Wellington Scoop

400 visas for jobs at Weta Digital – does this include upskilling for NZers?

Report from TV3’s ‘The Nation’
Are film crew members from overseas doing Hobbit jobs in Wellington that New Zealanders could do? The topic was debated this weekend on TV3’s The Nation. One issue was not disputed: Wellington City Councillor Jo Coughlan and NZCTU President Helen Kelly both agreed that 400 overseas technicians had recently applied for visas to work at the Weta Digital post production facility in Wellington.

“We don’t object at all to the Prime Minister going to Hollywood and talking about bringing films here, and the industry that it’s creating is obviously very exciting, there’s nothing that we object to in that model,” said Ms Kelly. “ What we object to is some of the things that have run alongside that, like for example very free immigration laws which have now changed.

“We’ve just seen Weta apply to bring 400 foreign workers in to do some core jobs in the industry that they should be training and giving to New Zealanders.”

But Ms Coughlan said people from offshore were upskilling New Zealanders.

“The spinoff of these innovative creative people who come into our city, what’s happening is they’re upskilling the people in our economy so that we’re actually growing the whole pie, and in fact we’re basically creating a whole new industry of innovation and creative jobs,” she said. “ It’s incredible.”


Rachel America invested $387 million in our film and TV industry last year, and Prime Minister John Key has been in Hollywood this week looking for more business, and trying to encourage studios to make more films in this country. He’s offered incentives before, so what else does Hollywood want, and is it a price we’re prepared to pay? We have a panel to discuss all this. Let’s go to our panel. Professor Jane Kelsey from the University of Auckland Law School, and a long-time critic of Free Trade Agreements. Helen Kelly, President of the Council of Trade Unions. Stephen Jacobi, Executive Director of the NZ US Council, and Wellington City Councillor, Jo Coughlan. Welcome to you all.

Jo if I could start with you if I may. Taxpayers have subsidised Hollywood movies now to the tune of around $500 million. What are the benefits of that to Wellington?

Jo Coughlan
Okay, well look I just want to put it in context to start with. In Wellington so far we’ve had three Lord of the Rings movies, we’ve had King Kong, Avatar, Tin Tin and currently The Hobbit. Weta Digital are currently working on five films. James Cameron’s moving here, you know the biggest grossing movies of all time, Titanic and Avatar. So the director of those is going to be living here. You know this is very very big business and it absolutely is putting Wellington and New Zealand on the world stage. And just in terms of dollars, feature films in Wellington generated $570 million last year and that’s doubled since 2008, and actually that’s pre The Hobbit figures. And also what it means for Wellington in terms of jobs is 4000 full time equivalent jobs, and you know if you take the multiplier effects of those around the nation, you’re talking about around 20,000 jobs created in New Zealand on the back of this industry. And also 800 businesses in Wellington are connected directly with the film industry. So aside from that there’s a whole lot of other benefits as well, but in terms of innovative industries it’s been off the back of the film industry.

Rachel Let’s just look at The Hobbit then Jo, are we subsidising you know The Hobbit $60 million or are we subsidising Weta and Peter Jackson here?

Jo Look I think the point is that what we’re doing is we’re creating enormous numbers of jobs in New Zealand that wouldn’t otherwise be here.

Rachel Are they foreign or are they domestic jobs though?

Jo Oh they’re absolutely domestic jobs, I mean we’ve got 4000 full time equivalents in Wellington who are employed on the back of this industry, and as I’ve already said around New Zealand you’re talking about 20000 jobs, I mean that’s electricians, it’s labourers, it’s caterers, it’s designers, it’s seamstresses. It’s across such a wide variety of sectors across the economy.

Rachel Okay, let me bring Helen Kelly in here from the Council of Trade Unions. Helen the government now is considering increasing its subsidy. John Key says it is a three billion dollar industry. At the moment we’re subsidising to the tune of 15%. That could almost double. It is a three billion dollar though he says.

