Hard News by Russell Brown

About culture

What with all the hoopla, it was proper that someone should play devil's advocate, but Peter Calder's sceptical look at The Lord of the Rings phenomenon in the Weekend Herald's Canvas magazine bugged me for a couple of reasons.

Calder takes exception to what he considers the "conceptual bankruptness" of a recent Prime Ministerial speech on film-industry spin-offs - which, as he points out, are difficult to quantify - and in particular, Clark's hailing of the benefits of the LOTR trilogy, and subsequent statement that "on a smaller scale, Whale Rider's success is also very positive for New Zealand overall.":

And that, it seems to me, is the nub of the question about what cultural benefit Rings may have conferred on the nation as a whole. Except to the extent that it showcased the extraordinary resourcefulness of Jackson and the people he gathered round him, Rings says nothing about who we are. But there would not be a person on the planet - among those who have paid US$40 million ($63 million) so far to see it - who would be in any doubt that Whale Rider is made in New Zealand and is about New Zealand. It is when our film-makers tell our stories that we get a priceless spin-off.

Well, for a start, I don't think the producers of either film would welcome them being put up against each other. They're quite different projects, and each is a remarkable success in its own right. And if we're to be sceptical about the financial benefits of LOTR, it would be fair to note that only a modest proportion of Whale Rider's box office gross will actually flow back to New Zealand.

But mostly, I can't help but feel that Calder has skipped too quickly over the "extraordinary resourcefulness" of Jackson and his team. Because that very resourcefulness - the ability to work together towards a highly demanding creative and technical goal - is a part of our culture. New Zealanders function best at the intersection of creativity and technology, as they did for LOTR.

An example: an old mate of mine, one of the most ingenious people I have ever known, has just finished up with Weta. He started out fixing the computers there and wound up doing CGI sequences for all three movies. He's over it now, understandably - he wants to go build robots or something - but the fact that he was able to do that kind of work in New Zealand for such an extended period is remarkable.

Ditto for Ngila Dickson - who was charming and talented when I first met her 20 years ago, and is now, thanks to this project, in the top flight of movie costume designers - and any number of others. To deny that they have brought both their personalities and their culture to the job seems mean-spirited.

The fact that there now exists in Wellington a busy, international-class post-production facility - Russell Baillie tripped over the ship models from Master and Commander on his tour through Weta - is amazing. Who would have predicted that 10 years ago?

No, we can't keep on buying in projects by handing out tax favours, but letting New Line set up its tax shelter in this instance seems to have been eminently worthwhile. For all the griping about the arrangement, I still haven't seen a bottom line on it. What is the net effect on the revenue base of the trilogy being produced here, taking into account taxes on income and the GST on both production and personal spending of those involved? Am I right in assuming that it is positive? Can anybody help me here?

Anyway, there don't seem to be any stories to link to yet, but Whale Rider picked up yet another award over the weekend - best feature film in the BAFTA Children's Television and Film Awards. Excellent.

And good news for Public Address too. November has been a hell of a month. Not only did we win our NetGuide Award, but the traffic stats are through the roof: 45,000 visits from 17,000 unique users. Thanks to everyone involved, and most especially Chad, who is taking his leave in order to concentrate on his primary task of writing novels.

I'm a big fan of prose style (kind of like one of those annoying muso types who gets technical about somebody's fretwork, I guess) and there aren't many people I know of who craft prose with the care, precision, ability and insight that Chad does.

I can understand what he says about the essentially reactive nature of daily blogging - Mike King loses the plot, we get lots of traffic - but I'm a kind of lab-rat in that respect. I'll press that button every day if it keeps on giving me a buzz, and I probably check our stats more often than is healthy. The idea of finishing something and then waiting until 2005 to see it, as Chad will, would drive me mad.

Anyway, thanks pal. See you for a beer real soon.