Bringing movies to Nellywood

Last updated 15:56 17/09/2012
RAISING THE PROFILE: Ben (Edward Hall) celebrates in a scene from Kiwi Flyer

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When Kiwi Flyer, the first feature-length film made in Nelson, opens tonight, could it be the first of many? Naomi Arnold investigates the possibility of Nellywood:

Those behind feelgood family comedy Kiwi Flyer gush - simply gush - about Nelson.

Shot over 22 days this time last year, the $1.1m film brought a buzz to the streets, 200 people to the auditions, jobs for 55 people and more than $500,000 in spending.

Inspired by the Nelson Trolley Derby, the movie is about a young boy who sets out to win the local trolley derby in memory of his father, and its creators found blue skies and warm fuzzies everywhere they went.

Christchurch-based but Nelson-raised director Tony Simpson is the first to bring an entire feature-length film to the city, and we warmly welcomed the production. To its funding of $940,000 from the New Zealand Film Commission and New Zealand on Air, Nelson City Council chipped in $70,000 with Nelson investor group Venture Accelerator providing the rest. The people of Nelson built trolleys, made costumes, and staged a raucous fake derby to feature in the movie, with Nelson mayor Aldo Miccio in a cameo role.

“I always believed that Nelson was the perfect place to shoot a film because everywhere you point the camera it just looks fantastic,” Mr Simpson says. “I often describe Nelson as another character in the film because it was so much a part of the landscape."

He couldn't have asked for a better place to shoot, and he has another Nelson-based film in the pipeline. "A lot of the crew didn't want to leave; they fell in love with the place, the people and the vibe . . . it was great to introduce other people to Nelson as well, and show what a film-friendly town it was.”

Producer Tim Sanders: “Filming in Nelson has been one of the highlights of this production . . . we've been welcomed with open arms."

Didn't we do well? Sounds perfect: so could Kiwi Flyer be the first film of many? A red-carpet event on Tuesday night will be the climax of the experience, but it's led to calls from the community for more - more excitement, more productions, more chances for the thrill of seeing neighbours, friends and family onscreen, waiting in a darkened movie theatre to catch their names in the credits.

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And more money. New Zealand's film and TV industry has become one of our most lucrative. PricewaterhouseCoopers reported recently that it netted more than $3.23 billion last year, with film production making up almost half that. It supported more than 20,000 fulltime-equivalent jobs and contributed $2.78 billion to GDP.

Clearly, there are bucks to be made. Yet Nelson and Tasman are not capturing much of the pie. Statistics New Zealand's annual screen industry does not break gross revenue down into South Island regions, but it found that in 2011, Tasman, Nelson and Marlborough were equal to Northland with the fewest number of screen-related businesses at 18; just 1 per cent of the nation's total. (Auckland has 1410, and Otago/Southland 105.)

Additionally, most production and post-production dollars were spent in Auckland ($391m) and Wellington ($165m) with Otago and Southland ($29m) a distant third.

But the top of the south had the smallest spend in the country - just $1m from 36 businesses, many of whom will be sole traders. Even Northland managed $7m. Film is notoriously an industry of peaks and troughs - and Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough's highest spend over the last five years was $11m in 2009. Could we be doing more bring film here?

It is a question that film enthusiasts have been batting about for more than a decade. Richard Cox used to sound quite enthusiastic about it. The Takaka archaeologist was behind private company Film Nelson, set up in 2000 with Neudorf Vineyards co-owner Judy Finn and Mainland Television managing director Gary Watson and later joined by Hawke Films' Keith Hawke. Film Nelson helped The Lord of the Rings and BBC production The Lost World find locations, amongst others - but three years later Mr Cox told the Mail it hadn't been "overly effective".

On to Nelson Bays Arts Marketing Network, headed by Ali Boswijk, which picked up the Film Nelson reins in 2003. Both Ms Boswijk and Mr Cox told the Mail back then it was "long overdue", that Nelson needed to be more ‘film-friendly', streamlining official consent processes, promoting Nelson, and forging links with producers.

