Whanganui's economic development agency has been working for months on bringing large-scale international productions to the Whanganui region. It's says the economic potential is huge and the reputational benefits could be even bigger. Ethan Griffiths looks at the effort to put Whanganui on the big screen.
As the world continues to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic ravaging industries that for the most part still can't come together in person, the film industry has searched for an out.
They've found it in New Zealand, and Whanganui in particular could reap the benefits of the Hollywood exodus.
According to some reports, about nine Hollywood feature film or television productions are currently filming in spots across the country.
Rolling hills and majestic mountainscapes are no longer the only drawcards for productions coming to New Zealand, with a Fordell farm and State Highway 3 bridge attracting Oscar-winning directors to the district, bringing with them large crews.
When the production for a new film called "X" came to town earlier this year, hotels were booked out, contractors and talent alike ate out at local restaurants and photos of a Patea beach and Majestic Square were beamed out by stars to millions of followers on social media.
And when the films are subsequently released, the beauty and attraction of the region will be displayed millions across the globe to see.
But what has sparked the sudden popularity of Whanganui in particular as a production location?
Last year, the Whanganui District Council's economic arm Whanganui and Partners decided to get in on the action, setting up Film Whanganui.
The group exists to act as a regional film office, working with the New Zealand Film Commission to attract both local and international productions.
The office is led by Emma Bugden, Whanganui and Partners' Strategic Lead for Creative Industries and Arts.
Since the group was formed, both Whanganui and Partners and Bugden have stayed quiet on the details of the projects but are open about the serious benefits they provide to the local economy.
"Whanganui is a beautiful region to film in and we have a lot going for us in terms of film production," Bugden said.
"Our heritage buildings and distinctive architecture are attractive to some productions, while our mild weather and affordability are also in Whanganui's favour. We established Film Whanganui with an eye on the future of film production in the region and we expect to build on our success to date."
However, the scale and significance of these projects are unknown. Despite asking, no information has been provided to the Chronicle on their significance, which Bugden says is a result of commercial sensitivity.
"Part of working with production companies is respecting their commercial sensitivities, which means we're not able to talk about our work in great detail. And every production is different.
"But the kind of support we might offer could range from helping productions access council processes such as road closures and wastewater management, connecting them to local land and building owners, as well helping them use local contractors, accommodation and crew. It's about using our local knowledge to connect local businesses with production companies."
As part of its drive to grow the Whanganui production sector, Film Whanganui has sourced the help of local industry professionals.
Kevin Double is one half of Whanganui-based production group Double Farley. Double has experience in productions across New Zealand, telling stories not only on a global scale, but locally too.
"Having someone like Emma in place and that office with the associated protocols and relationship management is incredibly important," Double said.
The experienced storyteller is a big believer in the potential for the district, but said it's fundamental that work goes into developing and maintaining relationships with production companies.
"In the brief sort of work we have done with bigger production companies, it's like comfortable slippers. You don't want to keep putting new shoes on all the time. If they go somewhere and have a good experience, they'll keep coming back.
"It's not so much about the locations themselves, it's the experience they have here."
Sacha Keating, from Whanganui-based Te Aio Productions, recently was contracted to work on a Netflix production that partially filmed in Whanganui but said that role came from connections in Auckland, rather than Whanganui.
Keating said there was a large amount of talent in Whanganui and it was important there was an established body that worked in consultation with local practitioners, not just the production companies.
"We haven't established an infrastructure promoting the practitioners," Keating said.
"[Film Whanganui] is a good start but it'd be nice to be consulted. None of us were consulted about that either, and that's the point. Consult with the practitioners and you'll get the answers you need."
Keating also believed there was more of an opportunity for Whanganui than just international productions, suggesting the district could put together its own productions.
"We've got everything we need. We could be shooting our own films to be honest. We've got enough of us working in collaboration, through camera, sound, wardrobe, lighting and art department.
"There's huge potential. Our environment, our stories, and the number of talented practitioners we've actually got in town. It's just about money coming in."
Economic benefit 'huge'
The economic impact of these productions is monumental, according to one contractor who was at the heart of one of New Zealand's biggest film projects.
Whanganui-based potter Ivan Vostinar was the lead potter in the props department for The Hobbit trilogy.
Vostinar spent two years perfecting thousands of items for the production in what was the biggest contract in his career, and a turning point in his life.
"The Hobbit production allowed me for the first time in my life to have savings," Vostinar admitted.
"I was an artist earning enough to pay my rent and the bills. The project got me a house, and I had to work hard for it, but I view it as a lucky break."
Vostinar said for many other artists involved in the production, it also served as one of their most significant projects, not only providing them with a valuable contract, but also the potential for further opportunities in productions down the line.
"It gives a lot of people who are creatives a leg up and the opportunity to make their career," he said.
Whanganui District Mayor Hamish McDouall has been keeping a close eye on the movement in the production space but claims to have very little knowledge on the projects, other than knowing they're in town.
"It sounds funny to not know anything about these projects, but I understand that non-disclosure agreements have been signed by just about everybody," he said.
"I've signed nothing which is good, but equally I don't know anything."
But from the small amount McDouall does know, there are multiple projects in works, each with its own significant contribution to the Whanganui economy.
"It's pretty exciting. The one that wrapped a few weeks ago seemed to have booked every rental car in the lower North Island, and at least two hotels here.
"And I know that there are at least three others floating around. That's probably the most exciting thing."
On the rumours the latest production to hit town would be taking advantage of Whanganui's heritage architecture, McDouall said it was something that had been talked about for a while.
"I remember back when the Ridgway Street buildings were protected by council back in 2013. One of the justifications was that this was unique to have so many heritage buildings in a row. Someone said we're bound to get film productions coming here, and look what's happened."
"It's great for Whanganui and it's great for our economy. I'm excited to see what comes out of it."