Helen Kelly – CTU President
Yeah we don’t object at all to the Prime Minister going to Hollywood and talking about bringing films here, and the industry that it’s creating is obviously very exciting, there’s nothing that we object to in that model. What we object to is some of the things that have run alongside that, like for example very very free immigration laws which have now changed. We’ve just seen Weta apply to bring 400 foreign workers in to do some core jobs in the industry that they should be training and giving to New Zealanders. We’ve seen the Employment Law change, basically removing all employment rights for workers in the film industry, and we’re seeing the secrecy. I mean your introduction at the beginning of the show, all the secrecy around the TPP Agreement, around the discussions, around what’s going on with Dotcom. It’s alright for Key to say there’s a lot of conspiracy theories, if he made this transparent, opened up what those American companies are seeking from us in exchange for this, then we could make a judgement, an open and fair judgement. And the other thing is that we are seeing jobs in this country going out the window all over the place. And why is the government also not putting the time and energy into looking into those industries? Over 100,000 jobs in manufacturing. Why isn’t the government looking at those as well? Why aren’t they for example spending six million, allowing Kiwi Rail to make our trains here. Long term engineering, building, fabrication jobs?

Rachel Some would argue though if you’re going to subsidise those industries then why not the screen industries?

Helen Oh well we’re not arguing about subsidising the screen industry. What we’re saying is what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. These are long term permanent jobs with employment rights in New Zealand. The government seems to favour Hollywood, and what we’re worried about is the tradeoffs that we see going on, and really affecting our economy.

Rachel Jo Coughlan, Helen Kelly says 400 migrant jobs coming in here, that’s not domestic jobs is it? That’s people coming in to take those jobs?

Jo No, but I’m glad you’ve mentioned that, because actually what that means is it’s people coming in to upskill Kiwis across the board.

Rachel Or is it people just coming in and then bouncing back out, going back to Hollywood and Bollywood and places like that. They come in, get the cash and then leave again.

Jo No not at all. I mean diversification is really really important for the Wellington economy, and this industry has enabled our economy to diversify, not just in the film industry, but across digital innovative creative …

Rachel But if these people have been coming in and upskilling people … then they wouldn’t need to be bringing more people in again to upskill people. We’d have those people here ourselves.

Jo Well Rachel just let me talk to you about growing the pie, and I’ll just give you the example of a company called Matakina who you know have used international visual imaging technicians to work with them in their biomedical business, which is based here in Wellington, and now what they’re actually doing is they’re taking breast screening technology to the world, and they’re deploying that in Europe and America. The spinoff of these innovative creative people who come into our city, what’s happening is they’re upskilling the people in our economy so that we’re actually growing the whole pie, and in fact we’re basically creating a whole new industry of innovation and creative jobs. It’s incredible.

Helen There is no market test on those 400 jobs. The government changed the Immigration Law to favour these industries to bring migrants in. If you want to bring in a plasterer or an electrician you’ve got to show there’s no New Zealander able to do the job. Why has the film industry been exempt from that, and been accredited, able to bring in these roles without any market test to see whether there are Kiwis that can do these jobs. Whether this is truly upskilling and replacing New Zealand workers.

Rachel Okay let me bring in Professor Jane Kelsey here. Jane, John Key had dinner in Hollywood with Chris Dodd, he’s from the Motion Picture Association of America. What do you make of that dinner? Do you see any danger if you like in that dinner?

Jane Kelsey – Auckland University Law School
Well there’s been a lot of attention paid to the Dotcom link, but the real subtext of the visit to Hollywood is what’s happening with the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations. The movie industry and the music industry are the two biggest copyright lobbies in the US. They’ve been trying to develop global rules that bind countries to intellectual property in particular regimes that suit their interests. There was a failed attempt to do that with something known and The ACTA Agreement, and even that compromise is being knocked out because of big protests in Europe. So they see the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement as basically the vanguard through which they can drive these new rules. We know that the Prime Minister’s a deal maker, and there are real risks that already secretive negotiations are going to be compounded by secret deals that he does in Hollywood, at the same time as the Lee G Weiss negotiators were in Wellington this week, pushing the same rules in secret in discussions in Wellington. And I spose the sad irony for some of us is that this is one area of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement where our negotiators have been standing firm for two and a half years saying no to what Hollywood is demanding, and they now risk having that ground undercut from them, by what John Key is doing in Hollywood.

Rachel Let me bring you in Stephen Jacobi, because this is what makes Kiwis’ hackles rise about the TPP isn’t it? That we are in essence opening the door to the Americans and before we know it, we’ll see more Kim Dotcom sagas and elements like that unfolding here. America will have too much influence over what’s going on in this country.

