Dunedin-based film producer Kyle Murdoch says overseas media companies have been struggling over the past few years, well before tens of thousands of writers and actors in the US went on strike.

Murdoch, who has been in the business for 20 years, says a boom during the pandemic has been followed by disruption from rapid expansion in the number of video-on-demand platforms.

“A lot of stocks have taken a tumble so there’s less money now for those companies to spend on film and TV.”

He points the finger at the “broken” subscription model of companies such as Netflix.

“It doesn’t work because you’re relying on a growing number of subscribers, and they’ve basically hit the ceiling.”

As revenues have dropped smaller firms have been swallowed by such big players as Warner Brothers Discovery and Disney and “everybody” has started cutting costs.

“Lots of media businesses will go under, I’ve no doubt about it, especially in the UK. They are really struggling for funding.”

In New Zealand Murdoch and others say the industry is looking pretty healthy but it is difficult to pick which way things might go in response to the overseas disruption.

“We’ve certainly seen activity and inquiries increasing from overseas over the past 12 months.”

Advertising work has picked up, particularly in Central Otago.

Consistency needed

But he says investment is needed in studio facilities and to make the work more consistent in the south to support careers year-round.

The country’s recently reviewed screen-production rebate will be relied on more than ever.

Fallout from overseas entertainment industry turmoil hasn’t yet reached us, says Kyle Murdoch. Photo: Supplied

“We just don’t have the big sums of money that were being poured into the industry five years ago, so in many ways the rebate is going to be a real saviour.”

As a producer, Murdoch works closely with Chinese State Broadcaster CCTV and Japan’s NHK, as well as Alibaba’s Youku, Tencent, IQIYI, SMG, Discovery Asia, Disney and National Geographic Asia.

He produces shows watched by “hundreds of millions” of viewers, but not in New Zealand, such as Emmy-nominated documentary Saving Africa’s Giant.

The documentary helped influence changes to China’s ivory importation laws.

In 2021 Murdoch founded Nature Film, a content creator for the Asia-Pacific region.

He also chairs Film Otago Southland (FOS), a trust that works with local government-based regional film offices to support screen production.

Murdoch says the trust is looking at offering a regional incentive to lure production companies south, on top of New Zealand’s screen-industry rebate paid by central government.

Canada and Australia have such regional incentives, and Australia’s federal rebate is more generous than ours. 

“We are looking into many different public and private funding options, but I feel a regional incentive could be built into the current rebates as an extra 5 percent uplift from the existing funding pot.”

He thinks that would pass an economic benefit test if the money a film or TV series brought in to Otago or Southland to pay for wages and support services was factored in.

The Government scheme has three main elements: a 20 percent rebate to international companies spending on post-production, digital and visual effects work done in New Zealand; a 5 percent “uplift” rebate for international companies bringing film projects to New Zealand; and a 40 percent rebate for domestic productions.

Rebate tune-up

Annie Murray, chief executive of the NZ Film Commission, which administers the rebate, says the money is paid out based on actual spending.

The domestic production section is paid through the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and international rebate through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

“To receive the rebate, productions first have to demonstrate they have spent qualifying production expenditure in New Zealand.

“In addition to their direct spend, productions also benefit the wider economy by increasing spending in other sectors such as hospitality, construction, professional services and tourism.”

She says international productions provide significant benefits to the domestic screen industry and the country as a whole.

The finer details of the reviewed rebate – which has also had a name change from a grant – are due to be released by the end of the month.

Poster child

Weta FX, a business Murdoch considers “the biggest success story in New Zealand’s screen industry”, partly owes its existence to the digital and visual effects rebate.

“These guys produce graphics for nearly every big Hollywood blockbuster and they’ve built a screen business of meaningful scale.

“They hire thousands of people to work on certain scenes. New Zealand’s screen industry needs more businesses of scale that can compete in a crowded and competitive international market.”

If there was no domestic rebate, Murdoch reckons Kiwi kids would be talking with American accents from watching imported shows.

And without the overseas productions the rebate attracts, the local industry wouldn’t be viable.

“Kids TV just wouldn’t get made here so we’d be stuck with British and American content.”

But he says the NZ On Air funding-pot is small.

“It’s such a piddly amount they are really restricted in what they can give in terms of general entertainment. They have to focus on cultural imperatives.”

On a roll

Janey Hughes set up InTouch Talent in Queenstown five years ago.

She now casts actors and extras for film, television and commercials throughout New Zealand from her new home in Perth.

As the owner of a fledgling business, Hughes had to ride out out Covid and some lean patches in becoming established.

New Zealand production expertise is trumping scenery as the reason overseas films are made here, Janey Hughes says. Photo: Supplied

“There was little work in the southern region – most of it was coming from Auckland.

“But I think the regional screen offices have done an outstanding job in the past 12 months bringing productions back to Canterbury and Central Otago.

“Reality shows are a hit currently, which is great for the industry and crew,” Hughes says.

She says there are productions happening at present throughout the country.

“There are several in Auckland, one which chose to film here instead of its original plan to film in the US.

“The lead actor is staying on for another production.”

There have been several productions in Canterbury, one with a Hollywood A-lister.

“I feel like productions in New Zealand are ramping up.”

Scenery was the initial drawcard for production companies, Hughes believes, but the skills and attitude of Kiwi-based crew now help to keep them coming back.

“We have made our mark internationally as an industry with more to offer than mountains, lakes and diverse environments.

“We have outstanding crew and associated teams who work in wardrobe, set design and props.

“Kiwi ingenuity continues to surprise on the global stage so producers overseas will continue to consider New Zealand as a location.”

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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