Whether or not “The Power of the Dog” wins the big prize at the Academy Awards on Sunday, David Strong, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission for the past eight months, is guaranteed to be an in-demand visitor to Los Angeles over the next week.
With the Jane Campion-directed film handily showcasing New Zealand’s talent, locations and craft strengths, the country has now reopened its borders to international visitors. Also sweetening the deal are more studio spaces.
Ahead of Strong’s flight to Los Angeles, where he has a week of meetings set up with Hollywood decision makers, he spoke to Variety about what New Zealand has to offer going forward.
What has been the impact of “The Power of the Dog” and its Oscar nominations?
It’s already been a big success story for us. The New Zealand government put $8 million into “The Power of the Dog” and, along with the Netflix money and the co-production with Australia, made it a big success story in many ways. In a year of COVID, because it was filmed in 2020, it invested directly into our economy and supported service industries. We had over 600 crew and extras working on it, from Auckland down to Otago, recreating Montana in New Zealand.
If we talk about Jane Campion, in particular, it’s a remarkable achievement by a world-leading filmmaker who’s been in industry for nearly 40 years. She first got Oscars for “The Piano” in 1994. She’s now the only twice Oscar-nominated director who is a female. We were very proud of her. And we’re proud of her being a Kiwi.
But she’s not the only one in the spotlight, is she?
The film will once again highlight the talent in New Zealand, such as heads of department perspective Grant Major (production designer) and Amber Richards (set decorator), who I worked for on “Mulan,” and who are now nominated for production design. The Oscars highlight our versatile locations, in Otago for example. That is very useful for us as we also come out of COVID and re-engage with the world.
Is the country in a position to capitalize on the “Power of the Dog” momentum?
The borders have been open since March 13. Any eligible traveler can come in now with a vaccination and a negative test. We’ve got a number of really big films that are interested in coming down here. The first question to us is around studio space and what studios we have available. We’re fortunate that the government has put some money in traditional studio space and there’s been some pretty big private investment to bring new soundstages and studio spaces online.
[These include] Lane Street Studios in Wellington, a 20-minute drive from the CBD, which has two brand new soundstages and huge backlot spaces. The Auckland Film Studios [which housed “Mulan,” “Lord of the Rings” and TV’s “The Shannara Chronicles”] is redesigned and has new soundstages going in there. And across Auckland, there are some emerging locations that people are using and bringing online.
When the Amazon “Lord of the Rings” production left, that created some space. [Wellington’s] Stone Street I think is already booked out with a U.S. TV series that we’ll announce shortly. They’ll be in for about four to six months.
Have New Zealand’s production incentives kept pace with the global competition?
The 20% [rebate scheme] is certainly competitive. If we look at the number of significant international productions that wish to come down here, it is at the top of the range.
A couple of things about the New Zealand incentives: First is that we manage and pay out very fast. We probably have the fastest turnaround. Additionally, it’s not capped. It’s on all your qualifying expenditure, not just labor. So, the total package that’s wrapped around that percentage is a pretty attractive. It’s often the package that counts. Some countries have much higher percentage [rebates], but they might only be for labor. And some of them are known to be quite difficult to actually get that money returned.
So, I’m confident that our 20%, plus the potential 5% additional uplift [for industry-transforming works], gets us in the ballpark. And on top of that, you’ve got the “New Zealand factor,” which is the crew and the “Kiwi-can-do attitude” to film production. Plus, we’re only a 10-hour flight from L.A., so it’s not that far away.
Are you concerned that because New Zealand lost “Lord of the Rings,” the edge has been dulled?
I think Amazon made its decision to relocate to the U.K. a while before that announcement. These are big business decisions. The number of productions from L.A. that have shown interest in coming to New Zealand in the last few months is significant, so I don’t think it has had any impact on us at all.
How is New Zealand upping its game as a hub for film and TV tech?
Firstly, the government has just announced an industry transformation plan for digital. It recognizes that we are already fairly world-leading in terms of tech. The Weta Digital sale for $1.625 billion is a clear indication that this is big business, and it’s a mature business. And, clearly with the number of Academy Awards and the work they get, they are world leading innovators. Kiwis thrive in small to medium size enterprises, which means innovation, and rapidly adapting a business model or developing technology. It is part of the Kiwi culture.
If I look at specifically at organizations like [digital facilities firms] The Rebel Fleet, or Moxion in Auckland, Jason Reed, who was the producer on “Mulan” said that Rebel Fleet’s capabilities to support “Mulan” were without doubt among the world’s best. A company like [white label streaming platform] Shift 72, has taken a great idea and just grown from strength to strength. It’s the same with Auckland-based Parrot Analytics, now one of the leading screen data analytics companies in the world.
How might the digital campus in Christchurch help?
The new campus at the University of Canterbury is a timely and very welcome addition to New Zealand. They’re investing NZ$100 million, including purpose-built sound stages. One of the really good things about it is that it’s a cross-faculty program, bringing together multiple faculties to offer everything from master’s degrees to digital credit design. They are also integrating shared workspace with local businesses, so that graduate students can actually work closely with potential businesses. It’s a really good sort of public-private partnership. I’m quite excited.
What’s happening in local production?
We had a COVID year, so domestic production was down, like it has been in many countries. This year, we’ve got around 14 to 18 feature films, which might not sound large from an international scale, but here that’s about as big as it gets. The quality of films coming out of New Zealand is high. We have 10 or 12 New Zealand Film Commission-funded films that have made it to one or multiple A-list, international film festivals in the last six months, which is pretty high for our country. A lot of that goes down to the synergy that exists between working on high production value international films and the domestic scene.