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The most unexpected business move of the year so far must be Michael Stiassny buying into troubled hip-hop music label Dawn Raid. But the coming together of corporate warrior Stiassny with the hip South Auckland label makes sense when you paint his friend and fellow investor John Barnett into the picture.

Stiassny and Barnett - the managing director of South Pacific Pictures - put up the money to rescue Dawn Raid after it went into liquidation in April.

Stiassny was involved in the label through his accountancy firm Ferrier Hodgson while Barnett - or Barney as he is known in the film and TV world - brings entertainment industry nous to the rescue package.

Stiassny says he knew Barnett from around the Jewish community and respected his ability to pick talent.

"We came to Dawn Raid from different directions," he said.

Barnett was executive producer for the feature film Sione's Wedding, for which Dawn Raid partners Brotha D and Andrew Murnane oversaw the soundtrack.

Barnett explains: "Michael's company Ferrier's had been doing a lot of work with the company when the difficulties occurred.

"I think Michael thought the idea [of an investment] was quite amusing and knew I'd be interested. The guys had built a business and expanded a bit quickly. It is always a shame to see a business go under," says Barnett, who stresses they are investors and not running Dawn Raid.

Still - Michael Stiassny and hip hop? It's an odd mix?

"Never mind Michael - what about me and hip hop?" chuckles Barnett a 62-year-old businessman. It is equally hard to imagine him krumping in the Mangere town centre.

In an interview at South Pacific's studios in industrial Henderson he stresses his personal money is going into Dawn Raid and not that of South Pacific Pictures, which is 60 per cent owned by UK production giant All 3 Media.

Barnett's interest in hip hop makes sense when you look at his diverse CV and investment portfolio.

His roles have included being an investor in the very early days of National Business Review, manager for comedian John Clarke (aka Fred Dagg), and a film producer and distributor.

He has been involved with film exhibition and was a potential newscaster.

Separately South Pacific has invested in Satellite Media, which includes the music magazine Rip It Up, Maori production company Kura, and a Sydney-based animation company.

The relentless rise of Barnett has mirrored the rise of the independent film and TV business where he has been a significant force. It is the story of a man who is well connected in both business and political circles - he is friends with the elite on the left including Prime Minister Helen Clark, Associate Arts Minister Judith Tizard and broadcaster Brian Edwards, and film exhibition luminaries such as Joe Moodabe and Barrie Everard.

Business connections have been added to his reputation as a fearless champion for the private sector chiselling into the TV sector - so he is respected by business and the Tories. Barnett has a reputation as a wily and tough negotiator, as passionate, highly focused and, according to many, generous with his time and assistance.

Phil Smith, managing director of Great Southern Television, the company that makes high-rating shows such as Lion Man and Eating Media Lunch, says Barnett has been a friend to the company. An example: "We were at Cannes and he introduced us to his partners All 3 who are a big players in Europe.

"He made sure I met them and said 'This is a good company - you should do business with them'."

Tim Thorpe, executive director of lobby group the Screen Council, says of Barnett: "For a man who is so busy and has so much to do he puts an incredible amount of time into industry issues."

It's interesting that Barnett's latest business foray is with a rescue package for Dawn Raid. He made his first media investment in the same way - aged just 25 - as one of team of people including author A.K. Grant and publisher Reg Birchfield who took over the National Business Review in 1970 during its early troubles.

He drifted into film producing Middle Age Spread and worked through the 1980s in an era where the industry was kickstarted - some say damaged - by tax breaks.

Later he made a name producing Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale, pulling together money himself because the Film Commission at the time did not support animated movies.

"Fay Richwhite did that with the money coming from people who gave $5000 and $10,000," he said.

Private investment is arguably tougher in film now than it was, but Barnett believes that where it does occur it should be relatively small where there is a realistic prospect of their getting a return and ideally where the investors bring something to the table and not just money.

An investment by his friend Moodabe - a senior executive with SkyCity cinemas - is a case in point. Latterly he chaired a company with Richard Griffin and Barry Soper that sought a warrant to run the news service of what became TV3, a warrant that was subsequently dropped.

But it is with movies such as Footrot Flats and Beyond Reasonable Doubt, and more recently Whale Rider and Sione's Wedding, where he has arguably made the biggest impact.

Putting aside the formidable achievements of Peter Jackson - who Barnett says is a genius - Barnett has been our highest achiever in the production of film and television.

He clearly has a soft spot for film - which he says has the potential to create the greatest value by having a "long tail" in terms of future revenues, compared with television.

"It is like Outrageous Fortune", he says, referring to the TV show whose format rights have been sold overseas.

"It will be adapted to other series but will eventually be forgotten about.

"But Whale Rider is a name that everybody in the world knows about, " he says.

Barnett has been a vocal critic of the Film Commission, whose grants underpin the film industry, and still nurses wounds over what he said was a fight to win funding for Sione's Wedding. Commission staff said it would not work.

Bartlett has produced five of the 10 top grossing local films, with Whale Rider second and Sione's Wedding fourth. He says the industry has not developed as it should.

"Film is not really an industry. It is still fairly random and hit and miss. It has never been encouraged to think as a business and the emphasis has been on the art."

By contrast he says the funding agency for television - New Zealand On Air - has been more accountable and made shows that people watch.

And so we come to South Pacific Pictures, the company that has provided the platform for Barnett's energy both here and abroad.

The former TVNZ drama department was already a success when it was privatised.

Barnett provided the industry smarts while listed UK media company Chrysalis had the overseas connections.

A third partner, Force Corporation, sold out when it was merged with SkyCity and Chrysalis later sold its TV interests to All 3 Media.

The result, Barnett notes, is that South Pacific is valued as a UK company and worth more than it would be if it were valued here. Barnett says he runs South Pacific without any pressure from All 3.

Clearly there have been a lot of factors in the growth of the non-Peter Jackson screen production industry.

But even Barnett's critics - and he has some in this close knit industry - will tell you he is a big part of its success.


John Barnett
Position: Managing director of South Pacific Pictures.
Age: 62.
Born: Auckland.
Education: Auckland Grammar and Victoria University of Wellington.
Career: Publishing, film and television production.
Hobbies: Movies, reading and "turning dreams into drama".