In 1993, the year that Pacific Renaissance Pictures started producing Hercules stories in Auckland, the New Zealand's dollar's exchange rate with the US dollar was 54 cents. By 2001, after three years' principal photography on The Lord of the Rings, it was 42 cents. You got a lot of skilled production capacity for your yankee dollar. But right now, it's 83 cents -- and the New Zealand screen production sector, which looked like a dream export industry (it brought in $3 billion last year) is suddenly in a very, very bad way.
In Auckland in particular, a skilled workforce of thousands -- mostly people operating as their own small businesses -- has virtually no work. Soundstages are empty.
The only solution, say many of the people in the sector, is to rejoin the bidding war for international productions -- to raise the 15% rebate currently available on major production spending or, according to The Guardian last week, face the loss of a billion dollars' worth of Avatar sequels. Maybe Fox won't really pull Avatar from New Zealand and is just doing its customary October fearmongering in pursuit of bigger subsdies and more generous concessions. But you can't blame people for being nervous.
In 2010, Treasury found, not for the first time, that the overall economic impact of $200 million in screen subsidies -- or, you you prefer, rebates on spending that would otherwise not have come here -- was mildly negative. The net cost of the scheme over seven years was about $36 million.
Which doesn't sound a lot. But at that time Green Party leader Russel Norman joined with Roger Douglas in slating the scheme. For the Herald, Karen Scherer wrote a series of stories critical of the policy and it was left to Gerry Brownlee to dismiss Treasury's view and defend the scheme.
In 2013, Lucy Lawless is at loggerheads with Steven Joyce, angry that Joyce singled out Lawless's husband Rob Tapert's production shift to South Africa as a factor in the industry slump. In a serious of furious tweets she has accused Joyce (who, to be fair, has been even more publicly contemptuous than usual) of "killing" the New Zealand film industry by refusing to raise the rebate.
The argument for an expansion in the Large Budget Screen Production Grant is to some extent special pleading. It tends to come from people who were appalled by the goverment's accommodations towards SkyCity and critical of the $30 million sweetener to the owners of the Tiwai Point smelter, which saved jobs in Southland. According to a Herald/Digipoll poll, New Zealanders are notably better disposed towards the film scheme than the other subsidies -- but why should that be?
Well, it's not because the the job of a set-builder, animal wrangler or offline editor in Auckland is intrinsically worth more than that of a skilled workman at a smelter running on heavily subsidised power in Southland. But the screen production sector spends a lot of money with small businesses and taken together, thousands of people working in the industry do represent a kind of cultural infrastructure. Their skills are the skills required to tell our own stories, and the loss of business is already having a cascading effect on their ability to do that. Facilities businesses will have to sell their gear overseas if this carries on. The risk is that it simply won't be possible to make certain kinds of productions.
But, certainly from a perspective in Auckland, where most of the TV production is done, this isn't just about the the screen grants and our competitiveness in the market for foreign productions. The screen sector is ailing in various ways.
NZ On Air's budget has been frozen for six years now. The goverment allowed two public service channels to shut down. And -- let's be honest here -- the TV hits haven't been coming. Audiences for local scripted drama, which costs NZ On Air a shitload to fund, haven't really been turning up. The Almighty Johnsons, Go Girls, Nothing Trivial, Harry and The Blue Rose have all failed to reach expectations. It really does start to make commercial sense for TV3 to run The Block three nights a week, as depressing as that might be.
I do think something is happening here that is worth worrying about -- and is worthy of something a lot better than a Steven Joyce throwaway line blaming the trains. This is a big sector and, it seems to me, one worth keeping around, for various reasons. What are the problems here? Which ones can really be fixed? And how?