The Jackson Effect
From "The Hobbit" to "Tintin" to "District 9," Kiwi filmmaking is at an all-time high thanks to Peter Jackson, who, 12 years ago, put New Zealand on Hollywood's map.
Peter Jackson is walking down the familiar twisting lanes of the picture-perfect village of Hobbiton. Discussing the next day's shoot with the cast and crew of The Hobbit, he gazes up at the setting sun and appears overcome by a strange sense of deja vu.
"I did this on this street 12 years ago, and it's exactly the same," says Jackson. "I don't feel the same, though."
Jackson pauses to survey the village in Waikato that's familiar to millions of fans of the director's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Before Jackson and his crew transformed it into a little piece of Middle Earth, this was a simple New Zealand sheep farm. Now it's become a J.R.R. Tolkien tourist mecca, and five days into location shooting for Jackson's two Hobbit movies, it has been transformed again into a bustling film set.
"With The Lord of the Rings, there was enormous pressure. There was a feeling that those films might not succeed," says Jackson. "Now, people have seen the Lord of the Rings movies, and they expect The Hobbit to be really something. The only thing I can do is make a movie I want to watch."
Together, the two 3D films -- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again, which Jackson is shooting back-to-back -- sport a budget of $500 million-plus and will employ about 3,000 people.
But while the public focus is back on the Shire, the entire New Zealand industry, big and small, is reaping the benefits of what has become known as the "Jackson effect."
"In three years, we've had Avatar, The Adventures of Tintin, District 9, The Lovely Bones, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Yogi Bear, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the Spartacus TV series shooting here," says Graeme Mason, CEO of the New Zealand Film Commission. "Three of the four biggest directors of all time [James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Jackson] were working in Wellington at the same time. Not bad for a town of 400,000 people."
Gisella Carr, head of New Zealand's film locations office Film NZ, acknowledges that Jackson and his team are the creative sparks behind the country's film boom. But others, including the government, have helped make made-in-Kiwi cinema flourish, she notes.
Film-friendly regulations -- like newly enacted labor laws that convinced Warner Bros. to keep Hobbit in New Zealand, alongside funding incentives and training schemes targeting high-end special effects technology -- have helped keep the LOTR momentum going. Employment for New Zealand's effects industry reached its peak during the shooting of Avatar, when about 900 people at Weta helped Cameron create the world of Pandora and its blue-skinned inhabitants.
"If a film industry is what you want, then you have to compete," says Jackson. "If you want to be in the game, you have to pay. But the numbers have got to stack up. And what these films bring to the country and the employment … they're formidable figures."
While the immediate focus is on Hobbit and the next Tintin film, other international projects are set to start shooting in New Zealand in early 2012. Active discussions are under way with Cameron to return to the country to make an Avatar sequel.
On the small screen, producer Rob Tapert is prepping the third season of Starz's swords-and-sandals series Spartacus in Auckland; Wellington-born director and Oscar winner Jane Campion will return to New Zealand to make a TV crime series, Top of the Lake, starring Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss; and Peter Webber will shoot the Japanese war drama Emperor in New Zealand in January.
But while bigger international productions get most of the attention, Mason contends that the flow of talent through the country is benefiting local projects as well.
This year has been a solid one for the domestic sector, with more than 22 local features released across a wide range of genres. The industry is still basking in the afterglow of the 2010 hit Boy, which earned more than $7 million at the local box office and about $43 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing New Zealand film to date.
On the art house scene, Tusi Tamasese's low-budget Samoan-language feature The Orator won the top prize from Europe's art house cinemas association at this year's Venice International Film Festival. The story of an unassuming villager forced to defend his family and way of life, Orator marks New Zealand's first entry in the foreign-language Oscar race.
Some of the higher-profile Kiwi features set for release in 2012 include Andrew Adamson's Mister Pip, starring Hugh Laurie, and the comedy Two Little Boys, featuring Bret McKenzie of The Flight of the Conchords and Aussie comedian Hamish Blake.
To help get more local films made, the New Zealand government has changed its Screen Production Investment Fund, lowering the budget threshold for qualifying New Zealand productions from $4 million to $2.5 million per project.
And to further fuel business coming out of the U.S., Film New Zealand and postproduction house Park Road Post will set up satellite operations in Los Angeles in January.
"We see many opportunities," says Film New Zealand's Carr. "It's a buoyant time, and New Zealand has a strong hand to play. The craft, the innovations of the Hobbit films and the scale of the opportunity is delighting and stimulating New Zealanders again."
NEW ZEALAND AT A GLANCE
- Exchange rate: NZ $1 = U.S. 78 cents
- Number of screens: 411
- 2010 admissions: 15 million
- 2010 box office: $138 million
- Highest-grossing foreign release in 2010: Avatar ($9.6 Million)
- Highest-grossing domestic release in 2010: Boy ($7.2 Million)
- Value of international and domestic film and TV production to the country: $2.18 billion