WEST SIDE STORY

Canvas Magazine
(NZ Herald)

31 October 2009

Scanned by George / Transcribed by MaryD

While most Auckland businesses have spent the past year with the recession blues, the city's film production industry our so-called Westywood has been quietly prospering, partly thanks to the man who gave us Hercules and Xena. But, as GREG DIXON finds, the industry is short of space for future growth

IN SHOWBIZ, glamour is just anotherspecial effect. On-screen and on the red carpet, the business is one of I alluring fantasies and luminous stars. I Off-screen in, say, a warehouse in Auckland's drab, industrial suburb of Mt Wellington on a wet October I morning film and telly look much like factory work.

American TV producer Rob Tapert is walking me at speed through a soundstage converted from this particular warehouse, one where he's shooting parts of his latest TV fantasy series, the sword, sand and sex epic Spartacus. I am, apparently, the first New Zealand journalist to get this tour. And while I was grateful to Tapert the guy behind Hercules and Xena and husband of Lucy Lawless for bothering to make the time, it is, as one often finds on film and television sets, rather less fun than you imagine.

I wasn't really expecting the Roman-era sets to include a huge fake colosseum, or a row of crosses along a mock Roman highway from which crucified actors might shout the immortal line "I'm Spartacus". Nor, for that matter, did I expect to wander into some full-frontal sex scene which is, reportedly, what the show features.

However, I was just expecting a little more than, well, a bloody big tin shed containing a large circle of sand with a raised, wooden viewing platform on one side of it, all surrounded by green-coloured, ceiling-to-floor screens hanging like great curtains from the roof.

There are other, more detailed sets across three different tin sheds, he tells me, including the interior of a mocked-up hilltop villa, but it all seems pretty low key considering the dosh being spent. Tapert is making the 13-part series for a large US pay-TV network called Starz Entertainment it has 48 million subscribers for a reported budget of more than US$26 million ($34 million),

That budget has clearly not being spent on enormous, Ben Hur-like sets.

Nor is it being used for the main reason so many overseas film and TV producers supposedly come to New Zealand: for lots

of location filming in our exotic, pristine outdoors. The Spartacus shoot, which ends its nine-month course next month, has, in fact, never gone outside, Tapert says. A very large part of it is being created including, yes, a huge, fake colosseum not on camera but on computers at DigiPost, a post-production facility in Epsom. Increasingly in the film and television industry, much of what we see on screen is just another special effect.

Importantly for Auckland, however, Spartacus is something like a product of nearly everything minus the real scenery of course that the city has to offer as a film and TV production base: makeshift tin sheds and ace local cast, crew and computer whiz-bangery, all paid for with plenty of foreign cash.

But perhaps its most important ingredient is the slightly scruffy, ageing fan boy who's showing me around. Tapert is Spartacus. And, though there is no statute or plaque in the city that bears his name, he is arguably one of the most important things to happen to Auckland's screen production scene.

WELLINGTON'S FILM industry might get the headlines but it doesn't get nearly all the work. Director Peter Jackson's seaside empire in Miramar is where all The Lord of the Rings Oscars live and where Titanic director James Cameron went to shoot some of his latest extravaganza, Avatar.

But in the rush to praise and puff Wellywood, what often gets overlooked is that Auckland consistently sees around 60 per cent of this country's total film and TV production and post-production work. As well, of the 2400 companies involved in film and TV in New Zealand, a solid half are situated in Auckland, according to Film Auckland, the tiny, not-for-profit "voice" of the city's screen production industry funded by Waitakere and Auckland councils and the industry itself.

In the last financial year the dollar value of Auckland's film, TV, commercial production and post-production was a jaw-dropping $878 million, says Film Auckland's executive manager Michael Brook. "So it's a major industry. It's not fly-by-night. It's a genuine, serious industry. It might have a cultural perspective and a creative perspective, but that doesn't make it not good business."

Anyone familiar with New Zealand television and film will be acquainted with the roll call of healthy, prolific Auckland-based companies making indigenous films and TV shows. Perhaps the three most active are South Pacific Pictures (makers of Shortland Street, Outrageous Fortune and films like Sione's Wedding and Whale Rider), Julie Christie's Eyeworks (makers of myriad reality-TV shows) and Great Southern (The Cult and Birdland). Local film and television is hugely important and significant, but so, too, is work so-called "runaway" production coming here from overseas, which is about 40 per of total revenue for the entire New Zealand screen production sector. Since the early 2000s, a small flood of Hollywood films have been shot completely or in part in Auckland, including, thanks to New Zealand producer-director Andrew Adamson, the first two Chronicles of Narnia films, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian. Other features filmed in the city are the third of the Underworld trilogy, 30 Days of Night, They Came From Upstairs and the soon-to-be-released Korean feature The Warrior's Way (previously Laundry Warrior).

Overseas TV productions have been shot in the city as well, including, for seven years, the children's action series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and, of course, Hercules and Xena.

