Producers eye openings after move by 'godfather'

'GODFATHER': John Barnett's South Pacific Pictures has dominated the New Zealand TV production industry for decades.
'GODFATHER': John Barnett's South Pacific Pictures has dominated the New Zealand TV production industry for decades.

Producers hope the move by New Zealand television "godfather" John Barnett to the "back seat" in his former production company, South Pacific Pictures, might free more production funding for the wider industry.

Britain's largest independent production company, All3Media, bought into South Pacific Pictures (SPP) in 2003 and this week added the remaining 40 per cent share, held by Barnett, for a confidential sum.

Barnett remains chairman of SPP after handing over the chief executive's reins to former TV3 programming director Kelly Martin late last year.

SPP is a former Television New Zealand subsidiary which was bought out by Barnett and other management in 1998.

Its ongoing success has been supported by the production of homegrown television drama Shortland Street for more than 20 years.

SPP also hit a goldmine of Kiwi drama ratings with the first season of "Westie" television series Outrageous Fortune, funded with the help of $5.3 million from NZ On Air in 2004.

Since then, SPP has dominated NZ On Air funding for television drama series which run for six episodes or more, having been allocated more than $128m by the government's local-content funding body over that time.

That compares with all other production companies, also making drama series of the same type over that period, getting a total of $48m.

Off the back of Outrageous Fortune, which ran for six seasons on TV3 and was released overseas, as well as on DVD, SPP secured funding for Go Girls, Nothing Trivial and The Almighty Johnsons, which have also been successful.

SPP's latest drama, The Blue Rose, was recently moved to a later time slot on TV3 after showing poor audience ratings, which slipped another 20 per cent this week.

There is some resentment among industry players at SPP's dominance in the category, for which there is funding for only three or four local series a year.

A source, who did not want to be identified, said Barnett was seen as the "godfather" of New Zealand television, using the working capital from Shortland Street and his industry connections to sell projects that other production houses could not.

The source said there had been a stagnation in the development of Kiwi drama in recent years, but hoped that funders would now cast their nets wider.

Former SPP producer Caterina De Nave, the first producer of Shortland Street, said there was no doubt the high-rating hospital drama "paid the bills" for SPP and made it easier for the company to pitch big shows to funders and broadcasters.

However, she also said SPP had significant talent in its ranks with the likes of television writers Rachel Lang and James Griffin on staff, and Barnett himself "clearly has a great eye for a programme".

De Nave said production companies were struggling across all genres, frustration was rife, and she hoped NZ On Air might see an increase in its own funding.

She did not believe much would change at SPP because Barnett would take his chairmanship seriously.

"I can't see John going home and getting out his pipe and slippers, so I would imagine he would still be quite involved at a helicopter level."

The SPP Group made a $2.8m net profit on revenue of $50.8m for the year to the end of August 2012, down slightly from the previous year due mostly to an impaired debt of nearly $1m to an Australian related-party production company.