Wellington Scoop

From Middle Earth to Pandora

Photo via Twitter from Celia Wade-Brown

by Lindsay Shelton
The choice of venue for the Avatar announcement was a telling one. With industry debate about the level of state assistance for international movies, the decision was made to bring the politicians into the modest Ghuznee Street offices of the Film Commission, the organisation responsible for encouraging and financing the real New Zealand films.

Thus John Key spoke in front of a background of some of New Zealand’s past successes. Alongside his left elbow you can see a poster for Geoff Murphy’s 1980 hit Goodbye Pork Pie. By his right shoulder there’s a poster for Sam Pillsbury’s 1982 The Scarecrow, the first NZ feature selected for the Cannes Film Festival. Above his head: Jane Campion’s critically acclaimed Angel At My Table from 1990.

Strange that the background wasn’t reorganised to be a bit more contemporary . At the right of the picture, obscured by a black panel, you can see part of the poster for Niki Caro’s Whale Rider, which was such a success at home and overseas in 2002, a reminder that a story rooted in real New Zealand culture can achieve international popularity.

Since then, of course, New Zealand’s film-making prowess has been re-branded as “the home of Middle Earth.” And after yesterday’s announcement, some people are predicting that the brand will be changed. Here’s how the Hollywood Reporter tells it:

New Zealand is set to move from being the “home of Middle-earth,” as it has become known with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, to “the place where Pandora was brought to life.”

James Cameron, reported in The Guardian, focussed more satisfactorily on the talent:

“It’s quite a thrill to be officially saying that we’re bringing the Avatar films to New Zealand,” he told a press conference. “We had such a wonderful experience here making the first film.”

The NZ Herald reported that he was delighted “not least because he and his family were about to become New Zealand residents. He has recently bought land in the Wairarapa. ‘For that reason it’s a real pleasure to know I’m going to have so much of my work done here over the next few years.'” And more:

“Its important for everyone to know this [agreement] isn’t just about the Avatar films directly, it’s about trying to lift up the New Zealand film industry, incubate new talent and develop new IP.” Critical factors that ensured New Zealand was the choice included the rebates, as well as the local workforce and skills.

Let’s backtrack a bit. Though Avatar is the world’s highest-grossing feature film, it is not known as having been made, mostly, in Wellington. Check the publicity. There wasn’t a mention of us. But part of the government’s deal to refund 25 per cent of NZ spending on the next three Avatars involves publicity and promotion for New Zealand when the three Avatars are released. Can they succeed in linking the digital world of Pandora with the reality of New Zealand that’s so spectacularly visible in the Middle Earth features? No doubt they’ll be trying. Our national airline will already be planning to replace Smaug with an alien when the first of the new trilogy is released at the end of 2016.

Yesterday’s announcements weren’t only about productions with the enormous expenditure of Avatar. There’d have been an outcry if the government’s attention was solely focused on Hollywood. So there were a few paragraphs about incentives for more modest New Zealand productions. Here’s what the government announced:

Existing rebates of 15 per cent for the Large Budget Screen Production Grant and up to 40 per cent for the Screen Production Incentive Fund will be replaced by two rebates: 20 per cent (plus an extra 5 per cent for productions that meet extra criteria); and up to 40 per cent for New Zealand productions.

Producers will be queueing up to read the small print, when it’s been written. Though, at first glance, replacing up to 40 per cent with up to 40 per cent doesn’t exactly sound like a gain for the locals.

But as for “lifting up” the industry, no local film-maker would refuse some mentoring from James Cameron, whose box office successes put him at the top of the Hollywood ladder, up there with Peter Jackson who has long been generous with the deals that have made his Miramar facilities easily accessible for NZ directors.

It’s obvious that the three Avatar productions will be based in Wellington. Cameron is reported as saying that he is friends with Peter Jackson and expects to coordinate with him to ensure they don’t have major productions overlapping, which could stretch the workforce too much.

Too many major productions? There’s something to get the under-informed and over-excited Chamber of Commerce even more over-excited.


  1. Alana Bowman, 18. December 2013, 23:33

    An excellent analysis. It helps to put this in perspective.

  2. Albert Tatlock, 19. December 2013, 8:16

    Good point about Air NZ – I dread the next safety video starring JC and a couple of eight foot tall big eared blue tac critters ducking and weaving with an air mask and life belt. Does anyone else think the novelty of novelty safety videos is past its novelty value?