Stephen Jacobi – NZ US Council Executive Director
Well in a poll of New Zealanders’ views that we released on Friday, over 60% of New Zealanders said they wanted New Zealand to connect more with the rest of the world, and TPP is just one of the ways of doing that. It is complex, it is a broad undertaking. It’s still a work in progress. We don’t know what the outcome will be, and I think our negotiators are very conscious of both the benefits and the risks that apply to this negotiation. It’s said that it’s held in secret. It’s not a very well kept secret if that’s the case, and stakeholders like Jane Kelsey will have every opportunity to participate in the negotiating round when it takes place in Auckland.

Jane Stephen that’s not true, you know that those negotiations are closed door negotiations, and the reason that we know about the intellectual chapter is because successive leaks, and the government has not opened the door to providing information to us. Indeed we won’t get to see what deals they have made until the agreement is concluded. That is not the way you make decisions …

Stephen Well Jane is right that the negotiation is conducted in a confidential setting, and there are very good reasons for that, because of the very sensitive economic and commercial matters involved. It’s no different in this trade negotiation as in any other negotiation, as in any other international negotiation. But what I think the point that needs to be made, is that stakeholders have been given a much greater access to these negotiations than any other time in the past. Every time I go into Foreign Affairs I see Jane Kelsey leaving. So you know I think more could be done admittedly to tell people about the scope of these negotiations. I understand that. But for the time being this is a work in progress, and we’ll have the opportunity to see the result when the treaty comes before parliament and will be considered.

Rachel How could we ensure then Stephen that the TPP doesn’t impact in any way on our sovereignty? Or, is it a given that if the TPP goes ahead we will risk losing at least some of that?

Stephen Well I can’t understand why any New Zealand government would want to trade away New Zealand’s sovereignty across the board. But the way to make sure that the negotiators are focused on what’s important is for stakeholders like Jane Kelsey and business interests, and the CTU and others, to maintain a very active dialogue with them, which is in fact what happens. And as I said Jane sits down with the negotiators on a very regular basis, as we do, as Helen Kelly does, and the government is very well aware of the risks that arise. Parts of the negotiation are completely transparent in that regard.

Rachel Helen Kelly, are they transparent?

Helen No they’re not transparent, and what’s at stake here, it is very complicated, but what’s at stake here for example is there may be very much restricted use of the internet as these Hollywood producers try to protect their intellectual property which is one interest, but as New Zealanders perhaps in smaller film industry and creative industries want to use the internet to promote New Zealand culture and New Zealand industry, there may be for example restrictions on employment law, because we can see that now, foreign investors criticising Egypt for example for introducing minimum wages, saying well we’re building stuff in Egypt, we didn’t have a minimum wage, we’ve got a trade agreement, this could be a breach of the minimum wage law. We’ve already seen that the interests of some of large corporates are not the same as New Zealand citizens, and they have to be balanced. And honestly if there was transparency, openness, real debate, then people would be able to relax and see the issues as they are. But there’s huge secrecy.

Rachel Jane Kelsey, would you be happy with the TPP in some format, if sovereignty was protected in some way? Is there a form of the TPP that you would be happy with if you like?

Jane Well it’s actually a contradiction in terms, because what the agreement would do is bind the hands of New Zealand governments into the future, and give foreign investors the right to sue and enforce many of those rules. And I think ordinary New Zealanders need to understand what we do know from the leaks, which is that the Hollywood industry is asking (1) for an end to parallel imports. (2) for an extension of the copyright powers which would make libraries etc really do their budgets ….

Rachel But in saying that shouldn’t an American firm be able to come in here and protect their copyright? What’s wrong with doing that?

Jane Well there is a balance and copyright law, intellectual property law, has sought a very delicate balance over many years. What’s we’re seeing now are sets of rules that Hollywood wants that would make it virtually impossible to engage in many of the innovative industries and practices on the internet, and it would turn ISPs into effective police of the internet, on behalf of Hollywood. Now that introducing the kind of secrecy and invasion of privacy issues that we’re seeing coming to the fore with the Dotcom saga. It’s a quite scary scenario, it needs to be in the public domain, and Stephen’s quite disingenuous in saying that there is transparency. Any briefings we get are so obscure that they tell us nothing.

Rachel Stephen Jacobi I will let you respond to that.

Stephen Well just because the Americans are advancing certain matters in the context of the negotiation doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be accepted. And the same is true for New Zealand. We have some interesting things we would like to achieve in this negotiation as well. That’s the nature of a negotiation, and there has to be some consensus around those areas. Jane Kelsey mentioned ACTA a moment ago. The United States tried similar tactics in ACTA and was unsuccessful, and I’m quite sure that New Zealand will be able to maintain things that it agrees or believes need to be maintained in the course of this negotiation.

