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Campbell: Peter Jackson, and catching the Aussies

Gordon Campbell on Peter Jackson, and the alleged need to keep up with the Australian film industry

Peter Jackson is expected to deliver his ministerial review on the New Zealand Film Commission to Arts Minister Chris Finlayson just before Christmas, and its contents will be publically released soon after Finlayson returns to work on 17 January.

In the meantime, the most recent pointers we have on Jackson’s thinking about the local film industry were comments he made at the press conference for his recent Lovely Bones premiere in Wellington – which, in odd counterpoint to the recent 2025 Task Force report by Don Brash, highlighted an alleged need for New Zealand to keep up/catch up with Australian incentives on offer, or imminent.

Take this, for instance, from the Dominion-Post:

Jackson said New Zealand's film industry was being squeezed by a high dollar, making movies more expensive to shoot, and increased competition from other countries offering better incentives – including Australia.

He was aware of rumours that Australia was set to implement new financial incentives to reboot its film industry, which has suffered from a dearth of big-budget films in recent years.

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If that happens, New Zealand could lose out. "We all have to be very worried about [this]. All these big Hollywood movies that were supposed to be shooting in Australia have all walked away.

"I'm hearing rumours that the Australian Government are looking at getting very aggressive with their incentives. We are going to have real problems if our Government doesn't instantly react and match what the Australians are doing."

The trouble with this perspective is that (a) the Australians are facing the same high dollar pressures we have (b) their film incentive is being widely lamented across the Tasman as being a failure and (c) their production offset scheme is due to be reviewed next year, out of sync with any short term changes here (d) the calls for an emergency bailout package has been criticized by the Australian Screen Producers president head Anthony Ginnane as a return to a culture of handouts.

As Ginnane recently said in deriding calls for a fresh injection of Australian government funding:

"Our ability to read the markets is dulled by the subsidy drug, so we have completely forgotten what the market wants," he said."This is an industry. This is a business which is not about art; it is not for dilettantes. We make a product which the audience doesn't want. We don't listen and we hope the government doesn't notice. We fall back on incestuous praise."

Yes, the Australians have managed to attract the latest Narnia film Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but – reportedly, as of last month – the only other foreign films being attracted there were six Bollywood films.

In sum, the film industry in Australia - which is all but slitting its collective wrists about its failure to attract blockbuster foreign film productions – is hardly the main threat we face. It is looking more like a co-victim of the global recession, the related tightening of credit and film financing, and the relative buoyancy of the NZ and Australian currencies.

Pouring more money into incentives here is not the answer – if Australia can teach us anything, it has been that their 40% tax rebate and 15% production offset have been welcome, but have functioned more like a process for bailing water from a leaking boat.

To quote the Australian newspaper headline from November 9, 2009, “Film Production Incentive a Flop”. The article goes on to say that not only has the $A280 million film incentive scheme been a failure, but so has the 15% production offset :

The Screen Production Incentive for feature films, the 15 per cent location incentive for foreign features, proved ineffectual. Not one international production claimed the incentive in the year, although the latest The Chronicles of Narnia film will claim it this year. Only six foreign feature films began filming in Australia in the financial year, all Indian films, for a total spend of only $2m.

None spent enough to qualify for the location offset introduced in May 2007. Foreign feature production usually averages $98m annually but has been destroyed by the rising Australian dollar against the US dollar.

Hard to see then what Jackson is talking about when he raises the bogey of Australia being a pressing threat to our ability to attract film productions. Mind you, there is also nothing wrong, if he does end up recommending that our government should provide better incentives ( and more resources) for the local film industry.

Our Large Budget Screen Production Grant Scheme though is already in place – and it suffers little by comparison with the enticements available in Australia. All that may be needed now is a bit of fine-tuning around when the LBSPG comes available during the production cycle.

This is a really bad time for special pleading, though. Given the calls for belt-tightening that have been issuing from Finance Minister Bill English, it is going to be hard to make a case that more money for the film industry should rank high on the government’s list of priorities.

Given the climate, one unwelcome possibility from the Jackson review would be if it followed calls made in Australia by Anthony Ginnane for funding to be concentrated on two or three’ tentpole’ productions, rather than spread across a range of low budget features, and industry-development activities.

One of the more encouraging recent trends at the Film Commission has been its readiness to provide backing for short film/ low budget /digital productions.

This reflects the reality that funding organizations are little better than Hollywood studios at spotting budding talent or in predicting public taste. Since the Film Commission is – or should be - about fostering a creative industry rather than subsidizing the business efforts of its main existing players, it cannot afford to withdraw from its grassroots activities.

In these uncertain times, small is beautiful. Lets hope that Peter Jackson, who started out small, had kept true to that perspective in his review.


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