$5m for TV quake drama

ON SET: Wellington film-maker Gaylene Preston (centre) on location at the munted inner-city red-zone home.
ON SET: Wellington film-maker Gaylene Preston (centre) on location at the munted inner-city red-zone home.

A New Zealand On Air internal report questioned the cost of making quake drama Hope & Wire, describing the three-part series as ''expensive'' and the directors' fees as ''a bit rich'', asking for savings to be made.

To cut costs, a NZ On Air budget assessor asked: ''Does it need all the earthquakes?'' and ''Does it have to be a high-end drama at all?'' papers provided under the Official Information Act show.

NZ On Air granted $5,142,664 from its Platinum Fund in September 2012 to make Hope & Wire, a dramatised television series about the Christchurch earthquakes, starting on TV3 next Thursday.

The documents, issued to The Press by NZ On Air 15 months after the initial request and after a review from the Office of the Omdhbudsman, also reveal that Wellington film-maker Gaylene Preston compared making the dramatised television series to ''creating The Lord of the Rings''.

Preston described the comparison to Sir Peter Jackson's film as an ''industry term''.

''The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy and how the stories flow from film to film is how Hope & Wire flows from episode to episode,'' she told The Press.

Preston also said she liked to work in a professional environment.

''There is a tradition in New Zealand of being very proud of standing up at the opening screening and saying we did this without any money.  At best this is a triumph of amateurism and at worst it is exploitative.  I like to see everyone paid. I want to work in a professional story-telling environment.''

Jane Wrightson, chief executive of New Zealand On Air, defended its decision to fund the ''quality'' drama series.

''Drama enables an expert story-teller to distil experiences and, through fictional characters, engage audiences with the subject in an entirely different way that does not exploit individuals,'' she said.

The funding body also questioned the need to shoot on location in Christchurch, asking: ''Could Bexley be found/created in Lower Hutt?''

Preston said this referred to a ''big safety issue''.

''No-one was sure that bringing a film crew and all the demands involved would be best for Christchurch or our workers.''

While searching for a local building crew for the series, Preston wrote to NZ On Air in December 2012, saying it would be ''cheaper'' to bring people down from ''impoverished Wellington'' than to pay local rates in Christchurch.

NZ On Air staff commissioned a ''rigorous review'' of the series' budget before allocating funding, documents reveal, and initially noted: ''Overall, it is a struggle to come up with many costs that look light while a number of costs look high''.

But Preston expressed her desire to proceed, responding to NZ On Air that the project was ''on steady ground''.

The NZ On Air budget assessor then made an abrupt U-turn and described the series as being ''under-resourced'', writing: ''I now feel quite strongly that if broadcaster and funder want to commission the series as realised in the current scripts, then the producers will need at least what they have applied for.''

Preston confirmed this week that additional funding sources were secured for the series.

''Yes, but they are confidential. We were very mindful not to request money from the Canterbury region, so some of the ways that producers raise money normally were not available to us by choice.''

Writing to NZOA, Preston wrote: ''With this degree of personal commitment made - significantly - with public funding, simply demands to be made in Christchurch. Politically, there is no alternative.''

The initial budget was based around a three-week shoot in Christchurch, with the balance to be filmed in Wellington. 

The Christchurch shoot took 17 weeks.

Preston described it as having ''endeavoured to perform the miracle of the loaves and fishes''.

Wrightson said producers brought the project in on budget.

''We always appreciated that this would be a difficult series to shoot in a city in such a state of disruption but believed it was important that it was shot there if possible. We were concerned that Gaylene produced a quality, authentic drama. She has done this and she and her team should be congratulated for their achievement.''

Asked whether Wrightson considered the $5 million grant to create a dramatised television series using fictional characters about a tragic event in New Zealand history an acceptable use of taxpayer money, Wrightson said it was.

''Yes,'' Wrightson said. ''We continue to support such projects.'' 

She described the per hour rate, $828,777, for the production as ''economical'' given its scale and the ''extra production costs associated with filming in Christchurch''.

''We are confident that the money has been invested well in a world-class series,'' she said.

When asked what the money had funded, where the money went, Preston replied that it had gone ''mainly into the local economy of Christchurch.''

Preston described film-making as a ''wonderful way to distribute money fast''.

''Film-making is labour intensive and needs everything from highly skilled people to unskilled labour, cleaners, cars, accommodation - that's why I think Christchurch needs a film studio and a film-making drama infrastructure.''

The Press