International film and television producers have been paid bonuses by the government for shoehorning "corny" New Zealand references into their scripts, resulting in a pavlova-baking Power Ranger and an offer by Sir Richard Taylor to relocate the secret island base of the Thunderbirds to the Kermadecs.
The payments included $1.6 million paid to producers of TV show Power Rangers in return for references including having a New Zealand-born character spend an entire episode trying to bake a pavlova.
Another episode of the martial arts action programme for children featured an apparently popular home-grown boy band called the N-Zed Boys who sang a ballad featuring lyrics such as "I'll build a city of love in the skies for two".
The payments and promises, from a pool of taxpayer support for film-makers that has deepened and broadened since Lord of the Rings in the late 1990s, have been uncovered in Inside Wellywood, a Herald investigation exploring the nexus between the Wellington-dominated film industry and the Beehive.
The series of Power Rangers in question was produced in 2016 and initially qualified for a 20 per cent subsidy (worth $6.5m) but the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) approved it for an additional 5 per cent uplift ($1.6m) believing the script references represented "significant economic benefits".
NZFC head of marketing Jasmin McSweeney says the series had "more than 20 references to New Zealand in total" (a YouTube compilation shows 103, mostly passing, Kiwi references) including two episodes set in Auckland, exposure worth more than $5.3m.
Asked about the Power Rangers pavlova, Grant Robertson, Finance Minister and Associate Arts and Culture Minister, said: "I'm not going to comment on specific productions, but what I would note is that the criteria for the uplift has been tightened in recent years."
Despite the NZFC's defence of the uplift, McSweeney noted eligibility for the bonus payments had been tightened in 2017 and Power Rangers no longer qualified.
Other producers seeking additional funding by promising to localise their international stories included Weta Workshops co-founder Sir Richard, who complained to then-Arts Minister Chris Finlayson in June 2013 about an inability for his Pukeko Pictures to access taxpayer funding for Thunderbirds - despite offers to relocate Tracy Island to Raoul Island and make one of the puppets a New Zealander.
Even Finlayson, the Minister for Culture and Heritage from 2008-2014, wasn't willing to defend the policy and describes the Power Rangers pavlova episode as "really corny - and I'm happy to be quoted on that".
Finlayson says there was a "world of difference" between supporting genuine local content on the screen - citing Boy and Mt Zion - and the "forced shoehorning" dug up by the Herald investigation.
Finlayson says he was a fan of Thunderbirds from his youth, but the series was clearly not about New Zealand.
"We have plenty of good stories to tell - you don't have to have a Māori princess playing Lady Penelope," he says.
Finlayson wrote back to Taylor, advising: "I cannot intervene directly in funding decisions", but signalled that the Cabinet was already considering moves which would "address a number of concerns raised in your email".
A subsequently announced policy change broadened access of television producers to the large-budget screen-production fund - originally created to attract large-scale Hollywood film productions - and Thunderbirds went on to receive $2.9m in taxpayer funding.
The new funding didn't come with strings attached, and the proposed New Zealand story elements were scrapped.
Pukeko Pictures chief executive Clive Spink said in a statement to the Herald: "In its early stages, we proposed certain New Zealand elements to the story but despite our best efforts, we weren't able to meet all the criteria of the application and thus resulted in some of the planned New Zealand elements not being included."
Taylor, who declined to be interviewed by the Herald citing work commitments, defended his actions.
"While some might think I have possible influence over Government policy the reality is significantly less exciting and in fact this is the first and only time I have ever written to a minister on a decision to do with grants that I can recall."
Taylor said: "There is great reason for us to be proud of [Thunderbirds] as it has brought significant benefits to the Wellington and New Zealand screen industry, including jobs for an average of 50 screen technicians over the past five years."
Briefing notes to Finlayson obtained under the Official Information Act show Taylor had written to Finlayson just one day after the New Zealand Film Commission rejected Thunderbirds for funding as Taylor's concessions were not deemed sufficient to make the story distinctly Kiwi.
In the briefing notes, the commission said: "It would be very difficult for viewers to accept Tracy Island as anything but a mysterious island in the South Pacific and it would still be referred to as Tracy Island throughout the series - furthermore, there were no references to NZ or Raul Island in the script provided."