Big names jetting in to check local facilities as government grants lure new productions

Hollywood is back on New Zealand's doorstep as a growing number of feature films and television series made by and starring some of the industry's biggest names come here to be made.

One of tinsel town's heaviest hitters, film producer Harvey Weinstein, made a flying visit to New Zealand this week to see the crew of his current project, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, which is being filmed near Auckland, and to scope out the area for future ventures.

An influx of projects including the three Avatar sequels, Disney's remake of Pete's Dragon and "the teenage Game of Thrones" - Shannara - are also due to start production soon, less than a year after concern was expressed at the dire state of the local industry.

Michael Fassbenber and Rachel Weiz are filming the drama Light Between the Oceans in Otago and Star Trek star Chris Pine recently finished the sci-fi film Z For Zachariah near Christchurch.

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Insiders here say government grants for those spending between $15 million and $50 million on New Zealand production are behind the boost, but believe a renewed focus on industry-specific infrastructure, such as high-spec film studios, would bring even more and bigger jobs.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce said exact dollar figures showing the rebate's impact were not yet known - but it was likely to bring "tens of millions" to the economy.

"[The rebate] was a key factor in rebuilding interest in New Zealand. It's not just that, of course, it's obviously our landscapes, people, innovations - it's all part of the offering."

As of April 1, the New Zealand Screen Production Grant replaced the previous Large Budget Screen Production Grant and Screen Production Incentive Fund to give international productions shot here grants of up to 20 per cent of expenditure.

A further 5 per cent can be given if a production provides significant economic benefits and activities to strengthen the local industry. Previously, the grant was 15 per cent. The scheme is expected to return about $50 million a year to film companies through grants.

Weinstein, known for founding Miramax Films and now the head of the Weinstein Company, jetted into Auckland on Wednesday.

"The landscapes of New Zealand have provided unbelievable backdrops and Auckland Film Studios has been an incredible partner in making this film," Weinstein said.

He dined that night at the inner-city O'Connell St Bistro with cast and crew from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel. Among the guests was X-Men producer Ralph Winter, who is executive producer of The Green Legend, which will be simultaneously released in Imax theatres and on internet streaming site Netflix in August. Glee star Harry Shum Jnr stars in the movie, and his social media presence has been filled with Kiwi content for the last few months. Michelle Yeoh is reprising her role from the original Oscar-nominated film, which came out in 2000.

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Weinstein is believed to have flown back to the US shortly after the dinner, but not before testing the region for potential.

Graham Dunster of the Auckland Actors talent agency said the Weinstein Company probably had up to 30 projects under way at any one time, so there were few clues about what he was looking for.

Mr Dunster said he had no doubt the tax rebates were behind the attraction of New Zealand.

In December, James Cameron signed a memorandum of understanding stating at least $500 million would be spent in NZ making his next three Avatar films, due to start filming this month. He would not have made the films here without the new incentive scheme, reports said.

Mr Dunster said New Zealand needed to expand its industry-specific infrastructure - especially in terms of film studios.

"We're competing with every [other country]. The one thing we don't have, and need to be more competitive with, is film studios. They're not big enough to attract big productions; it's holding us back."

There were only a few high-spec film studios: Stone Street Studios in Wellington, largely used by Sir Peter Jackson's own projects; South Pacific Pictures' studios, which were busy filming their own TV productions; Auckland Film Studios; and Studio West.

Studio West director David Rowell said the tax breaks bolstered his business instantaneously.

"When the incentives were reset, there was an immediate impact on the industry, and we've seen quite a bit of interest ever since."

He said the Glen Eden premises were full and booked out with up to four upcoming projects, details of which were confidential.

Companies were looking to film anything from feature films to smaller projects like TV pilots, and the interest was benefiting a range of businesses from studios and technician companies to set crews and prop suppliers, caterers and hospitality providers.

"All this new money is pouring into the country and employing hundreds of people and bringing film technicians who had left back [home]."

"There is a gap in the industry. We're missing out on certain types of production because of the lack of big studio space."

New Zealand productions also benefit from the rebate scheme and are eligible for grants of up to 40 per cent of expenditure. The industry delivers more than $1.2 billion directly to the country's GDP, according to a PwC report.