6 May 2020

Could the film industry revive Queenstown Lakes Covid-19 crippled economy?

6:47 pm on 6 May 2020

The film and screen industry can help Queenstown Lakes' crippled economy emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, advocates say.

The TSS Earnslaw steam ship on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown.

The Queenstown Lakes region is already an attractive location to film, but a studio would add to the appeal, advocates say. Photo: Unsplash / Holger Link

Queenstown Lakes' economy is expected to shrink by 40 percent and unemployment may rise to 30 percent as the district's $3 billion tourism industry has been devastated by the pandemic.

In 2018, screen and film industry production brought $35 million to Queenstown Lakes.

That's a drop in the bucket compared to what tourism accounted for.

But everyone, including Mayor Jim Boult, is painfully aware that now every drop counts.

"It's a big industry and I think if anything the Covid-19 situation is going to encourage film makers to look at locations which are under less pressure from Covid-19 issues and New Zealand certainly looks like it's going to be in that boat," Boult said.

"And given the attractiveness of this district as destination for film making I think we are in the box seat for it."

The council was looking for opportunities to expand the industry's presence in the district, even before Covid-19.

Jim Boult Queenstown Mayor

Jim Boult. Photo: supplied

"The film industry is one that has been on our radar for some time, way before Covid-19 came along, and there has been a couple of proposals out to construct film studios here," Boult said.

"The situation we find ourselves in now makes that even more sensible and it's definitely something the council will be picking up and moving forward with."

There was no shortage of human capital either and other issues, such as accommodating crew, would no longer be an issue.

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Annabelle Sheehan. Photo: Provided

Film Commission chief executive Annabelle Sheehan said she also saw the opportunity for the district and once the logistics of restarting the industry were figured out, Queenstown Lakes would have a part to play in its future.

"Queenstown is a fantastic place to shoot, it's got incredibly skilled creatives and crew members there and it's always played a significant role in the New Zealand screen industry as a sought after location."

Wider film shutdowns

Forty-seven productions with Film Commission involvement had to shut down around the country due to New Zealand's lockdown, and rolling cameras would still be problematic at levels 2 and lower in a world still plagued by Covid-19.

"Film crews work closely. There's a set of people that work around the camera and they are all touching the camera, so there's a lot of thinking to go through to make sure it's safe to restart."

There were some projects expected to resume work at level 3 and work was underway to ensure more could begin at level 2.

To that end, the commission had helped fund the development of a Covid-19 toolkit for the industry, Sheehan said.

What's hampering Queenstown

One of the issues holding Queenstown back was the lack of a local studio.

A $12m development at Gibbston Valley had been mooted, as had a studio in Dunedin.

Film Otago-Southland chair, Brad Hurndell, said he was excited by the prospect.

"There's no doubt a film studio offers some big benefits.

"There's been a bunch of different case studies and reviews done in the past, and it provides a hub for shooting interior scenes and there's no doubt that we would benefit from that kind of structure down here."

Commercials and advertisements could return in the short term, while construction of a studio could help ensure the return of international production of feature films and TV series, he said.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy had shown what the district offered to big budget productions.

Local film industry veteran Brett Mills said a studio would be nice but it was financial sweeteners that would draw big budget productions to the regions.

International production companies got 20 percent tax rebates for filming in New Zealand.

Mills said an incentive on top of that could be introduced to draw them outside of Auckland and Wellington.

"So you get your 20 percent as of right and then you get another three percent straight away if you went to a region, be it Christchurch, be it Dunedin or be it Queenstown," he said.

Sheehan said there was merit in looking for extra cash to lure productions to the regions.

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