Why Kiwi film industry is vital to our economy and culture

New Film Commission chief executive David Strong talks to Jane Phare about his baptism by fire in his first few weeks on the job, and why the multimillion-dollar film industry is important to the New Zealand economy.

David Strong doesn’t see anything unusual in the fact that someone with a 22-year military background in peacekeeping is now running the NZ Film Commission. For a start, he says, working in the New Zealand Army is good preparation for the job.

“Funnily enough, we often talk in the military about leadership, being creative, [how] you must create a vision, you must explain and sell that vision. And you must lead people towards that vision. And storytelling is part of that.”

As well, Strong is no newbie to the world of film making. He’s always loved the art of telling people’s stories through film and has made four short films of his own. He has also worked for years as a military adviser on major film sets including The Water Horse, The Shannara Chronicles, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and for seven months on Niki Caro’s Disney action fantasy Mulan. And he’s written, produced and directed his own short films.

“Certainly, in me the storytelling gene is quite strong. I love visual storytelling. When I write scripts, I see what is happening on screen as I’m typing.”

It’s significant that during the week of the Herald interview, heartbreaking real-life drama was unfolding at Kabul Airport as the US pulled out of Afghanistan after 20 years.

One of Strong’s short films is about a Kiwi UN peacekeeper on his last night in the country, trying to persuade an Afghan warlord not to destroy a village the following day. Strong based The Last Night, made in 2014, on his experiences as a lieutenant colonel with the Armoured Corps trying to bring peace to war zones – Bosnia, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and East Timor. Although he never served in Afghanistan, he had colleagues who did.

The film, he says, is a commentary on the futility of peacekeeping in those environments.

“Seeing what is happening there now, it’s heartbreakingly sad but it’s also, in some ways, how things are in Afghanistan.”

Right back to the time of Alexander the Great, the country has a history of defeating outside armed forces. In Strong’s The Last Night, the soldier tells the warlord: “If I go do you think NATO will leave you alone?” To which the warlord replies: “This is Afghanistan. No one leaves us alone.”

These days it’s New Zealand stories that Strong wants to see told on film, which is part of his job with the film commission. The commission spent $23 million last year and $30m this year on the film sector – money which comes from $5.4m of baseline funding from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, $1.3m from MBIE, and from lotteries funding. This year $14m of that was spent to help produce 16 feature films, which in movie-making terms is not a lot of funding.

“These are incredibly powerful, iconic films that people make for not particularly much money, but they stay with us forever,” says Strong.

It’s early days in the job but he’d like to see “a conversation” around increasing that baseline funding of $5.4m in recognition of both the economic value of Kiwi films and the part they play in establishing cultural identity, both in this country and on the world stage.

Take films like Once Were Warriors, Sleeping Dogs, The Piano, Whale Rider and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, he says.

“I think we really punch above our weight in terms of the quality of the films we make and the stories we tell.”

Part of Strong’s role is also to make sure that New Zealand remains attractive to the big Hollywood studios, an industry worth between $600m and $940m in the past few years for international feature films and TV shows including the Avatar sequels, Sweet Tooth and the upcoming Cowboy Bebop sci-fi series on Netflix.

Overall, the screen sector, including gaming, is worth an estimated $3.3 billion a year and about 15,000 jobs. “So it’s a significant contributor to our economy.”

News that Amazon was pulling out of New Zealand and moving production of future seasons of the Lord of the Rings to the UK came shortly after Strong joined the Film Commission. At the time, he was still dealing with fallout from They Are Us, the proposed movie on the Christchurch mosque terror attacks. And then the country went into lockdown.

Amazon was a blow, certainly, says Strong. In one shocking announcement, gone was thepotential for another $650m of American money coming into the country, and 2000 jobs, if Lord of the Rings had stayed. He feels for the supporting Auckland businesses that would have invested in infrastructure and staff on the assumption Amazon was in New Zealand for the long haul.

“It’s hitting them hard as well. So we would have preferred and would have liked them [Amazon] to stay in New Zealand for the sake of the economy.”

But he’s philosophical, used to dealing with setbacks in his military career and another 15 years in strategic roles with the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment, NZ Post and restructuring Fire and Emergency NZ before joining the commission.

“It’s not unusual for film productions to come and go.”

For Amazon it was a business decision, based on a major investment in a huge, new studio in the UK. He doesn’t think Amazon’s withdrawal will deter other international productions from coming.

“They get why Amazon has done this.”

The commission is in contact with several big US studios that have large film projects in mind.

“When say large, I mean in the hundred-million-dollar-plus bracket that are actively considering New Zealand as a location. One of their questions was ‘well, if Amazon’s leaving will that mean we can use the studios that they’ve left?'”

The economic benefits aside, Strong says international productions also help to expose New Zealanders to the latest cutting-edge innovation in film production and techniques, and to what it’s like to work on large-scale productions.

