With a strict no-travel ban and a two-week government-
enforced quarantine period for select visitors, day-to-day life in New Zealand has clawed its way almost fully back on track amid the coronavirus pandemic. This is making it very attractive to international producers with projects of scale that might otherwise shoot in North America or Europe. The fact its southern hemisphere seasons are the reverse of those in the northern hemisphere has always been part of the country’s appeal too.
“During the New Zealand winter, that is, June through August, production capacity opens up and projects looking for snow and alpine landscapes usually look our way,” explains Philippa Mossman, head of international attraction at New Zealand Film Commission.
She has seen enquiries and requests for location presentations double in number from April to October, and the country’s growing crew and stage capacity means it should be able to cope. Some eight to 10 international productions at various stages of production can be housed during the southern hemisphere’s spring and summer.
And two names should allay any fears that New Zealand can cope with complex filmmaking of scale: Peter Jackson, who used his own backyard to make The Lord Of The Rings, Hobbit and Tintin films; and James Cameron, who is halfway through the task of making four Avatar sequels in his adopted home.
Cameron, his US producing partner Jon Landau and about 30 others, were among the first international filmmakers to be allowed through the closed borders, post Covid-19 outbreak, in order to resume production. Some work is also being done in California.
Landau told Television New Zealand soon after coming out of the required two-week quarantine that while the financial incentives lured Avatar to New Zealand in the first place, it is not what drew them back: “It’s the people that we have met here, the artisans, the passion they have, the technology they are willing to learn and adopt.”
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 will be 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.
In the last year, further projects have included Amazon series The Lord Of The Rings and The Wilds, Netflix series Cowboy Bebop and Sweet Tooth, yet more Power Rangers, the feature Black Christmas, based on the 1974 slasher film, and Chinese director Feng Xiaogang’s feature Only Cloud Knows.
Production for Avatar could not fit into the nine-stage Stone Street Studios in Wellington, home to Peter Jackson and at the southern end of the North Island, so Kumeu Film Studios outside Auckland (one-hour north by air) took the overflow. Kumeu has been in demand since opening in 2018. The 27-hectare site includes two water tanks and 12 hectares of forest. It accommodated Mulan and now hosts The Lord Of The Rings series.
Further soundstages can be found at Auckland Film Studios, Kelly Park Film Studio, Studio West and X3 Studios, in the Auckland region, and Wellington’s Avalon.
Queenstown on the South Island is the third key production hub and home to spectacular mountains.
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.