A decade later, and Mr Cox sounds fed up. Film Nelson fizzled due to a lack of enthusiasm from the councils, he says. "I did run through the whole process with the elected representatives and the [Nelson Regional Economic Development Agency] at one time and there was only very mild interest.

"Neither council picked up and really got in behind what we're doing. It wasn't in their headspace, and probably the hardest thing to do was to get assurances that whatever was shot in the area would be done easily rather than by climbing high barriers."

But: "It remains in my mind a natural for Nelson, for a lot of reasons."

There are our gorgeous landscapes - blue sky and sea, golden sands and wooden wharves, bush, river valleys, caves, tablelands, karst peaks, scree slopes, fluted marble, snow and ice. There's also the cityscape, vineyards and orchards, the harbour, old wooden churches, Founders Park, and even the odd historic building still standing. Even better, they're often within an hour's drive of each other, and the weather is dependably sunny. The region's surprising array of aircraft, plus Nelson Airport, the country's biggest regional air hub, would be perfect for aviation filming, he adds - not to mention the helicopter facilities for camera work.

"People say there's no infrastructure here; of course there isn't at the moment. It takes two or three films to get that going, but if you're going to be hiring electrical gear and so forth it's overnight from Wellington, and we've actually got a lot of film crew in the area in Nelson.

"It should happen, and obviously it has to happen from the council and maybe from the EDA. The two councils should work together; it hasn't happened because no-one's driven it from an official point."

A supportive city would be proactive, he says. "Not putting obstacles in people's way. Some councils have been quite obstructive - in other words, if somebody wanted to close off the street to do some filming, instead of it being instantly approved and the council providing proper road closure, some councils have actually made it extraordinarily difficult. Of course film producers would never go to that sort of place ever again."

Nelson-based filmmaker Keith Hawke says few producers are interested in filming here and the city has to encourage growth.

“The rest of the country sees us as too far away from civilisation for them to seriously consider basing TV series or commercial production here," he says. "We have no film infrastructure here. No equipment rental, no freelance pool, no established commercial production houses, and getting here is expensive.”

Most of all, he says Nelson needs a film office. Usually funded by local councils and charged with representing the region and attracting investment here, there's Film Wellington, Film Auckland, Film Taranaki, Film Hawkes Bay, and Film Otago Southland. But there's no film office covering the entire South Island outside of Otago, let alone Nelson and Tasman.

"Overseas film producers coming to New Zealand go to the Film New Zealand office who direct them to the regions," Mr Hawke says. "Film New Zealand have said quite adamantly that they will only send films to registered film offices. We have no film office so they will not send films here. Simple. We lose out to all the regions that do have a film office. Until we have a film office we will continue to be left out in the cold."

Keith Hawke says we need to be stop being "dazzled" by "the fantasy" of attracting huge international productions to Nelson and instead get the basics right: attract small productions that keep food on the tables of film people.

"Once we have a viable support industry we can then start to attract the large players. We need initial support to establish a small production house dedicated to bringing national and international film productions to the region. This production house doesn't need to have much equipment, studios or a big staff. It does need to have a focus on promoting Nelson as a film destination."

But EDA chief executive Bill Findlater says we don't need a film office to attract investment, although there are no local figures on how much the film industry brings into the region. He says Nelson Tasman Tourism do a good job of promoting Nelson, and the councils are "film-friendly".

Besides, we can't afford it; he says it would cost at least $200,000 a year to run. "We looked at it a number of years ago and came to the conclusion that we couldn't afford a film office here and are already attracting a number of films," he says. "I think we're quite well-served. Both [councils] are more than happy to work with film to make it work."

Mr Cox argues that the cost of a film office would pay for itself. "There are ways of doing it economically and for anyone to say ‘No, it's unaffordable' is crazy because if you spent three to four million on a film, the spin-off from that is probably about $10m."

For its part, Film New Zealand enquiries manager Robin Murphy is not sure who once said that we needed a film office to get films; they're just nice-to-haves.

"Yes, if you have one it would be nice and convenient for film

makers and you might be able to raise awareness of your region, but it's not like people aren't aware of the region.

