19 Nov 2023

Producers pressure government to tax Netflix and co

From Mediawatch, 11:00 am on 19 November 2023

This week the people who make the local stuff for our screens big and small urged the powers-that-be to tax the likes of Netflix and Disney Plus to fund it. But producers here can already get tax breaks and public funding, so can they really persuade the incoming government to make the streaming services another source of funds?

John Campbell interviews film-maker  - and soon-to-be New Zealander - James Cameron at the SPADA 2023 conference on Thursday.

Photo: RNZ / Colin Peacock

The annual conference of Screen Producers NZ - still known by historic acronym SPADA - kicks off with a lecture which honours pioneering local moviemaker John O’Shea - a champion of the local industry since the days when film was the entire screen industry. 

This year TVNZ’s John Campbell conducted a sitdown chat with James Cameron, the Hollywood titan who made Titanic, Terminator and Avatar and who now lives and works mostly in New Zealand. 

John Campbell put what he called the standard “Kiwi cultural cringe” question for famous foreigners to James Cameron: What do you make of the place?

Cameron said he loves it and planned to become a New Zealand citizen next year. 

The news made TVNZ’s 6pm bulletin that night and New Zealand Herald website rushed it out as urgent news - though the ‘I love being a Wellingtonian’ headline might have miffed people across in Wairarapa where Cameron has owned land and homes for some time.  

James Cameron only had good things to say about filmmaking facilities and talent here - but he also warned it’s not cheap to film here and that New Zealand competes with the likes of Australia (which this year increased its rebate) and even faraway Croatia.

That pointed to the key issue for the local screen producers after the disruption of Covid: how to finance productions?  

Cameron - whose first film was 15 minutes long and funded by a dentist - said the Screen Production Rebate incentives productions can claim here were critical. 

International productions can get up to a quarter of their spending back - and New Zealand-made films can get two-fifths.

Tax breaks for hugely profitable offshore movie studios have been controversial in the past. Amazon Prime got a $100 million boost to film The Lord of the Rings television series here - and even that wasn’t enough to stop it going offshore after one series. 

But James Cameron was prepared for John Campbell raising that last Thursday. 

He read out a list of things his productions had bought and paid for here, including several hundred Air New Zealand flights.  

And he said there was another benefit - some skilled people who come to work on films here often end up staying, like himself. 

Bid to tax the streamers 

As part of a campaign called Love Local, SPADA urged the government to levy the New Zealand income of international streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime and Apple TV - and funnel that to public funding agencies. 

“The aim . . . is to get our new government to begin the work on what we might be able to do to get something out of the international TV streamers to contribute to local production,” SPADA president Irene Gardiner told Mediawatch.  

“Internationally, some territories are going for quotas, some are going for levies, some are going for a mixture of both.”

Would they be doing so if the likes of Disney Plus or Netflix carried more New Zealand-made content or made original productions here? 

“Netflix, Disney, Amazon and Apple have been pretty slow off the mark in terms of New Zealand commissions. There's been a couple and they've also bought some shows, but it's been a really slow start.

“If they said they would commission three or four significant New Zealand productions, that could change things. That would be in effect a voluntary quota.”

In the absence of that, SPADA wants the new government to consider its proposed levy. But past National-led governments haven't really wanted to regulate the media market. In the past Sky TV dominated pay-TV and delayed the arrival of Netflix and others in New Zealand, but the National-led governments did not intervene. 

National has also indicated it won’t support Labour’s Bill before Parliament to force Google and Meta to pay New Zealand news media companies for the content they carry on their digital services. 

“This is a business initiative. We're not asking the government for money - we're asking the government to do some work which would result in some new money coming into the industry. And it hasn't really been a fair playing field because the international streamers are taking viewership but they're not really contributing anything," Gardiner told Mediawatch. 

"They're not regulated in any way and they actually use New Zealand broadband infrastructure, which was funded  partially by taxpayers,” she said.  

In addition to the rebate for qualifying productions, New Zealand’s screen producers can also get money from the public purse from funding agencies the NZ Film Commission, NZ on Air and Te Māngai Pāho. 

Would any government under current economic circumstances respond to a call to open up another source of funds? 

“The money that's coming through from the Film Commission, Te Māngai Pāho and NZ on Air is actually for public media content, the ‘public good’ part of our industry. So I kind of see that as a separate thing. The rebate is much more of a business incentive . . . and for the New Zealand economy, it absolutely is a winner.

“Our (proposal) adds up financially and I think we also have a couple of other dimensions in that we also have quite a positive effect on tourism and that cultural thing of a little bit of New Zealand  - even with international productions - when they're made here.

“The strength of things like the rebate, and also that our producers are getting a bit more more entrepreneurial by nature. It does mean that you get a situation like Brokenwood Mysteries, which started with Sky (TV) money and is now almost entirely funded by international buyers deals and the rebate. It sells to nearly 100 territories.”