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Upgrading NZ screen production capability

30 September 2005

Wellington region’s sound stage - Upgrading NZ screen production capability

A summary of Positively Wellington Business’ winning application in the Economic Development Agencies of New Zealand Practitioner Awards for Excellence in Regional Development

The Wellington City Council was the first council in the country to implement a film-friendly policy, designed to speed up the approval processes for film related activities, and cut through bureaucratic red tape.

In 1996 Film Wellington – then part of Wellington City Council, now part of Positively Wellington Business (PWB) – was created to assist production filming in the city, and promote the region’s film production capability. For almost ten years, well before regional economic development became fashionable, Wellington has been taking deliberate steps to develop film-makers and film-making in the region.

In 1998 screen production in the Wellington region received a major boost with the decision by New Line Cinema to produce the “Lord Of The Rings” film trilogy in Wellington with Peter Jackson’s company Wingnut Films. The success of the film trilogy spurred interest in bringing other international projects to the region. Discussions between Peter Jackson’s Wingnut Films and Universal Pictures over the production of “King Kong” highlighted that a production of that scope would strain even the large capacity of the then-existing Camperdown sound stages in Miramar.

In 2003 PWB determined that the construction of a sound stage associated with existing capability in Miramar would add significant capability in an area of competitive advantage and respond to growing international market demand for full production services. It would also assist in developing skills in the local screen production industry, and provide international-quality services to local producers and directors.

Over an eighteen month period, covering the production of a pre-feasibility study, full business case and economic impact study, PWB was able to demonstrate the viability and positive economic impact of upgrading the region’s screen production capability, to the benefit of the region and the country. New Zealand Trade & Enterprise (NZTE) agreed to contribute to the cost of the project in July 2003, and contracts between NZTE, PWB and Camperdown partners were signed in April 2004. The sound stage was substantially completed in September 2004, and officially launched by the PM Helen Clark in April 2005.

The economic importance of filmmaking and television production to the regional economy was first recognised over a decade ago. Since the premiere of “The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001, PWB has been conducting an investigation into how it might leverage this explosion in capability and creativity, to create opportunities for growth in the regional economy.

In April 2002, PWB’s strategic plan for the Wellington Region identified the creative sector, in particular film and television production, as a key driver in the regional economy. In August of that year, PWB commissioned an independent report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu on opportunities for the Wellington regional economy, and identified screen production as a specific opportunity for growth. The industry was identified as “achieving the necessary critical mass to provide attractive, skilled jobs for a range of New Zealanders, generate considerable export earnings, and contract an enormous range of support services” (Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, 2002: 58).

The same report went on to say that “One important piece of film production infrastructure that the Wellington region lacks is a large film studio (with sound) – a facility that the film sector is lacking nationally (and which is in short supply internationally). The availability of such a studio is likely to have a material effect on the ability of the region to attract ongoing movie production” (Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, 2002: 67).

In 2003, PWB recognised that Camperdown had the existing studio capacity, management expertise, the majority of the required capital, and the global visibility to form the base for such a project. PWB and Camperdown agreed to work together on the expansion of Stone Street Studios to include a new sound stage.

In June 2003 NZTE agreed to make $2 million including GST available to PWB under the Regional Partnerships Programme, to support the development of the expanded screen production facility. PWB agreed that it would make the entire $2 million available to Camperdown to support the construction of the new sound stage.

Wellington City has also cooperated in the development of the facility, through its support for building and resource management consents, and other associated issues such as site parking. Wellington City – and other cities in the region – recognise the potential benefit this development delivers for individuals and businesses in the Wellington region, and as stakeholders of PWB are strongly supportive of the project.

The expanded Stone Street facility is marketed as part of a range of state-of-the art production and post-production facilities in the Miramar area, including the newly completed Park Road Post facility. PWB and Camperdown collaborate on marketing of the facility and will work together to maximise usage, local production spend and net economic benefit to the region and the country.

The new sound stage expands the extensive film production facilities created by Camperdown over the past ten years, including:

- Multiple sound stages at the Stone Street complex
- Full production offices, set, prop, costume, and related support facilities at Stone Street
- Weta Workshop facilities that supply services in film design, special makeup, armour, weapons, creatures and miniatures
- Specialty facilities for miniatures film production
- Two of the largest motion capture stages in the world
- One of the largest super-computer facilities in the world, including the complete IT and physical infrastructure required for the enormous computing power used by Weta Digital
- Numerous other production assets spread throughout the Miramar area

The project brings together hard and soft infrastructure development, including ‘bricks-and-mortar’ as well as marketing and skills development, to create enhanced capability around existing facilities in order to ensure the greatest impact. Additionally, the project was timed to coincide with the growth in international interest in NZ’s screen production capability, coming off the back of the Oscar-winning “Lord Of The Rings” film trilogy.

The creation of a public-private partnership around this project, including central and local government, and the enlisting of commercial incentives and disincentives to ensure the project’s success, is also an innovative and effective approach to delivery of the project objectives.

In April 2003, an economic impact assessment study conducted by NZIER and PricewaterhouseCoopers on behalf of PWB looked at the likely impact based on either an additional mid-range production every 24 months, or an additional high-end production every 24 months. The projected economic impact of these productions over a 10-year period was between NZ$250 million and NZ$650 million, with projected impact of between NZ$450 million and NZ$1.2 billion for the rest of New Zealand over the same period.

Amongst other findings, the study concluded that a number of studios must be available on one site in order for the facility to be attractive to world markets and for the facility to be financially viable, and that Camperdown’s existing management skill and high visibility offered the greatest chance for the project to succeed.

Following substantial completion in September 2004, the sound stage was fully booked for “King Kong” until its official launch in April 2005. The production company Big Primate Pictures will continue to make use of the facility until about September, when the studio will become available for other bookings. There has been significant interest from overseas, from film and TV commercial production companies, and a number of ‘pencil’ bookings, suggesting plenty of interest for 2006.

NZIER has been asked to assist in a formal assessment of economic impact based on local production spend over the period September 2004 through August 2005. Anecdotal evidence however suggests that the impact has already been significant, in terms of tangible economic benefit as well as intangible enhancements to the international profile of NZ’s screen production industry.

According to Camperdown partner Jamie Selkirk, “We’re always in confidential talks about other shows that can come here – either films owned and produced by New Zealanders, or Hollywood films, which bring the largest budgets. Needless to say there has been great deal of interest from productions in utilising the facilities at Stone Street, working with Weta, doing post-production at Park Road, and utilising everything else we have to offer here in Miramar”.

PWB’s Chief Executive Philip Lewin says, “The completion of the Sound Stage is a landmark in the development of New Zealand’s film industry. It is a key piece of infrastructure right here in the Wellington region, and has come at a crucial point in the industry’s growth. We are delighted to have helped make this project happen”.

ENDS

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