New Zealand: A popular place to shoot

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RELATED: Financing initiatives draw filmmakers to New Zealand

The New Zealand film industry recently received the thumbs-up from an unusual source: Aussie director George Miller.

The filmmaker is smarting from a recent government decision that his latest big-budget feature -- Warner Bros.' "Justice League Is Mortal" -- did not qualify for a 40% rebate offered to Australian films through the new Australian Screen Production Incentive. After threatening to move the production out of the country, Miller said Australia should look at how New Zealand had successfully built up a series of studio-backed franchises that enabled it to attract big-budget films and keep the industry buoyant.

"New Zealand built up their franchises through 'Hercules' and 'Xena' into 'Lord of the Rings.' Now they're doing three 'Tintin' films, two more 'Hobbit' films and 'Halo.' They've got work for 15 years in that country," Miller told an Australian newspaper last month.

And while his comparison of what qualifies as an Australian film versus a New Zealand film is thin, there's no questioning the fact that New Zealand's locations, incentives and crews are currently enjoying a spike in both international and local production worth an estimated $400 million.

Among the 15 or so key productions in place, New Zealand is playing host to James Cameron's ground-

breaking sci-fi feature "Avatar"; Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which wrapped shooting in the South Island last month; Sony's vampire flick "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans"; and the U.S.-Korea co-production "The Laundry Warrior," produced by "The Lord of the Rings'" Barrie Osbourne. New Zealand is home to the HBO series "Flight of the Conchords," as well.

At the same time, several international co-pros are keeping the local end of the industry busy, namely the N.Z.-U.K. feature "Dean Spanley"; Niki Caro's latest feature, "The Vintner's Luck," a co-production with France; and Jonathan King's second feature, "Under the Mountain" (another N.Z.-U.K. teaming), based on the Maurice Gee novel that became a hit Kiwi TV series in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the director responsible for opening the floodgates, Peter Jackson, is finalizing production on his adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel "The Lovely Bones" before moving on to "The Hobbit" and "Tintin" (which he will produce -- although it's unclear if all the films in the "Tintin" trilogy will shoot in New Zealand).

"Certainly Peter Jackson has had an enormous impact. 'The Lord of the Rings' films put New Zealand and its talents and capabilities on the global stage," says Judith McCann, CEO of locations agency Film New Zealand. "And that he hasn't gone overseas and continues to make his films here has shown a range of filmmakers that they can work here."

Additionally, the New Zealand industry has recently moved to capitalize on its success, introducing changes to the Large Budget Screen Production Grant scheme last October.

The changes -- which either matched or upped the bulk of the incentives announced by Australia last year -- include increasing the country's locations incentives for rebates from 12.5% to 15%; removal of the 70% threshold for productions with qualifying New Zealand production spend between NZ$15 million ($12 million) and NZ$50 million ($40 million); bundling of productions, each with a minimum spend of NZ$3 million ($2.4 million) to reach a qualifying threshold of NZ$30 million ($24

million); and a new 15% incentive for postproduction, digital and visual effects work that reaches a threshold of NZ$3 million.

The new incentives have given the country a "very energetic start" to 2008, but it's unlikely that those production levels will continue, McCann says.



Indeed, there are number of challenges that still need to be addressed, including a falling U.S. dollar, rising labor costs, the prospect of an actors strike in the U.S. and local structural problems, including a shortage of quality soundstages and associated space for film infrastructure.

As a result, the industry is pushing for the government to implement a scheme similar to Australia's recently introduced 40% producer offset to ensure the long-term health of the local industry and inject some private capital into the sector.

A 40% rebate, says NZ Film Commission CEO Ruth Harley, would "make the numbers more compelling" for private investors and would add to several government-backed funds that provide much of the financing for the NZ sector.

These include the Film Fund 2, which provides direct financing for New Zealand films within a budget of NZ$6 million-NZ$20 million, as well as direct funding for

lower-budget films through the NZ Film Commission.

As for infrastructure, McCann acknowledges the need for more studio space "if we are to continue to grow the industry."

The country's capital and filmmaking center, Wellington, is well-serviced with several soundstages, while Henderson Valley Studios in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, was augmented last year by a new 2,600-square-foot soundstage, now New Zealand's largest, which was immediately snapped up by the producers of "Laundry Warrior."

"New Zealand has stunning locations but in many ways locations can be recreated anywhere," says expatriate Kiwi director Roger Donaldson. "What international projects really need are big studio spaces. And make no mistake: If you build it, they will come."

"Infrastructure development is an issue that we, with the government, are trying to find ways of addressing and speed up," adds McCann. "We can't just keep pointing people to spare warehouses."

At the same time, the NZ film sector can't be too reliant on the U.S., she says, particularly with the downturn in the U.S. economy.

But even while New Zealand is seeking to mirror an Australia-style 40% producer rebate, Australia and New Zealand industry reps are talking about closer cooperation.

"Australia is working hand-in-hand with N.Z. much better than it did, and we see the advantage of collaborating," says Tania Chambers, CEO of Australian state agency the New South Wales Film and Television Office. "Frequently, there will be locations that N.Z. can provide that we can't, (but) we can provide the expertise and crews, so I think we'll find that as a trend."
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