Not all publicity is good publicity. Last weekend’s AFCI Locations Expo in Santa Monica went off with a bang for the Icelandic Film Commission. Everyone knew who they were, where they were, and its staff were berated and blamed for the eruption and disruption caused by the little island that could.
NZ, on the other hand, shone like burnished gold, coming away from the show with a couple of awards and a good clutch of enquiries. NZ was represented at the annual locations show by Film NZ, in the persons of soon-to-depart acting CEO Sue Thompson and freshly-minted CEO Gisella Carr.
Line producer Murray Francis and – from the regional film offices – Delia Shanly (Wellington), Michael Brook (Auckland) and Kevin ‘KJ’ Jennings (Queenstown) rounded out the team.
In addition to attending the Expo, Film Auckland’s Michael Brook was able to meet with Film LA – facilitated by Auckland’s sister city relationship with Los Angeles. He spent time researching the permitting and other requirements projects have to meet to shoot there.
Comparison with last year’s Expo suggested that the volume of attendees was similar, but that the quality of those attendees and the projects under discussion had risen considerably, or as one NZ representative put it, “We had far less tyre-kickers visit the stand this year.”
Enquiries at the Film NZ stand spanned a number of types of work, including features, TV and commercials, suggesting that international activity is now recovering across the board after last year’s meltdown blip.
Film Wellington and Film Auckland both brought back homework in the shape of enquiries considered to have serious potential of going ahead here. Film Wellington’s Delia Shanly was particularly pleased to see that a number of the projects being discussed with the NZ team in LA were coming with confirmed budgets, of up to US$10 million, that matched the projects’ intentions.
Delia was also able to leverage her recent time at Filmart, developing relationships initiated at the Hong Kong market and concurrent Digital Entertainment Leadership Forum. It reinforced the value of maintaining relationships by regular attendance at such events, a point echoed by Sue Thompson.
In the spirit of building and maintaining such relationships, Sue Thompson stayed on in LA after the Expo to do the rounds of people and organisations with whom Film NZ already has dealings, making introductions for new CEO Gisella Carr. A couple of strong leads from the Expo were also developed, with Sue and Gisella taking further meetings on those projects.
Speaking from LA earlier today, Sue and Gisella both talked about the themes that had become apparent from meetings and discussions at the Expo. One of these was producers’ and studios’ shift in focus from taking a more holistic approach of considering the benefits of shooting overseas to “an absolute focus on what incentive schemes offer” now being the driver in decision-making.
One of the benefits they saw coming out of the tightening of cash in US studio businesses was that many more projects were now only being greenlit with everything in place from production through distribution deals to commitments to theatrical release dates.
This drove, for example, the decision to bring Yogi Bear to NZ, as the release date required the production schedule to shoot the forest exteriors during a northern hemisphere winter. Reverse seasonality demanded the producers take the project overseas and NZ was the beneficiary.
That ability to offer reverse seasons becomes one of NZ’s important selling points when, looking forward, less production overall is likely to leave the US.
44 of the 50 US states, including California, have their own incentive schemes – some of them considerably more generous than NZ’s Large Budget Screen Production Grant (LGBSP). Then there is Canada, with some states there increasing the generosity of their incentives. One Canadian state has recently joined European countries, including the UK, by introducing incentives for game developers, an opportunity which NZ has yet to exploit.
Since it does cost money to travel overseas to shoot, be it for film, television or TVC, points of difference and reputation become increasingly important in attracting work. The level of home comfort and familiarity afforded to US productions shooting in the US cannot be matched elsewhere.
Gisella Carr was pleased to find that awareness of NZ was positive, saying her impression was “New Zealand’s reputation as an absolutely credible destination for film production was very well-known and intact.” The level of awareness of the quality of NZ’s offering was further boosted with Film NZ winning two AFCI awards at the Expo, one for its print campaign and one for the new Screen Production Guide.
Sue Thompson stressed that the reputation NZ has built internationally, for the depth and abilities of its crew base, its cost-effectiveness, as well as the quality of locations available here, reverse seasons and the LBSPG, all remained important selling-points.
While everybody knows The Hobbit is a NZ project, knowledge of the level and importance of the NZ contribution to Avatar was variable.
Gisella Carr felt there might well be opportunity to do some work to create more awareness around that, particularly since it focuses not on NZ locations but on the skills and technical/technology offerings.
The timing could work well for such a push, with Weta Digital today confirming that it “is indeed working on additional shots for Avatar“, ahead of the second theatrical coming in August.
For the first big push in her new role at Film NZ, Gisella said that she was trying to view the Expo as just one part of the relationship with the American market, particularly given the number of other meetings she’s taken since the Expo closed.
She reinforced the importance of the incentive scheme to marketing NZ successfully as a destination, coming away from the Expo with the belief that it had been a buyer’s market, and a competitive one. She noted that studios were now doing a lot of sophisticated financial modeling around incentives available to them in different parts of the world and how to best leverage those.
Sometimes, project needs are so specific a country can either service them or not. One of the pressures in the US at present, as production starts to ramp up again, is a lack of stage space. This might help drive more productions offshore to shoot. However, NZ should not necessarily expect too much benefit from productions relocating for that reason, since we are not exactly over-burdened with spare studio space ourselves.
As for the Icelanders, we should not joke too much at their expense – even if they did completely screw up Europe. Several of our own attractive locations are wont to explode from time to time, and not always on cue.