In the immediate future, overseas projects rumoured to be shooting in Auckland include a Warner Bros' live-action film version of Yogi Bear, an Australian-British co-production of a two-part TV disaster series called Ice, which is already filming, and a German-led production to begin shooting in the new year called Fireworks.

Business, then, is good. But arguably it might have been different for Auckland if the personally modest but prolific producer Tapert hadn't stumbled on the city as a film location in the early 1990s.

"We were looking for a place to shoot, at that time, four, two-hour tele-features based on Hercules. We had guys going to look and they were on their way to Australia and South Africa, we had to start shooting in November. I ran into a guy in the parking lot of our office building and I asked where he'd been and he said down in New Zealand shooting ... [he said] 'it's an undiscovered production treasure"' 

At the time, New Zealand and  Auckland were on Hollywood's radar  after the critical and Oscar success of Jane  Campion's 1993 film The Piano (made with Australian and French money, but filmed here). On arrival, Tapert found little film infrastructure in Auckland there was nothing like a movie soundstage but there was the technical know-how.

"There was a very thin layer who were very highly skilled [crew] and a larger group below that who were incredibly eager and anxious [to work]. In the course of doing Hercules and Xena and all the other shows we did here, that big group of people and their skill sets grew tremendously and we actually trained up a whole other tier ... A large number of people went off to work on The Lord of the Rings and ... then we trained up more."

Since the mid-1990s Tapert and his mates including Sam "Spider-Man" Raimi have brought many fistfuls of dollars to the city, producing some nine film and TV projects culminating in Spartacus. And, just like the 1990s heyday of Hercules and Xena, Tapert has a second ongoing project here right now. Legend of the Seeker is a TV adaptation of Terry Goodkind's fantasy novel series, The Sword of Truth, and is currently shooting its second series (set to screen here on Prime next year).

Film Auckland's Brook says Tapert has been "very, very important" to the city's production industry. "From the Hercules and Xena days right through. So nothing but kudos to him for bringing that production to Auckland ... Hercules and Xena [were] really one of the foundations for establishing growth [in the sector] in Auckland."

FINDING A forest indoors is unexpected. Walking through the door of Auckland Film Studios' "Studio 5" a purpose-built soundstage in Henderson completed two years ago I find myself wandering into a mini woodland of pine trees pushing high toward the near-20m roof. This Legend of the Seeker set is for shooting night scenes in, obviously a forest setting, but is empty of actors and crew this day.

The Tapert-produced show is away filming on location in Woodhill Forest, west of Auckland, but it shoots indoors at AFS (formerly Henderson Valley Studios) about half the time.

The show films for nine months of the year, six days a week and employs 250 cast and crew full-time, according to Fiona Wadman, the production co-ordinator on the Disney show. Indeed Seeker has tied up all five of the AFS soundstages which is, it has to be said, rather fitting.

The tin sheds that originally made up the now much larger AFS lot were used for filming Hercules and Xena from 1994 onward. In 2002, Waitakere City Council, driven by its energetic and film-friendly mayor Bob Harvey, bought the property. It was to be the centre of a West Auckland film and TV production "cluster".

In 2007, then-Prime Minister Helen Clark opened AFS' Studio 5, a $7 million soundstage built by public/private partnership between the council and property investment company Tony Tay Group.

For the last two years AFS has been booked solid, says its managing director, Kieran Fitzsimmons. "We are turning production down, major productions, on a monthly basis," he says. "I suppose [I've turned down] about eight productions this year."

To meet the high demand, AFS is planning to convert another building on its site into a sixth soundstage, Studio 6. And last month it was granted a resource consent to build yet another, Studio 7, which will cost about $4 million. AFS will self-fund Studio 6, and is currently drumming up finance for Studio 7.

It should be noted that AFS isn't the only soundstage operator out west. There is also Studio West in Glen Eden where Power Rangers shot for seven years and Kelly Park Film Village in rural Rodney, which has been used for a variety of productions, including parts of Niki Caro's film adaptation of The Vintner's Luck.

A week ago, Fitzsimmons revealed that AFS is planning to sign a three-year management deal with Kelly Park, effective from December, extending to six the present number of AFS-managed soundstages.

All three studio facilities are both a result of the growth Auckland's film production sector since the mid- 1990s, and a driver of it. Garry Little, managing director of Auckland largest post-production company DigiPost, says his business (excluding its TV commercial work here and in Asia) is "pretty much" tied to the work the Auckland studios bring.

"Realistically, on the world stage we're going to be fighting with hundreds of other companies to get visual effects work on feature films or high-end TV series that are shot offshore," says Little, who is also on Film Auckland's board. "Because wherever [film productions are] located, other than somewhere in the Pacific, there are bound to be many companies similar to us all vying for that work and if it's on their patch, chances are they are going to get it."

