New Zealand rivals Australia as a leading southern hemisphere film production hub. The mountainous vistas of the central South Island are among the country’s chief international appeals, bolstered by a competitive national filming incentive.
The county is perhaps best known for hosting New Line Cinema’s hugely successful Lord Of The Rings film franchise, and will now reprise its starring role as Middle Earth for Amazon Studios’ Lord Of The Rings TV series. The country beat strong competition from Scotland to host the production.
Filming for the nz$1.3bn series will take place across Auckland. JA Bayona will direct the first two episodes, which will explore the storylines preceding JRR Tolkien’s The Fellowship Of The Ring.
In 2019, Disney’s live-action version of historical story Mulan was one of the biggest international movies to shoot in New Zealand, doubling the country for Chinese story settings. Production was based at Kumeu Film Studios near Auckland, a facility that was initially set up to house Warner Bros’ shark attack thriller The Meg, but was made permanent shortly afterwards. It now offers New Zealand’s first water tanks. Mulan was also filmed on location in the South Island around the Mackenzie Basin and Central Otago regions.
Filmmaker James Cameron also used the country as a production base for his Avatar sequels for 20th Century Fox for much of 2019. He has been shooting live-action footage to complement motion capture work already filmed in the US, and doing extensive post-production work in the country. The sequels are being serviced by Stone Street Studios in Wellington, Avalon Studios in Auckland and also at Kumeu Film Studios.
Production support for international producers is available from New Zealand Film Commission and the country offers an incentive support programme known as the New Zealand Screen Production Grant.
The film commission has supported the six-part BBC2 and Fremantle drama The Luminaries, set against the backdrop of the gold rush on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the 1860s.
“We pretty much shot the entire thing in Auckland,” says Christian Vesper, executive vice president and creative director for global drama at Fremantle, which is co-financing and co-producing The Luminaries with the BBC and Working Title TV. “It was interesting as we had to do a lot of building as New Zealand didn’t have nearly as much 19th century architecture as we thought it would. The level of craftsmanship we have experienced down there has been fantastic.”
Further high-profile visiting productions have included Paramount Pictures’ Mission: Impossible — Fallout, which filmed a climactic helicopter chase in the Central Otago region of South Island, and Paramount’s Ghost in the Shell, which shot extensively in Wellington.
New Zealand’s biggest production facilities are in Auckland at Auckland Film Studios, which hosted Sonar Entertainment’s US fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles, and the capital Wellington, both on North Island. Filmmaker Peter Jackson part-owns Wellington’s Stone Street and shoots most of his productions there. Universal Pictures’ fantasy thriller Mortal Engines was produced by Jackson and shot almost entirely at Stone Street. Some of the sets were so complex the team first modelled the film’s dystopian city environments using 3D augmented reality.
Indeed, New Zealand has established itself as a major visual-effects hub, frequently working on films not actually shot in the country, with recent examples including Columbia’s Blade Runner 2049 and Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy.
New Zealand also has a strong reputation for crews and creative collaborators. The film industry punches well above its weight internationally and a proactive local film commission funds talent development and mentor schemes. The talent pool includes heads of department, line producers and Oscar-winning post houses in Wellington. Crews are experienced, with many having CVs dating back to The Lord Of The Rings films and earlier. Stone Street Studios in Wellington is the focal point, while Auckland Film Studios, Studio West and Kumeu Film Studios offer stage infrastructure on North Island.
New Zealand has spectacular scenery and cosmopolitan cities within a relatively short distance of each other. International connections are plentiful and local travel is easy.