1440 screen businesses, making up 51 per cent of the national total, and they have employed more than 6000 people. But the industry has suffered a sharp downturn.
Little and his fellow shareholders established DigiPost in 1990 and invested about $9 million to expand it from one editing suite and a graphics design room into "a one-stop post-production destination."
DigiPost ended up with all the latest digital technology - Avid offline editing rooms, two sound mixing rooms with adjoining recording studios, multiple Flame, Inferno, Flare and Nuke VFX seats, three colour grading suites, several Maya 3D computer-generated imagery (CGI) seats, and a purpose-built grading and screening theatre.
DigiPost enjoyed the good times over the past decade, completing post-production for the television series, Spartacus, Legend of the Seeker and Power Rangers, and feature films such as Mt. Zion, The Most Fun You Can Have Dying, 30 Days of Night, Dean Spanley, Evil Dead, Love Birds and Beyond the Edge.
During the busy periods, DigiPost employed up to 45 people or more. "We ended up doing the bulk of the visual effects for Spartacus - 650-700 shots for each episode," Little said. "We had a dozen artists working split shifts in two rooms five days a week. It was massive and it showed our capability."
Now, DigiPost and the Auckland screen and digital sector is facing an uncertain future, as other countries - such as Britain, Ireland, South Africa and in South America - ramp up their incentives to attract business.
The New Zealand Government is steadfastly sticking to its 15 per cent grant for major film production, while the incentives in those other countries - and even in parts of United States outside Hollywood - have reached 25 per cent and more.
There is an argument that New Zealand's grants are not a cost to the taxpayer because the money has to first be spent here on production, and 15 per cent of the expenditure is then rebated after an application is made.
Production of 16 episodes of The Outlander began in Scotland last month and Starz Entertainment, which financed Spartacus, is also filming a second season of 10 Black Sails episodes in South Africa.
"Outlander is being shot entirely in a studio," said Little. "It could have been done anywhere in the world, and on the back of our success with Spartacus, we bid for it. But we lost out because of the 25 per cent incentives in Scotland.
"The industry in Britain did research and proved the case of how incentives can be an economic driver; their govenment brought in the 25 per cent incentive," he said.
"Television series are the bread and butter for us. Ten one-hour episodes are several feature films combined and the revenue from those productions run right through the local economy. Feature films are the icing on the cake," Little says.
Oscar-winning production designer Grant Major says the local film industry has been flat lately. "I can't say it's keeping people employed and there's talk of them going to Australia.
"If the Government doesn't take the business serious and make us more competitive in the outside world, then it will die.
"Big film companies come here under the impression that skilled crew are available. But we could return to the 1970s where those companies bring their own designer and key people."
Major says it is a tragedy DigiPost closed. "They did a brillant job for Beyond the Edge, and films that want to come here won't be able to use the visual effects company."
All is not lost for the Auckland screen and digital sector. There is talk that one United States movie will be filmed here this summer, and that it will soak up plenty of local crew.
William Grieve of Big Pictures is completing production of a Lipton Tea commercial for overseas television - the commercial features the New Zealand-invented Zorbs. He is also bidding for other projects.
Katie Kempe of Cherokee Films has just finished two five-day shoots for overseas television commercials - "they were decent sized productions" - and will be bidding for three more by the end of the year.
Companies like Big Pictures and Cherokee Films battle the impact of the high NZ dollar rather than the 15 per cent rebate (television commercial productions are not covered by the grant).
"Some work will come here for various reasons," says Grieve, "and hopefully the dollar won't always be high. If it comes back to 75c against the US dollar, then that will make a difference.
"Filming will go where it's the cheapest, and I've seen the industry go up and down before."
Kempe says the global television industry is buoyant and more filming is going to countries such as South Africa and Britain. "We can't get lower than South Africa because of our high exchange rate. It's definitely tougher, and I'm relying on repeat business and the long term relationships I've developed over 20 years in the business."
Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed), which operates Film Auckland, is talking with interested parties to find a way to secure the future of the industry.
"We have received an invitation from Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce to consider whether some sort of joint effort between Auckland and central government might produce ideas or initiatives to assist the industry," says Ateed chief executive, Brett O'Riley.
"We have taken up this invitation and working on an innovative approach which we think will be worth considering," he said.
"I'm hoping a definitive plan will be finalised by the end of the year."