25 Oct 2013

Screen industry facing tough times

5:34 pm on 25 October 2013

Film and television producers and directors in New Zealand say the Government is too reliant on big budget film production and needs to pump more funding into small and mid-size productions.

Many in the screen industry say it is in crisis and the sector is battling to stay alive without any major international productions due to come to the region. At least one long-standing production company has been forced to close and many others laying off staff, most of them in Auckland.

An empty studio at Auckland Film Studios in Henderson.

An empty studio at Auckland Film Studios in Henderson. Photo: PHIL GREGORY

Production and post-production companies say work is going elsewhere because the New Zealand incentive scheme for large productions is not competitive. They say the 15% tax rebate does not match other countries' tax breaks, such as Ireland which offers 32%.

Geoff Husson, the director and producer of a pilot that began filming at Avalon Studios in Lower Hutt on Friday, says the big problem is that the infrastructure for smaller productions does not exist and there is no strategy for it to develop.

"What we're trying to do is to encourage other people like us to either make pilots or get commissioned or get Government support to help smaller shows, so that we have maybe 10, 15, 20 shows a year that fills the gap between the big films."

Spartacus was the last major production in Auckland, and since it finished filming in October 2012 many in the industry have been struggling to find work.

The downturn has also affected post-production work with one major studio, Digipost, making its remaining 28 staff redundant in September.

Digipost managing director Garry Little says increasing the production incentive would attract more work to New Zealand and also help to keep skilled people in the country. He says the industry is almost at the point of no return.

The owner of agency Auckland Actors, Graham Dunster, says there are no more big projects in the pipeline and the industry's infrastructure is evaporating.

Phil Gregory, who owns a prop-making company in west Auckland, is also struggling to find work. He says if the bigger productions do not come to New Zealand, it is going to be extremely hard to make small home-grown features.

The effects of the downturn are also being felt outside Auckland - the chief executive of Avalon Film and Television Studios in Lower Hutt, Paul Mannering, says there is not a lot of local production coming its way.

Mr Mannering says those relying on the local television market, such as the free-to-air channels, to provide work are finding it particularly difficult.

Television freelance writer, director and researcher Margaret Gordon, who lives in Christchurch, says she is moving to Australia next year in search of work because her income dried up this year. She says many freelancers in Christchurch are now moving into construction industry roles.

Govt acknowledges problem

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce concedes some television and film production companies are struggling and describes it as a challenging period.

He says the Government is working hard with agencies, including the New Zealand Film Commission, on a long-term solution.

Mr Joyce says Auckland in particular has issues and the Government is in talks with the Auckland Council to look at what it can do over and above the incentives offered by the Government.

Mr Joyce admits it is hard to compete with other countries offering better incentives but told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme the key to making the film industry sustainable is more development and control of local stories.

He says key players such as filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson and producer Robert Tapert, who was behind Spartacus, also need to choose to keep making films here instead of going offshore.

Freelance television director Jonathan Brough, who has moved to Melbourne, says the responsibility for making the film industry sustainable lies with the Government.

He says the Government is too reliant on big budget film productions, which will go to the cheapest place to make movies, and that is no business model for an industry.

Mr Brough says changes to legislation are needed which would force broadcasters such as Sky Television to make local programmes, as is the case in Australia.

Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development, which is part of the Auckland Council, will meet with Mr Joyce in the next fortnight to pitch its strategy to revive the ailing industry, focusing on smaller players in commercials, television, animation and gaming.