Financing initiatives draw filmmakers to New Zealand

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SYDNEY -- Several new funding initiatives that have come into play in the last 12 months have helped boost the number of local films being made in New Zealand, with a spike in local production mirroring the increase in international production that the sector in the tiny island country is enjoying.

Around 10 projects are currently in varying stages of production, ranging from director Jonathan King's feature film version of the classic New Zealand children's book and TV series "Under the Mountain," to Niki Caro's reunion with her "Whale Rider" (2002) star Keisha

Castle-Hughes for "The Vintner's Luck," which is being shot in Auckland and Belgium.

They are just two of the more than 10 local features -- at least double the annual average -- in various stage of production.

That volume of independent production, including three international co-productions, has been funded through various programs of the government's screen culture and financing body, the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC).

"Certainly the industry is cyclical, but there's several funding initiatives that have come to fruition at the same time," explains NZFC CEO Ruth Harley.

They include the Signature Films Fund, which allows features to be funded with TV financing agency New Zealand On Air; the introduction of Film Fund 2, which provides experienced filmmakers with financing for features in the NZ$6 million-NZ$20 million ($5 million-$16 million) budget range; the Post Production Fund for digital films; as well as the Large Budget Screen Production Grant aimed at attracting international productions.

But according to most in the sector, further structural change is

needed to sustain the growth of the industry in the long term.

One mechanism currently being considered by the government is a 40% producer offset, similar to that being introduced in Australia.

"The introduction of the producer offset will be key to catering to medium-level budget funding for the domestic sector," says Penelope Borland, chief executive of the Screen Production and Development Assn. (SPADA). The offset will also attract more private financing into the sector and provide a fillip to not only feature films but TV drama.

Harley warns that the amount of private money available is limited, and for successful N.Z. films that regularly gross just under NZ$1 million in local boxoffice, "it's difficult to make the numbers compelling," especially when the banks are offering 8% interest in the current climate.

That said, Borland adds that the government has been open to arguments for the offset and the industry is hoping for an announcement in next month's national budget.

"We are reasonably optimistic about getting the offset in place," she says. She admits, however, that the industry is eyeing how the offset is being implemented in Australia.
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