6 Dec 2020

NZ screen industry's brain gain: 'There's no place like home'

From Standing Room Only, 5:02 pm on 6 December 2020

After decades of the so-called "brain drain", as New Zealand's best and brightest headed off to pastures new overseas, this year saw a sudden reversal. They call it a "brain gain", as the Covid-19 pandemic encouraged many expats to come home.

That included people with skills to contribute to our burgeoning screen industry.

However some are finding a lukewarm - if not downright hostile - welcome home from some locals, protective of their patch.

Rosie Carnahan, Gregor Jordan and Polly Fryer

Rosie Carnahan, Gregor Jordan and Polly Fryer Photo: Supplied

This weekend saw a rescheduled Big Screen Symposium arranged by Script to Screen.  And in it, a panel of returned screen professionals shared their stories with an audience, and generated a discussion about how best to use the skills they've brought back with them.

Lynn Freeman talked with agent at Karen Kay Management, Rosie Carnahan-Darby, Australian writer/director Gregor Jordan of Ned Kelly and Buffalo Soldiers fame, and producer Polly Fryer working from her home in Auckland.

Each of these film industry professionals returned to New Zealand amid the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving behind colleagues and jobs and eventually realising they were likely to stick around for longer.

For Rosie Carnahan-Darby, a yearly return to New Zealand was important for her family - but when Covid-19 hit, they found themselves in an "organic process of coming back".

"We packed our bags and left within days thinking we would ride it out here for a couple of months and enjoy the end of the summer," she said. "We trusted the government here and then nine months later we're still here and I'm working."

Polly Fryer was working as a content executive for Netflix in Los Angeles and had been working from home for the first 15 weeks of the pandemic. She discovered that Netflix was open to employees working from outside of the US to "ride out the pandemic", so she decided to bring her family home.

"I've basically been still doing my content executive job at Netflix from my house in Grey Lynn," she said. "So I get up very early and I work Los Angeles hours with my colleagues and the productions that I manage in Los Angeles."

But since returning to New Zealand, Fryer and her family discovered they didn't have any desire to return to Los Angeles.

"I don't actually envisage going back to Los Angeles, I actually envisage staying here in New Zealand," she said. "And I don't think that will work for my role at Netflix for much of 2021, so I'll probably be looking to finish that role at Netflix and get more involved in the local industry."

However, both were shocked by some of the negative comments surrounding returning New Zealanders.

"I think we all naively thought that we were coming home and everyone would welcome us with open arms, because we're kiwis and of course we want to be here," Carnahan-Darby said. "And then I noticed some xenophobic comments ... we are still connected with the country, we are Kiwis, we only want to help, we only want to come home and bring whatever knowledge we have from overseas back here and invest it in our country."

While she said she recognised the stress and job losses many in the film industry had experienced, it wasn't their intention to take jobs away from locals.

"Our intention is to bring all that wonderful knowledge and skills that we've earned over the last twenty years back here to help make an already amazing industry even better."

Bringing local content to the world was one area in which Fryer believed her overseas experience could be beneficial.

"Particularly with the new round of funding for the premium production funding, where the real idea is to take NZ's intellectual property to the world and help step up our local content makers onto a global scale.

"I feel like I have some really good knowledge and skills to bring to that conversation and I can hopefully collaborate with some of our fabulous producers here, who've got some great things to share with the world and just help them a bit more with how to share those, how to frame those, how to get the production values up, how to really connect with the audiences that are the subscribers to those streaming services."

Australian director Gregor Jordan, who is married to a New Zealand, said returning was important for him and his wife to connect with the cultures that grew them, way of "reconnecting with your creative roots.

"That is an important part of being a creative person as well, because after being away for a while, you start to realise well, the culture that formed me and gave me my sense of humour and gave me my creative instincts and my tastes and everything, is where I'm from," he said.

"Because you know going around the world and telling stories about other people's cultures is an interesting learning experience, but at the end of the day I guess there's no place like home."

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