Foreign film crews are often generous with their time during stand-down periods, a benefit Strong experienced when making The Last Night. The Hobbit construction crew at Miramar’s Stone Street Studios noticed Strong building in his studio when they walked past and offered to help.

“So basically these people who were used to designing the best quality sets in the world helped us build an Afghan warlord’s house.”

For those ongoing benefits, New Zealand needs to continue to be an attractive place for the big players to do business, Strong says.

“While the incentives remain, we will always remain an attractive place to do business.”

It is those incentives – a 40 per cent screen production rebate on local spending for international productions and a 20 per cent rebate for New Zealand productions – that Strong wants to see protected. He’s aware of criticism of the film rebate, which costs New Zealand taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Amazon was able to claim a rebate of $170m from MBIE. “But if [Amazon] hadn’t come in, then those 2000 New Zealanders wouldn’t have been employed in that sector, and we wouldn’t have seen $650m spent in our country.”

Strong points to the industry’s experience in Australia after film incentives were cut.

“The Australian screen industry dived by about 95 per cent from international productions.”

In the meantime, Strong’s sideline making films and working as a military adviser is on hold. That began at a New Year’s Eve dinner, when he met Lord of the Rings producer Barrie Osborne, who later invited him to work as a military adviser on the set of The Water Horse, filmed in Wellington, Queenstown and Scotland.

The father of three took leave without pay from the army to work with Osborne, an experience that introduced Strong to the world of film making.

His job was to train extras and actors to be “soldierly”, and advise on script notes, costumes, set designs and aspects including horses, sword fighting and archery.

“So you get exposed to all the departments and get to work with all the heads of departments.”

It was that exposure to movie making that encouraged Strong to have a go at writing and directing, often co-producing with his wife Wanda Lepionka, who is of Polish descent. She runs the New Zealand Polish Film Festival and has co-produced Strong’s films. One of the most recent they made together was Maunga, set on Mt Taranaki on Christmas Eve in 1944. It tells the story of a Polish girl and a farm girl who meet a Māori boy and share stories of lost family.

It is those stories that Strong thinks are important to tell on screen, helping to add to Kiwi identity both at home and overseas.

“Film is a very powerful medium of telling the world who we are, so I believe we still need to make films that we’re really proud of and that show New Zealand on the world stage.”

Making movies in the time of lockdown

With filming on a lockdown hold, borders closed and MIQ spaces rationed, Strong knows the screen sector, like other industries, has been hard hit. But he also knows that when it comes to MIQ beds, it has to wait its turn.

The commission has been talking to MBIE and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in the hope of negotiating a few spaces for key film personnel to come to New Zealand, to help with both local and international productions. Allowing those people into the country will potentially create hundreds of jobs for Kiwis in the film industry and in the businesses that provide support, he says.

“I am hopeful that there will be an opportunity for a small number of MIQ spaces to be made available to enable these shows to go ahead next year, but we know there many pressures on MIQ.”

Those few spaces can make the difference between a feature film going ahead or failing, Strong says. If a high-quality New Zealand feature film is to sell overseas, it will usually need international actors.

“If you want to get international money to come in to help fund your New Zealand film, that generally means you must have international cast. And if you can’t get MIQ rooms and you can’t get international cast, you will struggle to make your show in New Zealand.”

He points to Dame Jane Campion’s latest film The Power of the Dog, filmed last year in the South Island and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst. Campion is attending the Venice International Film Festival, where The Power of the Dog will premiere. (The film will be released in New Zealand theatres on November 11, and on Netflix on December 1).

Award-winning Kiwi film makers like Campion and Taika Waititi have the same status in the cultural world as elite sports players, representing New Zealand on the world stage.

“In addition to sports people being our brand ambassadors, our films are also our brand ambassadors.”

Like many industries, Covid-19 and lockdowns haven’t helped the film business. The latest lockdown put an abrupt stop to production and post-production work on 24 New Zealand feature films, documentaries and TV shows. In addition, two international films and a television series closed down, one with just four days left to shoot.

After last year’s lockdowns, the government allocated $13.4m towards a Screen Production Recovery Fund, allowing production companies to claim compensation for losses. With $3.7m still left, that fund has been re-activated, Strong says.

But lockdown has also affected films that were already completed. The feature film Juniper, starring award-winning British actor Charlotte Rampling, was due to premiere in Auckland last month but has been postponed until later in the year. And the lockdown couldn’t have been worse timing for Kiwi films Coming Home in the Dark and The Justice of Bunny King, released recently in theatres.

Strong and his team are heartened by this week’s announcement that the planned $35m extension to the Auckland Film Studio in Henderson will go ahead, after doubts following news of Amazon’s departure.

“We’re really happy about that because international productions look at the quality of New Zealand studios as one of their considerations to come here. Having good studios is certainly an incentive for them to come over here.”

A selection of New Zealand films can be viewed on the NZ Film Commission’s website: ondemand.nzfilm.co.nz. To see films made by David Strong, go to Craftincfilms.com.

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