New Zealand’s film industry

– By Shoba Narayan

Queenstown, New Zealand — EVER SINCE DIRECTOR Peter Jackson put his native New Zealand on the map by setting The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy there, the country has been actively marketing itself as a movie backdrop, and global filmmakers have come rushing in. The common wisdom is that “The world in one country” — with its tropical rainforests and snow-capped mountains all within a few hours of each other — has lured overseas producers with its natural charms. But New Zealand’s appeal to filmmakers may have more to do with its deregulated economy and first-world banking system.

In New Zealand, creative and technical talent can be had for a fraction of the price paid in Hollywood, and film producers aren’t at the mercy of unions and overtime. Most crew personnel don’t belong to the unions that are the stranglehold of Hollywood. Negotiations between director and crew have a fairly straightforward set of guidelines based on “who-does-what” rather than “how-much-liability,” as one producer puts it. In addition, New Zealand’s film industry is supported by a first-world banking system where loans can be had without the bribery and corruption that burdens many Asian countries.

New Zealand has also been actively marketing itself, perhaps more than any other country, as a haven for filmmakers. The government of this small isolated country of just over 4 million people realized that films showcase the natural beauty of New Zealand which in turn attracts more tourists. As Daniel Rutherford, tour operator for Trilogy Trails in Queenstown says, “Films set in New Zealand may not make a person come here right away. But most people have a list of places that they want to visit and films tip that list in favor of New Zealand.”

Last year, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark flew to Bombay to strengthen “business and cultural ties” between New Zealand and India. Ms. Clark’s visit was motivated in part by the over 100 Bollywood productions that have been filmed in New Zealand since 1995, leading to an estimated 18,000 Indian tourists to visit the country. Recently, the government introduced a grant where film companies who spend between 15-50 million New Zealand dollars ($10.6 and $35.5 million) in production costs in New Zealand would be granted a sum totaling 12.5% of their New Zealand production costs.

The government has set up Film New Zealand, a one-stop shop for global film producers whose aim is to “ensure that everyone has a satisfying experience of filming in New Zealand and we will do everything in our power to ensure this happens.” This includes helping film companies register their production, introducing them to local talent, drafting legal contracts for local Kiwi technicians and everything in between. “Shooting a movie is made so easy in New Zealand that it is hard to turn them down,” a Bollywood producer said recently. “Most other governments delight in throwing obstacles, bureaucracy and unions at you. With New Zealand, it is opposite. Any problem you have, they solve it.”

New Zealanders call this accommodating attitude a “Number 8 wire mentality.” Number 8 wire is a certain gauge of wire that is used by Kiwis to fence New Zealand”s many farms. Widely available in New Zealand, the wire has also become a symbol of Kiwi adaptability and innovation. Robert Rutherford, a private pilot who flew cast, crew and equipment for Lord of the Rings explains, “We New Zealanders are so used to making do for so long that we believe that we can fix anything with a Number 8 wire.”

To give one example of the Kiwi “fix-it” mentality: When director Peter Jackson was filming a battle scene with 100 horses and riders, a cinematographer scared the horses by hovering over them on a helicopter. If it were Hollywood, the story goes, all shooting would have been stopped till the studio big-wigs convened a few days later to decide how and whether to proceed with the scene. Memos would have been written; changes pondered and then approved. . . or not. Meanwhile, the horses, riders, cast and crew would have just hung around, adding thousands of dollars of expenses.

In New Zealand, say the locals with pride, one technician suggested using a crane instead of a helicopter, another determined that two cranes were needed to do justice to the scene, a third scouted and found two cranes in neighboring Dunedin and a fourth summoned the cranes within six hours. Mr. Jackson resumed shooting that same day with the two cinematographers hovering over the horses on the two cranes.

Mr. Rutherford, who runs a tour company that drives and flies tourists to the “Lord of the Rings” locations, is a direct beneficiary of New Zealand’s film boom. “We bought that plane because of it,” he says, pointing to a beautiful white small aircraft outside his Queenstown airport office. Over 30 tour companies all over New Zealand offer the “Lord of the Rings” tour, driving and flying tourists to locations from the movie such as the Forest of Lothlorien and Middle Earth. Some tour companies offer a spin. Wanaka Sightseeing allows tourists to handle and try on the weapons, costumes and jewelry used in the film. Some rabid fans show up in cloaks and capes, tour operators say, and spout the entire Tolkien books word-for-word.

And now, the ring has come full circle with resorts being built to accommodate these visitors. “Lord of the Rings” has certainly lifted New Zealand’s profile internationally, says John Darby, principal of Darby Partners, a real estate development firm which built and developed some of the more high-profile resorts such as Millbrook, Clearwater, Blanket Bay and others. The film has also spawned an array of new small-scale tourist operations in otherwise quiet corners of rural New Zealand. In his own business, Mr. Darby sees clients who will go on a Lord of the Rings tour, be seduced by the beauty of New Zealand, visit a real estate agent and subsequently purchase property in the country.

All these things considered, it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince movie producers to set up shop here. But with international visitors spending a whopping $6.6 billion — contributing to 10% of New Zealand’s GDP — the government is hardly about to cease its efforts to market New Zealand as a mecca for filmmakers.

© 2005 Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive LLC (trading as Factiva). All rights reserved.

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