Auckland film industry workers say the Council’s neglect of the studios it owns risks strangling an economy that makes millions, and showcases the talents of New Zealanders worldwide. They fear a housing-at-all-costs mantra will sink the Henderson facility. 

Their concerns have been confirmed by the council’s reply to questions by Newsroom, with chief executive Stephen Town saying the Auckland Film Studios have a finite future. 

“It’s the council’s intention not to be in the business of owning film studios in the long term,” he said. “In addition to a burgeoning film industry, Auckland is growing rapidly and currently needs 14,000 new houses built each year to meet demand.”

But champions of the facility say Auckland needs all the studios it can get to meet an avalanche of new TV and film production business – and there is more than enough new space in Henderson being made available for housing. Those champions include Waitakere ward councillors who want the studios fixed up, and the council to hold on to them.

The Coolies 

Known affectionately as “The Coolies”,  the Auckland Film Studios is a collection of huge sheds on a big property at the back of Henderson’s town centre. Once cool stores for apples and pears, the spacious buildings were first used by the film industry in the heady days of Xena and Hercules in the late 1990s. Waitakere City Council was instrumental in encouraging what was to become a flourishing industry linked strongly with the west of Auckland, buying the property in 2002 for $3.85 million, and then spending more on sound proofing. It was a punt that has paid off in spectacular fashion.

Fast forward through Whale Rider, In My Father’s Den, Maddigan’s Quest, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and a host of other TV and film productions, and a new studio (Studio 5) is built. The business is humming, with more foreign money coming in after the government changed the film rebate scheme to encourage big projects to come down to New Zealand.  Then in 2014 when the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel Sword of Destiny was in production, studios 3 and 4 burnt down. 

Today there is an empty concrete slab where that building once stood, and the council says it has no intention of rebuilding it. (Tour the site in the video player above.)

After the blaze at the Coolies. Photo: Darren Wilcock

A $2.4m insurance payout from the fire, which reflected the value of old packing sheds and not new sound stages, has been banked by the Auckland Council. But Chief Executive Stephen Town told Newsroom “it did not make financial sense to invest the money back into the studio when it only had a finite future, and the money could be better invested elsewhere”. He says however that money will be spent in the short term to bring the studios up to an acceptable standard so that screen production tenants are encouraged to lease the premises, until such time that film activities have ceased and been transferred elsewhere. “A list of specific maintenance requirements is still to be determined following an assessment of the current facilities.”

Town says screen production and post production brings in almost $1 billion in revenue annually into Auckland’s economy, and employs thousands of people.

“Council strongly supports and helps to grow the industry through the work programmes of Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development. However, the council would ultimately like to see the private sector invest in the development of film studio infrastructure. An example of this is the privately owned site leased for the Kumeu Film Studios, which is supported through a long term lease by ATEED. We believe this gives the private sector sufficient time and opportunity to come on board and fill that gap.”

Dazzled by Kumeu 

In March this year the Council announced it was teaming up with the New Zealand Film Commission, ATEED, Warner Bros and China’s Gravity Pictures to form a new film studio in west Auckland – in Kumeu, on the site of Fletcher Building’s old particleboard factory which closed in 2009.

The facilities there were developed for the filming of a science fiction thriller, Meg, due for release early next year. The production left behind two studio water tanks, something new for New Zealand and a huge attraction for other projects. ATEED will run the studio complex, set on 27 hectares. The site includes offices, a workshop and manufacturing space, and a forest on a back lot.

An Auckland Council news release said: “Upon completion of its a sound stage in 2018, Kumeu Film Studios will double Auckland’s screen studio infrastructure. It will also provide a major transformational shift for the industry in Auckland, increasing the region’s capacity for large-scale screen productions. The studios are a significant asset for marketing Auckland and New Zealand internationally as a screen production destination, and will ultimately create more jobs and investment opportunities for the region.”

Filming Meg at the Kumeu studios. Photo: ATEED via Warner Bros

ATEED Chief Executive Brett O ‘Riley was quoted as saying, “While Auckland currently attracts large-scale production through its world class crew, production talent and locations our full potential has been hampered by a lack of studio space – until now.”

The local industry is also excited about the new facility which is expected to be inundated with several new productions next year including a big budget Chinese sci-fi film, and two enormous US ventures – insiders say one of them is New Zealand director Niki Caro’s re-make of Mulan for Disney, with a budget north of US$100 million. If that’s the case, Kumeu won’t be able to handle the entire project and AFS will be needed to take the overflow. But it appears that in the council’s thinking, Kumeu is destined to replace AFS, not to complement it. 

Big plans for Henderson

Under plans by Panuku to “Unlock Henderson”, the council’s property body has earmarked the 3.76 hectare Hickory Ave site that is Auckland Film Studios for “250+ residential units with a mixed-use commercial component”. The time line is unspecified, but it will be after the current lease expires and some planning is done – not for about another decade. 

Investigating “longer term development opportunities for the film studios site” is listed as Project 4 in the unlock plan. Ahead of it in the priority queue are major redevelopment plans that will deliver apartments and urban renewal to a town centre basically described as a dump by the council’s own planners.  

Panuku says the site is being looked at as a catalyst to develop part of Henderson Valley Road – “The major area requiring intervention to enable change is the eastern side of the road that includes the council’s film studio site.” At the moment the Henderson Valley Road entrance to the studios is an area where catering tents are set up while productions are in full swing. 

Town says there is no immediate intent to use the Hickory Ave site as housing. “The intention is that any alternative uses will only be progressed when there has been sufficient time for alternative screen production infrastructure to be developed – which will take some years.”