"We will always direct people to the regional film offices when they say they want to film in an area, but we wouldn't say don't go to a location because there isn't [a regional film office]; definitely not. In small areas like that where you don't get a lot of production, the council can manage it. Places like Auckland need a separate department to deal with the volume of work."

She says producers will go where it's cheapest - or where it's necessary to the story. Kiwi Flyer was obviously a Nelson community story, she says. Whale Rider could not have been filmed anywhere but the East Coast, and nor could Boy. Scarfies was as Dunedin a story as it's possible to get. Much is made of Taranaki netting The Last Samurai, generating an additional 616 fulltime equivalent jobs and $69.1 million, but that movie demanded a rural Mt Fuji stand-in, which only Mt Taranaki could provide. Indeed, Golden Bay author Gerard Hindmarsh's popular book Angelina is set to become a movie, filmed on both D'Urville Island and the volcanic Italian island of Stromboli. It could not be shot anywhere else.

Tony Simpson says Film New Zealand is essentially doing the same job as a local film office, and film investment is driven by local people with projects. "Peter Jackson takes everything to Wellington because that's where he lives." He says Kiwi Flyer could only be made in Nelson because of private investment and the council's funds injection. It takes time also - Kiwi Flyer was three years in gestation before they shot a single scene.

"It's like a small business; you need capital to keep it going. That's the really slow build-up and then a really quick pick-up. People don't realise you can't just rock up and make a movie.

"It really comes down to the producers of the TV commercials or the shows deciding they want to film there. Personally, I think [a film office] would be a lot of money going down the gurgler because they've done it in other places and it was expensive to run. There could be a more judicious way to spend the money."

An example often cited is Film Otago Southland, which has merged film links from across the region to create a successful industry second only to Auckland and Wellington. Chief executive KJ Jennings says their film office grew from the bottom up. There was already a production house in Queenstown, and rising Queenstown Lakes District Council filming inquiries meant they needed someone to deal with them. TV commercials are their bread-and-butter, and Jennings says they "under-promised and over-delivered" from the beginning. "Whether you need one or not is a complex issue," he says. "Obviously I'm a firm believer in the value of regional film offices; the question is how do you structure it so you're able to justify your existence to the funders?

"Creating a film office in a place that doesn't have an industry is unlikely to create an industry. It can help and nurture it along, but if there was a situation that would draw films and production there they would have found their way there. You've had plenty of filming in Nelson, and the question is how much more can we get by creating a film office?"

He says one person needs to look after it, at least in the beginning. "I think it's time to look at the first steps of what you need to do - a single page on the council or tourism website with a single point of contact." (Neither of the councils or Nelson Tasman Tourism has such a page).

Tasman District Council communications manager Chris Choat says the council has a good relationship with most production companies, which are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, though agrees more could be done online. Nelson City Council deputy mayor Ali Boswijk, who also has background in television production, believes a film office "would be a great thing to have in place". "Although it's fair to say these things will happen naturally and you do get an evolution, as soon as you flick a bit of manpower and focus at something it can often be that catalyst to make things happen," she says.

"Somebody's got a radar on it, they're looking for opportunities, as opposed to just reacting to them."

Yet she doesn't see Film Nelson as a council function at all - though council-supported, it should be strictly commercial. That means regular TV and commercial work, and she says Nelson has to put itself "on the radar" for ad agencies shooting commercials.

"It's always tempting on the back of something like Kiwi Flyer to suddenly go ‘Ooh we should really be doing something more permanent' [but] some things take the time they take, and if you push it too fast actually you're probably not going to get as far as you can go than if you were slightly more strategic about it."

Back in 2003, nothing was quite ready, she adds. That has changed dramatically now.

"I think there are a lot more people with the expertise who have moved here in the meantime or have developed [skills]."

She points out that an increasingly online world and the relatively cheap availability of HD cameras means the highest-quality equipment is not always needed. "It's a different world really. It's exciting."

Perhaps Kiwi Flyer is just the beginning.

  • Are you going to the Kiwi Flyer premiere tomorrow night? Tweet with the hashtag #KiwiFlyer and we'll publish your comments from the red carpet.

- Nelson


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