Rachel Let me just bring in Jo Coughlan here. Jo, are you prepared for the sake of jobs pay this price? Essentially we’re giving up some of our personal liberty here potentially for a few hundred jobs. Is that worth it?

Jo Well I’m not sure if we are, I mean I don’t know enough about it. I mean I’m not a Trade Negotiator, and I’m certainly not an IP lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that New Zealand’s good at negotiations, because we’ve done a lot of them in the past, and I’m sure that hopefully a fair and level playing field will be the outcome. But what I do know is that this industry is very very important to New Zealand, it generates an enormous number of jobs, and it also provides an amazing platform for us to develop IP and develop our reputation as an innovative you know creative country that does a lot more than just produce milk powder and have nice scenery.

Rachel Sure, and there are benefits too for Hollywood, and it has this subsidy at the moment with 15% that could become 30% which would be extraordinary. Why then is Wellington having to pay to host the premier of The Hobbit.

Jo The Hobbit premier is a world premier and is going to you know be shown all over the world, and generate enormous amounts of tourism benefit and promotion …

Rachel Possibly. Possibly. Well of course you know we see the red carpet don’t we? We see the stars on the red carpet, there’s a bit of glitz a bit of glam, but you know is it really making people think right I’m off to the capital because that red carpet looks pretty good?

Jo Well you know it’s all about telling the story isn’t it, and if we don’t promote ourselves to the rest of the world, then they won’t know about us. So this is another very good way of doing it, in a way that puts New Zealand in a light which is incredibly positive.

Rachel What’s it going to cost the Council though? Over a million dollars to host this premier?

Jo Oh around that, I actually haven’t got the exact number on me, but I can tell you that the return on investment will be absolutely enormous.

Rachel Jane Kelsey is it worth hosting something like this do you think? A million dollars we’ve subsidised already. You know you’ll be considered a bit of a killjoy if you’re saying no we shouldn’t host a premier?

Jane Well I’d like to see us as Helen has said, support our local industries to the extent that we support our international ones, and one of the things that the Hollywood industry has been targeting in the Trans Pacific Partnership is a provision that would allow some kind of special recognition of the needs of the local cultural industry. And in fact that was introduced when Helen Clark wanted to introduce local content quotas like Australia has, to support the local culture industry, and was told that a previous National government had already signed away the right to do that in the World Trade Organisation. So these agreements have a long history of closing the doors for our local innovation, our local industry and our local jobs, to get the advantages that John Key is now promising to Hollywood.

Rachel Alright, we do have to leave it there, Professor Jane Kelsey from the University of Auckland thank you. Helen Kelly, President of the CTU, Stephen Jacobi, Executive Director of the US Council, thank you too. And Jo Coughlan from the Wellington City Council, thank you.


  1. Brandon, 7. October 2012, 22:53

    I’d happily work for Weta, and have applied more than once (I’ve even been interviewed by them!) over the last several years. But their hiring process is a complete mystery to me, especially when there are so many folks like myself who have a heart’s desire to work in the industry.

  2. Rene, 21. November 2012, 18:20

    I know someone that did work for Weta, he’s a local and according to the leads and supes did great work, he got let go to the disbelief of co-workers and can’t get back in, all because he’s one of those politically vocal types on the intranet. Weta is more political than they make out. It’s not always about talent with them. Oh well, now he’s in Canada with me and working on awesome films.

  3. May, 7. February 2013, 22:56

    This makes me sad.

    I studied for 5 years, graduating in 2006. I then applied at Weta and every year since then. I have applied 7 times. With 6+ years of professional experience under my belt I still cannot believe why Weta won’t hire me when all my previous employers consider me a valuable asset.

    Looking through Weta’s employees on Linkedin I am saddened to see so many foreign names with education and past employment from foreign countries.

    The real kicker is after two years these employees can apply for NZ permanent residence. Then they can stay as long as they like without a visa. What’s going to happen to artists like myself? What’s going to happen to the thousands of graduates from Media Design School, Lifeway College, Freelance Animation School and the likes when NZ studios refuse to hire kiwis.

  4. Gricko, 27. February 2013, 16:39

    Hiring NZ artists is substantially cheaper than hiring international artists. Kind of hard to believe that Weta would choose the more expensive option unless it had to.