The Unlock Henderson plan also says this:  “A strong arts scene is centred around the Corban Estate Arts Centre, and a significant screen and film sector based in Central Park Drive and at the council-controlled Auckland Film Studios site on Henderson Valley Road.” There is recognition that the West and creative endeavours go hand in hand.

Something doesn’t add up

Phil Gregory has worked at The Coolies since those heady days of Xena. He is still there today, making props from one of the large workshops. Those workshops are crumbling around him, and he believes they are being neglected ahead of a bulldozing plan. “The bank account is full while the main gate hangs off its hinges and takes two people to open it,” he says.

“Some of those things they’re talking about don’t add up. They [the council] talk about keeping an emphasis on the screen industry but potentially that scene is dribbling away.”

The feeling of the industry is that everything relocatable will be moved to Kumeu and its existence used to justify shutting down The Coolies.

“During the shooting of [The Chronicles of] Shannara [a US TV series being made in Auckland] a delegation of council officials came to visit. One of their party suggested a mix of film studio and film-themed housing area! If these are the people who are calling the shots within our industry, it’s terrifying.” A film studio is of limited use without workshops and support areas – and during production the heavy machinery being used means the public need to be kept well away. Even on Newsroom’s visit during a quiet period we were directed around cranes working near a giant green-screen. When filming is happening trucks roll through the gates at all hours of the morning – the thrill of living near down-under’s Tinsel Town would likely pall quickly for the neighbours. 

Gregory wants the insurance money from the fire payout, plus the money the Council has in the bank from the profitable activities of the studios, used to replace the buildings that burnt down. He argues even if housing is the end-game, the money spent will be worth while for the work the studios will attract in the meantime.

All the rebuild requires is a giant, pretty much empty shed, with room for lighting rigs and lots of power supply. (“It doesn’t have to be state of the art.”) Even if it costs $5 – 6 million to do that, Gregory says it will pay for itself. He points out that if Auckland gets a slice of the Mulan action, The Coolies will be needed, and if they can’t take the overflow, other productions will go elsewhere.

“If you have a film studio, then Auckland has a film studio. If you have two film studios, Auckland has a film industry,” says Gregory.

 “I can’t see anyone in 10 years time saying ‘how lucky we were to pull down The Coolies and put up this rubbish housing’.

“The very idea that Auckland city would allow this studio to diminish is unthinkable.”

It’s part of the west’s identity

At last month’s council finance committee meeting the ownership and operation of the studios was split between the council, ATEED and Panuku. It was an administrative move – the studios still belong, essentially, to the people of Auckland. Waitakere ward councillor Penny Hulse expressed concern at how the facility was being run down. She was the councillor who made sure $300,000 was put aside for maintenance that had been deferred until ownership titles were sorted out. 

At the meeting Hulse pointed out to her colleagues the council had always thought it should maintain a vibrant and critical film industry to keep serving the west. “It has huge economic benefit that accrues to the local community … it’s very, very important,” she said.  

Hulse was a Waitakere Councillor for 18 years and worked with Mayor Bob Harvey to build up the west Auckland film scene from scratch. She believes Phil Gregory’s concerns are right on the mark, and the lack of interest and understanding from her fellow councillors worries her.

For the west, encouraging a burgeoning film industry was a gamble that paid off, economically and in the area’s identity. Now Hulse is seeing inter-generational pay-offs – the children of people who worked on Xena and Hercules have carved a place in the industry. The now Sir Bob Harvey’s son Fraser built sets on Shannara

“I’m passionately committed to keeping the film industry in the west,” she says. “At Waitakere there was no question – we saw the film industry as part of our economy, we understood it and loved it.

Prop maker Phil Gregory stands on the cleared site of Studios 3 and 4 at the Auckland Film Studios. Photo: Alexia Russell

“The new council is a little bit confused about why a council would own a film studio. Some are asking, do we want it? It takes me (and fellow ward councillor Linda Cooper) jumping up and down about it to say we do.”

After the Studio 3 and 4 fire, the question was asked if there was any point in continuing to invest in The Coolies if its future was uncertain, but Hulse agrees with Gregory that it should at least be put to use in the next 10 years. Neither is she certain that housing is the best use for that land, saying Henderson has plenty of pockets of land to develop, including the old council building site in the town centre.

“I just think we need to be prepared to relax a little bit (over housing); let communities get in and do things that are important to them.” Hulse fears that if it hadn’t been for “some of us old timers” sticking up for exactly that, the film studios’ place in the new council regime could have unfolded quite differently. 

ATEED says it supports the region’s economically important screen sector and has the council’s mandate for that job. It works to attract productions to Auckland and helped establish the Kumeu complex – and now manages it. Two new 2500 square metre sound stages are being built there now. and are due to open next year. It says the Henderson studios remain “a key part of Auckland’s screen production infrastructure proposition in the short term and ATEED’s Screen Auckland team continues to work with the New Zealand Film Commission and the private sector to market it to both international and domestic producers.”

AFS has been well used over the past two years and expectations are high that it will continue to see further production work “until such a time that film activity has ceased and been transferred elsewhere”.

“Of Auckland’s screen sector production revenue in 2016, feature films accounted for more than $350m, TV programmes nearly $390m, and TV commercials another 160m. Auckland was the venue for nearly 80 per cent of the country’s television programme production in 2016, and nearly 90 per cent of television commercial production.The region’s strength was cemented by filming in 2016 of the 12th series for the US production Power Rangers, the third series of the award-winning Australian TV series 800 Words, the second season of MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, and the third season of US TV Series Ash Versus the Evil Dead.”

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