A $35 million Government project to rebuild Auckland Film Studios is now being "prudently reviewed" after Amazon Studios' abrupt departure from filming the Lord of the Rings TV series in New Zealand.
The review of the Henderson studios expansion comes barely two weeks after it was announced as a "momentous milestone" for the local film industry by Auckland Council, which has contributed $5m of the $35m project.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said on August 3 when the Auckland Film Studios (AFS) expansion was announced it would bring tens of millions in expenditure and up to 300 production-related jobs to West Auckland.
Government officials only found out a day before the public, on August 13, of Amazon Studios' intention to move production of the $1 billion-plus LOTR show off Kiwi shores to the UK.
While the tourism and facilities arm of council, Auckland Unlimited, would not confirm Amazon Studios was renting the Henderson studios, several sources within the Kiwi film industry confirmed this was the case.
Amazon's LOTR is the second most expensive TV show ever to be produced, and its shock departure from its Auckland filming bases at Kumeu Studios and Auckland Film Studios (AFS) has been described as a huge blow for local tourism.
In a statement provided to the Herald, Auckland Unlimited chief executive Nick Hill said despite Amazon Studio's announcement "at this point, the expansion project's status is unchanged" but a review was under way.
"Auckland Unlimited indicated last week, following Amazon Studios' announcement, it would prudently review its options in relation to the [AFS] expansion – including discussing these with the Government as co-funding partner. That review is not yet complete," Hill said.
The Auckland Unlimited chief executive added yesterday they were monitoring any potential impact Covid-19 alert level restrictions might have on the planned start of work.
The Government has committed $30m to the AFS expansion, with Auckland Council contributing a further $5m to the expansion of the studios they own.
The funding will allow construction of two new 2000sq m sound stages and development of further workshops and offices at AFS.
Hill assured that Auckland Unlimited was confident there would be no shortage of demand for Auckland filming space, regardless of Amazon Studios' departure from New Zealand.
"Our focus has always been to support the wider industry in our region through a solid pipeline of domestic and international productions, and this focus remained irrespective of Amazon Studios' production being based here," Hill said.
"We are confident our region's world-class industry will remain strong amid growing global demand for screen content, and that there will be ongoing future demand for Auckland's studio infrastructure."
AFS has been the filming location for several international productions including Xena: Warrior Princess, Whale Rider, Power Rangers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and The Chronicles of Narnia.
A fire at AFS in 2014 severely damaged one of the studios and in 2017 a $500,000 renovation programme was undertaken by Auckland Council.
Minister of Tourism Stuart Nash said the Government only discovered on August 12 - a day before the public - Amazon was pulling the plug on LOTR production in Auckland.
"The international film sector is incredibly competitive and highly mobile. We have no regrets about giving this production our best shot with Government support," Nash said.
"However, we are disappointed for the local screen industry. Work will continue across Government on ways to keep supporting the sector."
National Party economic development spokesman Todd McClay blamed Nash for bungling negotiations with Amazon.
"Stuart Nash has shown a lack of interest in negotiating with Amazon, despite the huge impact the production could have on our economy."
On announcing the Henderson studio expansion, Goff described AFS as the backbone of the region's screen production industry for decades – hosting dozens of international and domestic television series and commercials, and feature film productions, and supporting numerous screen-related businesses nearby.
"The film industry brings high-paid, high-skilled jobs and creates a profile for the city. It's the sort of industry that Auckland wants to promote," Goff said.
"A much larger AFS facility will mean Auckland has another truly world-class option to host large-scale productions on a single studio site, or be able to host multiple small or mid-size projects at the same time. So the funding is hugely transformative for the region's screen industry."
New Zealand Film Commission chief executive David Strong reassured that Kiwi studios would still attract global interest despite Amazon Studios' departure.
"It's a shame and I feel for everyone who has put their hearts into this production. Season two was expected to begin later in 2022, so our role now is to work hard to keep the Kiwi screen sector employed," Strong said.
Amazon Studios confirmed that post-production on season one will continue in New Zealand through to June 2022 and that they will continue to explore and invest in New Zealand.
"In a year of Covid they brought in around $650m and employed nearly 2000 New Zealanders," Strong said.