February 9, 2000

Kiwi Biz Ka-Ching With Local 'Rings'
Peter Calder

As a return on investment, it's pretty impressive. The New Zealand Film Commission has spent less than $5 million over the years nurturing the talents of Peter Jackson. In September, he began paying it back.

The cameras started rolling on the $200 million trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic "The Lord of the Rings," which Jackson is helming for New Line in the country's rugged hinterland. Ian Holm, Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee and Liv Tyler are among the stars confirmed to take part. And sources close to the production say more than 80% of the money will be spent here.

Every frame will be shot in this country and every digital effect inserted at Jackson's state-of-the-art studio in Wellington. The budget is larger than that of all the local 35mm features ever made put together, and the unprecedented greenlighting of three back-to-back shoots reflects an extraordinary vote of confidence in the chubby, disheveled filmmaker.

The project is a triumph for the NZFC, a state- and lottery-funded film bank that has been the major production catalyst here since the modern era of local filmmaking began with Roger Donaldson's "Sleeping Dogs" in 1975.

Even though the commish is not directly involved in "Rings," the megaproduction provides hard proof of what industry mavens have been saying for years: State funding of the movie industry is not so much a subsidy of the arts as an investment in the future. The trilogy alone will earn this country more in the next three years than its celebrated wine industry.

Meanwhile, the expatriate Kiwi duo of producer Lloyd Phillips and director Martin Campbell have been hanging Chris O'Donnell off precipices in the mountains of the South Island, shooting the high-altitude thriller "The Vertical Limit" for Columbia TriStar.

Sue Thompson, a former deputy chair of the commish and general manager of post-production facility the Film Unit, says that after a flat two years the local biz is buzzing.

"There was some trepidation in the local production sector that the massive production requirements of `Rings' would swallow up local resources," she explains. "But that film means we can plan to increase our capacity for all of the local industry. There's nothing like it to put a spring in a girl's step."

"Rings" is the latest in a short but lengthening line of Stateside productions heading Down Under where the living and the working is easy. Jane Gilbert of Film New Zealand, which helps smooth the way for foreign productions, says the country "offers more than just God's own location."

A big pool of technical talent, a deregulated economic and industrial environment and the absence of red tape means that "what you pay for is what you get."

If it sounds like a pitch for business, it is, but in Hollywood, powerful ears are listening. In February, Gilbert hosted execs from DreamWorks SKG, Disney, the Jim Henson Co. and others for a whirlwind location inspection.

But big-name projects shouldn't divert attention from a local industry that is as vibrant as it has been since the tax-dodging boom of the mid-'80s. This year, seven features will bow locally, and while some have earned the cold shoulder of audiences and scorn from critics, two in particular, "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?" and "Scarfies," have clicked at the local B.O. Both are polished works: The first is the redemptive sequel to Lee Tamahori's harrowing "Once Were Warriors" and the second is a dark and anarchic comedy about college students in Dunedin.

The rest of the releases are a mixed bag: "Punitive Damage," an unshowy and heartfelt docu about a Kiwi student shot by Indonesian troops in the Dili massacre in East Timor in 1991, was a standout but others (including the bizarre, visually overripe Vietnam-era flashback "Channeling Baby") were not as strong.

Yet NZFC chief exec Ruth Harley, whose organization spends a tiny $8 million annual budget nurturing local pics, is buoyant. But she adds that today's quantity is an investment in tomorrow's quality; a slump in production in the mid-'90s had demoralized the biz and there was an urgent need to replenish the talent base.

"We needed a lot more young filmmakers coming in and getting their first gig under their belts. That's the only way we can start creating a talent base which can attract international money back into New Zealand," Harley says.

"I think it's little short of miraculous that `Scarfies' can compete in the marketplace with `Eyes Wide Shut.' But luck is not enough. People who have a high degree of experience are more likely to have good luck," she adds.

Even more gratifying is that next year's slate is even fuller. Ten films are in production or are complete and set for release in 2000, including: biker love story "Savage Honeymoon"; "The Price of Milk," from the producer-director team Fiona Copland and Harry Sinclair of "Topless Women Talk About Their Lives"; "Jubilee," the helming debut of actor Michael Hurst of TV's "Hercules"; and "Crooked Earth," the next feature from "Warriors" producer Robin Scholes -- again toplining Temuera Morrison

"This year is certainly not a one-hit wonder," Harley says. "Whether we will get another film that performs as strongly as `Broken Hearted' is another question but you've got to say it was a hell of a franchise."

Harley's decision to import script doctor Katherine Butler from the U.K. and install her as the commish's permanent exec producer is paying dividends. Butler worked hard on the "Scarfies" script and it shows.

"We'll take success anywhere we can get it," Harley says. "We want to focus on films that perform here, partly because it's New Zealand taxpayers' money we're spending but also because it looks more particular and distinctive that way. The only way we can compete is the quality and distinctiveness of our scripts."