Home Boy hit helps keep local cameras rolling

GOOD BOY: Film director Taika Waititi's latest feature film Boy has eclipsed previous records for a first week's box office takings for a local production.
GOOD BOY: Film director Taika Waititi's latest feature film Boy has eclipsed previous records for a first week's box office takings for a local production.

Just as a boy from the East Coast has seen off the Queen of Hearts, a swath of dragons and a horde of Greek gods, the film industry in New Zealand is beating the odds.

Film director Taika Waititi's latest feature film Boy has eclipsed previous records for a first week's box office takings for a local production.

The comedic drama grossed nearly $900,000 in its first seven days beating current spectacle Alice in Wonderland and homegrown pictures Whale Rider and The World's Fastest Indian. It also climbed above international kid blockbuster How to Train Your Dragon and mythical action flick Clash of the Titans.

Its success also surprised New Zealand Film Commission chief executive Graeme Mason, who knew it was good, but not that good.

As a part of the funding machine that gets Kiwi film-makers going, a feature like Boy, winning a Grand Prix award at the 60th Berlin Film Festival, is a relief for Mr Mason. The commission backed documentary This Way of Life too, which scored a special mention in Berlin.

These sorts of films get at least three-quarters of their budget from various grants and seed capital programmes provided by the New Zealand taxpayer, the rest from private sources.

Mr Mason would rather it was 50:50, but is realistic.

"It's very hard for people to get funding without us. There are only two real film industries in the world, Hollywood and Bollywood. The rest rely to some extent on government."

The state of the industry was parlous before last year's financial meltdown, which exacerbated it to the point where the pre-sales market – distribution houses buying films before they are made – has disappeared.

"Unless you have Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks in a romantic comedy, independent buyers are not interested. That was the majority source of funding to lessen the reliance on us, and that is gone."

Funding local productions is a fine balance of promoting creativity alongside commercialism, Mr Mason says, but the going has just gotten tougher.

The commission's production funding last year dropped 40 per cent to $12.4 million, and total development funding dropped 16 per cent from the previous year.

The commercial focus has become more important too, and there are fewer chances to make the grade.

Film Commission deputy chief executive Mladen Ivancic says the development process now includes an earlier analysis of commercial potential.

"In the past we might have been more generous. We are still giving a lot of applications a first chance, we are just not giving them a third and fourth chance."

Known quantities like Waititi are better bets with every success, and undoubtedly have an easier road grabbing one of the few funding slots the commission handles every year.

But backing them is an investment in the industry and seen as good value for the taxpayer. Peter Jackson is the best example, Mr Ivancic says.

"We supported his first four feature films, then he was able to continue his career without us."

The post-production nucleus of the Wellywood film production empire, Park Road Post, is one place Waititi spent some time writing his latest film.

Chief executive Cameron Harland says Boy is the boost the local industry needed, and there are a number of features in the pipeline with the same sort of promise.

"There's a lot bubbling away. But this stuff takes time. We don't have a lot of work scheduled for the local industry for the next six months."

A balance of local work and international work is the key to keeping momentum and jobs ticking over in the massive Miramar machine comprising Weta Workshop, Weta Digital, Park Road Post and Stone Street Studios.

In Los Angeles this week for the third time since September, Mr Harland says there has been a positive change in the Hollywood air.

"It felt a lot better. But I spoke to a couple of studio execs up there and they said Hollywood would never be the same. Fewer movies will be made; in their minds that was not a bad thing, the good ones would still get made.

"But it does have a flow-on effect for all of the industry."

The financial crisis even hurt corners of the industry that were succeeding against the odds, as big parent corporations stripped cost out anywhere they could. But Mr Harland is reasonably optimistic about Park Road Post.

"We've been talking to a number of Kiwi producers who have some big projects coming up and obviously there are some big productions due to happen at some stage this year. I think we'll be in good shape."

Good shape is a relative measure, and for the newcomers to New Zealand's screen industry it translates to earnings barely above the breadline.

Mr Mason worries about the numbers of hopefuls coming through the various film school programmes, equating to about 500 graduates a year for an industry with roughly 8000 people in it, give or take.

The film commission's new escalator programme has been set up to give $250,000 to four different film-making teams each year for three years.

This year they had 256 entries. Twelve will make it to the short list in June, and four will get the cash, which Mr Mason admits is not much for a feature film.

His hopes are that with more investment in the right way, the industry will eventually outgrow the "Peter Jackson effect".

In the short term, there will be 252 disappointed film-makers come June.

Messrs Mason and Ivancic laugh at the thought of what would happen if Peter Jackson suddenly retired and disappeared, but it is unclear if it is nervousness or genuinely amusement.

"We'd keep doing the cultural New Zealand films – the Boys, the Whale Riders, the Topp Twins. I think the likes of Wolverine would still come for the landscape and unless PJ [Peter Jackson] and Richard said they were shutting down Weta, Park Road Post and so on, you would find the facilities would carry on," Mr Mason says.

"What we would lose is the incredible value-add Peter brings though his own projects. Tintin is only here because Spielberg directed the first one, and Peter is doing the work on it; so that is a Peter Jackson-Spielberg film."

He says the value of The Hobbit alone would have to be more than US$300 million (NZ$420m). "That's US$300m flowing through into here. You can imagine someone like [Gerry] Brownlee and [Bill] English working that out; that's phenomenal money."

BEYOND the estimated $2.4 billion value in the total screen industry, including television, each project has a long life cycle, from initial work, to production, to screening and the resulting interest in New Zealand and related benefits such as tourism.

"There's more that we can all do to get joined up thinking in business terms; Ministry of Economic Development, us, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, tourism, Air New Zealand."

But even if it is not big enough for a multitude of students aspiring to Oscars, the industry is well placed, Mr Mason says. "We've got fantastic crews and locations, we have English [as a language] which people still want to deal with, and we have incredible confidence really because of the Peter Jackson effect. Studios know that something will come out of here and look good."

In agreement is Julian Grimmond, chairman at Film New Zealand, which promotes the industry to overseas production houses looking for a place to make a movie.

"On the whole, New Zealand companies have weathered the storm across the sector.

"Those that have done well have been resourceful enough to see the change in the weather and adapt accordingly."

Even as the global crisis scored casualties such as Kingdom Come, the biblical-themed production that left half-built sets and $4.5 million in debts when the money dried up, Mr Grimmond points out the television commercial industry keeps picking Queenstown as a backdrop, and a number of companies have found lucrative niches that are still operating.

The screen industry is "fit", through continued efforts to upskill, improve incentives and make sure the governance of the industry is sharp, he says.

"The upswing of that is that New Zealand overall is viewed in that fashion. The brand NZ Inc in the film sector is very strong."

The screen industry is different now, but that is nothing new, he says.

"Has the industry changed forever? Maybe, but we have to assume the industry is changing every six months and be ahead of that."

The marketable traits of New Zealand's competitiveness centre around productivity and a critical element of growing that was investing in infrastructure.

The sailing industry is a case in point. Whether you can match Taylor to Butterworth, Jackson to Blake, Waititi to Barker or not, the burgeoning commercial success of the industry leveraged off sailing success is an excellent role model for film, Mr Grimmond says.

"There is not a sailing team in the world without a Kiwi on it. We need to have the same with the film industry."

The Dominion Post