  5. James Porter, 27. February 2013, 16:47

    I’m an overseas worker at Weta. I’m humbled to be here. To hear sensationalist “overseas workers filling a skills gap shocker” crap is quite boring and offensive. It happens in London, Canada, LA in VFX. But because it’s NZ it’s controversial? In order to get a task done, foreigners are brought in who have a specific skill set that doesn’t exist/limited. Together, with Kiwis either entering the industry training or already existing at that role, they gain far better knowledge working/learning from outsiders than being segregated. It’s such a stupid, stupid, Neanderthal argument. NZ studios don’t refuse to hire kiwis. It’d be cheaper and more convenient to hire Kiwis.

    Weta’s innovation is a industrial effort from kiwis and foreigners. Without that, it wouldn’t be one of the places to work for or have work on your film.

    For the guy that couldn’t get hired at Weta, maybe it’s your reel, maybe it’s your skills. Maybe there just isn’t that much of a calling for you VFX speciality. I don’t know. But don’t blame foreign staff – you’ll probably end up working with them at some point during your VFX career. If your such an asset at these other places you’ve mentioned, I would stay there and enjoy it.

    What about the software Weta use? That’s foreign too. Gonna cry about it? Probably not. That’s not solidarity, that’s just xenophobia.

  6. M, 27. February 2013, 16:51

    I worked at Weta for a short term contract in a certain department, did my job fine and got great recommendation from my supervisor, contract ended and they ended up extending foreigner contracts that I met working in the same department as myself, and are now currently working there.

    Currently unemployed and looking for work / contracts overseas because I can’t get it locally it seems (and with the vfx industry in turmoil its not looking great!)

  7. John Smith, 27. February 2013, 17:29

    Helen needs to be reminded that the money Weta uses to pay its contractors is from American companies. Warner Bros, Fox, New Line Cinema ect. So why “SHOULD” these jobs go to only kiwis? Weta has become a world leading VFX company. None of which offer “training”. Workers without experience can’t expect to walk into a leading VFX studio and land a job with out experience. No matter what country you’re in. There’s a hell of a lot of American money being pumped into the NZ economy. Stands to reason you’re going to get some Americans too.

  8. your Pal Randy, 27. February 2013, 22:21

    At Weta Digi I paint fur on monkeys’ arses, & detail alien ear-wax, it’s fricking awesome!! not only am i not from NZ, i’m not even from this planet.. 😉

    They pay me $#!+ loads, bribed the minister of immigration for me to get me residency & keep me up to my eyeballs in amphetamines (oops, i mean espresso coffee) – i only have to work 90 hr weeks & the fruit bowls provided daily keep me from getting constipated due to never leaving my chair.

  9. David, 27. February 2013, 23:21

    Some people are missing the point that even locals with the requisite experience are getting snubbed, even after they’ve worked there and gotten great reviews. It ‘s understandable that locals with no feature experience have a hard time getting in, but seasoned artists?

  10. Sarah, 27. February 2013, 23:49

    20,000 jobs created on the back of the NZ film industry? Where did she get those numbers? About 1,500 film contractors for a max of 3 years! Now it’s over and most of the contractors are on the dole. There are about 2,000 max. at Weta Digi right now on a wide range of projects. Many were let go at the end of last year. Many are from Europe and the US. They get paid more than kiwis and find it easier to get work than kiwis. I know of several kiwis who were told to get ‘international experience’ before working at Weta. One person was flown to Australia to work at Iloura. Apparently Kiwis are like Mexicans with cellphones.
    NZ will benefit from any resolution to the USA’s VFX industries problems. If the price tag for VFX goes up in the States, more Hollywood productions will come here. The downside for us is that they don’t want to hire us, so all you VFX artists can come and work in our jobs, in our country.
    Oh yeah and on my previous point there probably isn’t more than 5000 people employed full time in associated industries like tourist attractions so where are the other 10,000 full time jobs at? Jo Coughlan needs a calculator.

  11. Jimbo, 28. February 2013, 4:33

    If they were that good they would be rehired. Simple.
    Kiwis are cheaper and quicker to hire than foreigners.
    As for Randy’s comments, they’re all true!!

  12. David, 23. March 2013, 7:00

    Jimbo, no. Obviously there are kiwis that have the skills are extremely good and have worked for Weta and been let go in favour of foreigners that are no better and in many cases worse.
    In one case it seems politics played a part, he/she annoyed someone with political discussion on the intranet and another person got let go in favour of foreigners.

    You’re extremely naive if you don’t think politics plays a role in the industry.