DigiPost, founded in 1990 to service the TV commercial business, is involved in post-production for both Legend of the Seeker and Spartacus. Little also says Tapert has been critical in terms of growing Auckland production infrastructure. "Gosh, if he hadn't come along we would probably be a company half our size."

SEATED IN his cheerless, rented office in Mt Wellington, Tapert like everyone in his business is wary of disclosing future plans.

What he will say is that he, Lawless and family are now living in Auckland. Between 2002 and this year, they had based themselves in the US, where the children were schooled. The kids are now in school here.

Certainly, too, Spartacus, should it be picked up for a second series, would be shot in Auckland, he says.

And he's quite interested in making a TV show for the local and Australian markets sometime in the future.

These things aside, he does have concerns for Auckland as a film production location. First and most importantly, there is the high value of the kiwi dollar against the greenback. "There will come a day, if the exchange rate continues to go as it is, that it will be tougher for international productions to come here."

This view is backed by DigiPost's Little. 'The big thing is," he says, "Hollywood doesn't come here for the scenery, they come here because the budgeting works for them. If we suddenly have a spike like that it can drive them somewhere else pretty easily."

Brook disagrees. He maintains a high kiwi dollar, in the past, has made little difference to the amount of production coming through Auckland. Even when it was more than 80c around March 2008 "we were still busy", he says.

But one has only to look across the Tasman to see how the currency can effect runaway production. In mid-October Warner Bros confirmed that its mega-budget adaptation of Green Lantern would not be filmed in Australia due to the soaring Aussie dollar.

Back here, Tapert believes the cut-off rate is around NZ65c to the US dollar for runaway production if the production is not already established in New Zealand.

"Domestic US states and Canada have been so aggressive in chasing that runaway production," Tapert says. "Spartacus could shoot in Alaska, we just need the warehouses, or it could shoot in Michigan. Those places now offer like 40 per cent rebates [of money spent on production back to production companies]."

New Zealand does, in fact, offer overseas productions spending more than $15 million (in New Zealand), a rebate through the "Large Budget Screen Production Grant",

but it is 15 per cent and there it may stay, though the government has signalled its interest in helping the industry.

Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee told a Film New Zealand networking function in May that "our competitors continue to work to attract productions to their countries. So while we don't want to engage in a 'race to the bottom' with higher and higher incentives, the next step is to cultivate a regulatory environment that makes it easy for filmmakers to come to New Zealand, and film in our locations, use our facilities and hire our workers, and engage our talent pool".

However, the Large Budget Screen Production Grant, while it played an "important" role, should continue in its "present form", Brownlee added.

Another immediate issue for Auckland despite there being three separate studio complexes for hire is the number of soundstages available to overseas productions. Certainly AFS is moving to build or create two more because it knows more are desperately needed, a view backed by Brook and Little.

The latter says the lack of proper soundstages has "actually cost Auckland or New Zealand several productions in the last couple of years", including the third Narnia film, which has gone to studios on Australia's Gold Coast.

But Tapert is less sure. He calls himself the "naysayer in the group" when it comes to soundstages.

On the one hand he reckons that instead of building medium-sized at least by Hollywood standards soundstages like AFS's Studio 5 (1858sq m) and the planned Studio 7, Auckland needs big stages like those in Hollywood and Australia. "If you want Narnia to come back here ... you need [a] 35,000 sq ft stage [3251sq m], or two of them.

"I would argue that the most important thing to bring in production is not to build stages, because productions will find what they need eventually, it's to compete on an international basis with the rebate schemes."

SPECIAL EFFECTS can dress up plenty, but perhaps not our surging, dancing dollar. The week before last it bounced over (then under again) the 76c to the US dollar mark the highest it had been in 15 months which could, if Tapert is right, make Auckland and New Zealand problematic for international filmmakers with tight budgets.

However, the overall recent picture for the country's film and TV production industry is good. According to statistics released in May, the screen production sector increased its gross revenues by 18 per cent to $ 1266 million in 2007/2008. The gross revenue from screen production from foreign productions rose 79 per cent to $542 million.

And those Canvas spoke to were mostly upbeat about Auckland's present and future as a film and TV destination which is certainly backed up the high level of local and international film and television projects in production in the city, or soon to start.

"In the midst of a recession there are two things that are anticyclonic, and they are alcohol and entertainment," says Fitzsimmons. "So we're doing very well."

Little agrees. "In terms of what we call long form, which is television and film, [we're doing] very well."

And, of course, Tapert is still here. Indeed he's become something close to an Auckland Peter Jackson. Just don't suggest to him we haven't shown our appreciation for all the work he's brought.

"You know, I don't need that recognition," he says. "[But] I had a funny tribute given to me by Jim Wheeler, who has a little coffee shack out at Bethells Beach in the middle of summer. My kids and I went out [to Bethells] and I went to order coffees and something to eat and Jim Wheeler, who is the most reserved person in the world, took that moment to announce to the 30 people eating that I should have a plaque there. I was so horrified." ®