14 Jun 2020

Covid-free NZ - the answer to the film industry's prayers?

From Standing Room Only, 5:44 pm on 14 June 2020

A leading Australian screen industry figure says New Zealand's Covid-free status gives it a huge advantage when it comes to enticing high-value overseas film and TV productions.  

Behind the scene. Cameraman and assistant shooting the film scene with camera on outdoor location

Photo: 123RF

The high-profile production of the Avatar sequels has been getting all the headlines - not all favourable - but according to producer and film-maker Tony Ayres that's just scraping the surface.

There's untapped money to be made from worldwide film and television projects currently in desperate need of safe and versatile locations, with experienced crew available.

Ayres is a screenwriter and director and producer on several TV series including The Slap.  He's also the executive producer on a soon-to-be announced project to be filmed in New Zealand. The Script to Screen initiative recently invited him to confer with New Zealand film makers about the logistical challenges they face at the moment, and he told RNZ's Lynn Freeman the New Zealand government should invest more in the screen industry here as part of its economic recovery plan.

"Quite simply there are increasingly fewer places that are as safe as New Zealand to film in, and if you want to attract that sort of footloose production - shows that are possibly set in America or Britain but filmed in other places - those shows tend to have bigger budgets, really significant amounts of money.

"If you give them all the reasons why they can make their show in your country you've got the chance to benefit from that. I know for a fact people are already looking towards New Zealand. So for the government to shore up the infrastructure it's such a smart thing to do."

Tony Ayres

  Tony Ayres Photo: supplied

Ayres says the Australian screen industries have not had the same encouragement and support New Zealand has offered.

"We came to a crashing halt. I was doing this show for Netflix called Clickbait, and we'd filmed 6 episodes with 2 episodes to go, and we suddenly had to stop. I'm working in post-production [on the filmed] episodes now, but we're just hoping at some stage to be able to start up again.

"For the rest of the industry production is starting to slowly happen, and there are a few shows that have started. There are new strict guidelines and protocol about the working process, which we'll all have to adapt to - of course we want to make safe environments for people to work, so there's no point rushing back into production and then someone getting Covid and then everything shutting down again.

"I'm assuming that's what every industry around the world has to grapple with right now."

Like Shortland Street in New Zealand, which was able to restart filming relatively early, Neighbours and productions filmed on a set-type controlled environment had been able to film when others had not, Ayres says.

"People are using a lot of long lenses, because when you use a long lens it makes people look closer when they're further apart."

Australian soap Neighbours being filmed with Covid guidelines in place, on 14 May.

Australian soap Neighbours being filmed with Covid guidelines in place, on 14 May. Photo: AFP

In New Zealand, debate was sparked when Avatar crew and their family-members were allowed entry to the country as an exception, despite strict immigration rules.

The same quandry is also brewing in Australia, Ayres says.

"To get international actors in you need an exemption, and I've heard of one actor who's been given an exemption to come into the country. It's a genuinely tricky question - the economic argument is it's about allowing an industry to start working again.

"I can see that people from the other side of the fence might see this as incredibly privileged; but we want to get people back to work, we want to give people economic opportunities, and the only way to do that is if we can bring the cast back in."

Inevitably there will be a gap in completed productions, caused by the months of Covid shut downs throughout the world.

"All this work that was aimed to be delivered in this year will be pushed into next year, so there will be programming lag - although we may not notice it so much, because there's so much programming being made in the world," he says.

"What this time has shown is the value of story-telling and screen stories, and books and music, and the arts in general - to the way in which we live our lives in isolation - the arts have been a crucial companion to us.  

"And for us in Australia we don't have a government that's sympathetic towards the arts, so there's an irony and we're all seeing it at this time."

Experiences of Covid-19 will be reflected in many ways in stories told through film and television, and that experience of exploring and viewing it both in challenging ways and potentially more soothing or entertaining ways, will be part of the process of digesting what has happened, Ayres says.

"Globally we are in a content boom in the screen industries, because of the streaming services.

"And the most important thing at the moment is original voices in writing, everyone's looking for that voice to work with, the really interesting new writers, so there are opportunities."