Recent news is that the NZ government contributed nearly $45m in the form of tax credits to the film Avatar. This is not some shonky one-off deal for James Cameron, but simply the application of the Large Budget Screen Production Fund (LBSPF). As a member of SPADA, which advocated for the LBSPF, I feel a bit mixed about it. CEO Penolope Borland has a point when she says:
“We will look back and see that the significance of the work on Avatar by Weta Digital heralds a completely new phase in New Zealand filmmaking,” says SPADA CEO Penelope Borland. “As Weta Digital’s senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri has said, Avatar is the first major international film to come to New Zealand purely for the technological filmmaking knowledge built up here, rather than primarily because of New Zealand’s advantages as a location for shooting. James Cameron credits Weta for their ingenuity, flexibility and capability.
The makers of Avatar spent $307m in NZ to qualify for their 15% tax rebate, which is clearly good from a commercial point of view. Most of it was spent at Peter Jackson’s Park Road studios, and there’s no doubt that his financial success has meant the establishment of a first rate production house in New Zealand, which will continue to encourage international films to come here.
On the other hand, the entire government vote for the NZFC is around $20m per year – much of which disappears in administration costs. In other words, taxpayers have contributed twice as much to a foreign film which has taken well over a billion dollars, than they have to the production of genuinely NZ films. My complaint really is not against the LBSPF, but against the minimalist support for one of the most important cultural media for telling authentic New Zealand stories.
Really and truly the debate is about the old age symbiosis of profit and art in the world of filmmaking. When the quality of a film (read ‘success’) is measured in how much popcorn is sold to how many punters, then the business side of movies is predominant. While this situation exists, Hollywood will use its massive resources to churn out bread and circuses for the masses, to the cost of films that actually have some meaningful content. Naturally enough, filmmaking has always been a hugely expensive playground, and the money needs to be earned back somewhere. So the commercial prospects of a film are a reality which everyone in the industry understands.
It’s the current level of imbalance which is of deep concern. One hope is the rise of digital cinema, which provides opportunities to make films for much less. It’s why we on The Insatiable Moon have been committed to Tom Burstyn’s philosophy of Frugal Filmmaking. And we will continue to pursue it in the marketing and distribution of the film. As far as government support goes, I’m not sure it can or even should be relied upon for quality domestic films. Maybe it’s time for Peter Jackson to put some money back into the bottom end of the market? What do you think?