Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the arts should never be treated as a "nice to have", and a commercial focus for public broadcasting made for less courageous productions.

Ardern made the comments at the opening of the Screen Production and Development Association conference in Wellington today.

Spada co-president Richard Fletcher introduced Ardern, warning of "unprecedented disruptive change" in the industry and a need to rethink existing business models.

"New Zealand content speaks to all people of every age and every background. Its sanctity must therefore be protected and strengthened."


He said there was a need for "culture" to be at the forefront of industry incentives, "not the commercial imperative of the previous National Government".

Ardern agreed, saying a focus on commercial viability was a disincentive for artists to push boundaries.

"As long as we constrained by the boundaries of a platform driven by commercial imperatives, we are personally not being as courageous as storytellers as we could be. That's why public broadcasting is so very important."

She said the arts shaped who we are and our sense of identity, so it should never be treated as a "nice to have", though it was important to acknowledge that the industry contributed $1 billion to GDP in 2015.

"It's always taken as a given that there is an economic contribution, but that should never be the primary focus."

She said it was also important to treat the arts as a career, similar to any other industry for which the Government supports training, education, apprenticeships and infrastructure.

Ardern was given a warm welcome that prompted her to quip that the applause had used up 30 seconds of her allotted three-minute speaking time.

She told the audience how lucky she was in having the Arts Culture and Heritage portfolio, adding that "luck probably didn't have anything to do with it because I chose the portfolio myself".

She recalled being so moved by Gaylene Preston's documentary War Stories as a teenager that she enrolled in a film class at Waikato University and joined a group of people trying to start a television station.

"It didn't end well."

She said she never wanted to see the industry "on the brink", losing productions to overseas competitors.

She only alluded to the controversial Hobbit law once, saying that she wanted to continue the collaborative approach that Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway had started.

Lees-Galloway has announced a cross-industry working group to look at an enduring solution to the issues around the Hobbit law, which made it practically impossible for film and television workers to collectively bargain.

Ardern said the Government would focus on putting together a 10-year industry strategy, following its 100-day programme.