Show biz is big business for Auckland
Is owning and helping to run a film studio, and drumming up international customers for it, really core business for a council?
Once you get past the glamour factor of having famous actors working on Auckland's doorstep, and big budget films that say "made in NZ' on the end credits, is it really what ratepayers should be supporting?
The answer, from Stats NZ figures, is a great big block busting "yes". Revenue from screen production and post production in Auckland last year passed the billion dollar mark for the first time ($1.109b). The region accounts for about 60 percent of the industry's income nation-wide. Feature film revenue alone was $490 million - about 43 percent of the nation's total - but it's television production where Auckland produces the lion's share - 84 percent, or $420m. Most of the country's TV commercials are also made in the city, bringing in another $121m.
The numbers are backed up by an NZIER report which highlights the economic spin-offs for other industries such as tourism. Screen sector wages are growing faster than the average, and the report says the government's Screen Production Grant - a 20 percent subsidy - has attracted the kinds of high paying post-production jobs that the country needs to lift living standards.
It concludes that without the grant, exports would shrink by $257 million, household consumption by $144m and real GDP by $176m.
However in a special Herald report this weekend the value of government subsidies to big international film companies, particularly in relation to work in Wellington, has been called into question. A review has concluded the industry is now reliant on the subsidies for continued survival.
The manager of Screen Auckland, which is part of the council's economic development unit ATEED, says there is no doubt the Government’s screen production grant is an important component of Auckland’s proposition for international producers considering filming here. Michael Brook says while the city has unique and diverse locations, excellent infrastructure, and world-class industry expertise – the financial bottom line also needs to be competitive, and the grant scheme definitely impacts on that.
"When many of our rival regions internationally have incentives, not having a competitive grant scheme here would obviously affect our screen industry’s ability to bring major productions here," he says.
In Auckland, the industry supports 6,800 jobs and more than 1,700 businesses. And now that the Kumeu Film Studios is up and running, stacked with some of the best facilities for film making in the world, those jobs are looking more sustainable.
Some of those facilities are there directly as a result of The Meg, a US/Chinese production by Warner Bros and Gravity Pictures. It set up shop in what was a fledgling studio based in an abandoned factory which had been used to pre-fabricate houses. It built two filming pools, a five metre deep dive pool and an ocean pool backed by a permanent green screen, that would match anything found in the top film studios in the world. Have a look at the trailer here and pay close attention to the water scenes - not actually off the Chinese coast as labelled, but in a pool in a paddock in west Auckland. Key to wooing the production was that New Zealand Government money. By agreeing to build the facilities and leave them in place, The Meg qualified for a five percent uplift.
The former Waitakere City bet heavily on fostering the industry, in the heady days of Xena Warrior Princess. In an amalgamated super city there was no certainty that would continue. A fire in 2014 at the council-owned Auckland Film Studios in Henderson destroyed one of the sound stages there and for a while debate raged about the future of the industry, and the appropriateness of the council being involved in it. A plan to start again in Hobsonville failed to take flight and privately-owned Studio West suggested expansion there was the way to go. In the mean time Auckland was turning away major productions because of a lack of infrastructure - costing the regional economy an estimated several hundreds of millions.
The spacious Kumeu site was under the radar as a facility until The Meg took the plunge there. However the land owner was hesitant to take a further gamble on the fickle industry until ATEED stepped in, taking out a long term lease and underwriting the building of two, 2,336 square metre sound stages. They look like giant concrete barns from the outside but they come with all the specs needed for top quality film making, including excellent sound proofing, a whopping power supply, climate control and gantries of lights. They're already booked solid for the first year. The city owns them in a four-way partnership with the New Zealand Film Commission, the site owner, and the two international studios that produced The Meg.
ATEED describes its investment as cost-neutral to ratepayers. The studios were completed two weeks ago, just in time for a huge new production which can't officially be named but doesn't take a lot of Googling to work out what it is. It won't be enough however for this film, which will spill over to Auckland's other facilities. That includes the Auckland Film Studios, owned now by the council's development arm Panuku, and earmarked eventually for housing - but currently leased by ATEED for five years.
Brook has shown Newsroom around the Kumeu studio's rural location. it would look inconspicuous from the road were it not for security and a barrier arm. The property, bounded by a forest which can also be used for filming, is buzzing with craftspeople.
"The first time I came out here and couldn't find a car park I was so happy," says Brook. "Leave the fact that it's really exciting aside: looking around I see builders, tradespeople working on the set. They would mostly be local people. Employment is at the heart of it. When you look at all the hired equipment here the breadth gets wider ... it's like an octopus with lots of tentacles."
In a fantastical warehouse the manufacture of detailed costumes is well under way for the production we're not allowed to talk about. The detail is incredible, with rich colours popping, racks and racks of - we'll call them shoes - and a carefully colour-sorted library of [redacted]. Two months out from the start of the production the crew here are already running. Next door, in another warehouse, a team of plasterers is churning out .. something. Close to 1,000 crew, mostly locals, will be employed on this one film. Materials including wood, paint and plaster are sourced and supplied nearby and during peak production the local bakeries and booze shops are flat out.
"They're paid quite well and just about all the money goes back into the local economy," says Brook.
Then there are the companies who've taken the opportunity given to them and are now world-beaters - including animators, special effects workshops, prop maker Main Reactor, and Moxion, which has developed advanced water filming technology through production on The Meg. The two water tanks at Kumeu have prompted more outside filming in the Hauraki Gulf, previously a relatively untapped resource.
All this also has clear benefits for tourism, another one of ATEED's jobs. The Chinese mega-star (Li Bingbing) of The Meg, told Hollywood Reporter the best part about the job was being in New Zealand. This year Jason Statham (The Meg) and Daniel Radcliffe (Guns Akimbo) have been in Auckland filming and haven't made any secret of their presence. But this enterprise is not about the stars.
Brook says Screen Auckland's job is to make sure there's really good infrastructure, and the benefits of coming to Auckland are known in the film industry. "New Zealand and Auckland are now so highly respected that we are getting a lot of inquiries - it's really important for us to have the capacity to host those inquiries. People find the industry fascinating ... but for ATEED it's a starting point.
"That's the difference between show business and big business."