Editorial: Putting taxpayer money into films is always a gamble

Julian Dennison in Taika Waititi's film Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Julian Dennison in Taika Waititi's film Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

The politics of film subsidies are peculiar. Politicians like being associated with blockbusters and glamour. Kiwi politicians like being friendly with Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor. Perhaps they think some of the fame will rub off.

So economics are not the only thing driving the Government's apparent enthusiasm for giving handouts to film-makers. About $240 million will go to international film productions over the next four years, with another $64m for domestic productions. That's a fair amount of money - more than money earmarked the previous day for tourism.

Last year revenue generated by New Zealand film production went up to $3.3 billion, and associate finance minister Simon Bridges has no doubt that government subsidies played a crucial part in this. Some 50 international productions had been supported, he notes, and without that support the films "would not have located in New Zealand."

This is the Pollyanna view of film subsidies:  taxpayers' money will be repaid in spades. National's support party Act is surprisingly cynical about this. Leader David Seymour denounces the film subsidies as corporate welfare  and says they should be scrapped.

The conventional wisdom, shared by both Labour- and National-led governments, is that film subsidies are just part of a brutal economic reality. The world wants a bit of Hollywood, and many of the world's governments compete to gain its favour. If we aren't prepared to subsidise Babylon, Babylon won't bring its money here.

But how much to give to Babylon is a tricky question of judgement. A small nation could easily bankrupt itself by throwing money at the moguls of the film industry. At a certain  point the returns would rapidly diminish. The trouble is that it's difficult to say where the point is.

Jackson and Taylor have proved over time to be fairly reliable makers of global blockbusters, and New Zealand has welcomed one of the greatest moguls of all, James Cameron. Arguably the money spent on subsidies to multi-millionaires like Jackson has paid off.

But how long do we keep paying, and how can we be sure the investment is still sound? Film-making is a notoriously fickle business and the industry's giants regularly come a cropper. Fashions change and film-makers lose their touch.

Bridges and politicians of left and right always play the tourism card, insisting that a certain percentage of tourists only came here because of the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit. Often these surveys are dodgy and inconclusive, although nobody denies that these films spread New Zealand's name throughout the world.

Finally, of course, there are purely cultural reasons for subsidising the film industry. No art form so powerfully reflects back to us our own culture. The Government brags that its investment helped generate Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a work of genius that not only made memorable jokes and asked deep questions about our treatment of troubled children. It also made big bucks.

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But there is no guarantee that film subsidies will pay off next year. They are always a gamble.

 - Stuff


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