New Zealand

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Overview and productions

New Zealand’s attractions include spectacular mountain landscapes and cutting-edge technology epitomised by Weta Digital’s expertise in performance-driven animated characters. Then there is the comfort of knowing crew depth and skill is constantly being expanded due to the ongoing work of two boundary-pushing filmmakers — the homegrown Peter Jackson and New Zealand’s adopted son James Cameron.

All the live-action production for Cameron’s four sequels to Avatar and much of the post too, is happening now. This set of films for Fox/Disney confirms the country can handle ambitious production and highlights the generous incentives available — producers Cameron and Jon Landau have so far received $62m (nz$86m) in government grants, based on expenditure of $309m (nz$429m) since November 2020. More is to come. International productions can access up to 25% of local expenditure.

Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings, reputedly the most expensive TV series ever made; Power Rangers Beast Morphers, two 22-part series of a franchise that has been in production for two decades; and Net­flix series The Letter For The King (though the Czech Republic supplied the castles) also shot recently in New Zealand.

The territory has two grants: the 20% New Zealand Screen Production Grant (NZSPG) and the Post, Digital and Visual Effects Grant (PDV), which is worth 20% for the first $16.6m (n$25m) then 18% for the rest. 

The Avatar sequel has received $45m (n$66.4m) in four payments over two years. The production is also expected to receive a discretionary 5% uplift. Landau said the Avatar team acted as a test case for how it was possible to safely admit overseas workers, not just for film but from other industries too. More than 400 people were employed and $48m (n$70m) spent in the second half of 2020, and Wellington-based Weta Digital has had a huge role in bringing the Avatar characters to life. 

Infrastructure and crews

The shooting stages at Stone Street Studios in Wellington are part of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s empire, which includes Weta and Park Street Post. Other studios include Kumeu, Auckland, Avalon, Kelly Park, Studio West and X3 Studios, all of which are in or near one of the two biggest urban centres, Auckland and Wellington.

It would be wise to check on crew availability before committing to any small territory but, as intimated, skill levels are high. Crew particularly excel in the creation of imaginary worlds, prosthetics and weaponry — think knights in armour and battles on horseback. Only about 30 cast and crew came from abroad for the Avatar films when production stopped and started again due to the pandemic. More than 400 locals are employed, and about 650 Weta Digital staff are keeping busy.

Weta is intent on expanding globally, with a focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning. It will be producing its own original content for the first time under a new Weta Animated banner, plans to open offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and is hiring experienced US executives. The company already describes itself as the largest “single-site VFX studio in the world”, with more than 1,500 staff.

 

Travel

New Zealand is two-thirds the size of California and about the size of the UK but with a population of just under 5 million. Both the North and South islands feature unspoiled, unworldly landscapes within a short distance of airports and major centres.

First contact

Philippa Mossman, head of international Screen Attraction, NZ Film philippa@nzfilm.co.nz

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