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Hobbywood plans fade to black

Auckland Council put plans to create a screen industry “precinct” in Hobsonville to the sword at its meeting on Thursday. The land available will now revert to use for new housing, as was proposed before ATEED took its proposal for a screen cluster to the July meeting.

The idea of a screen precinct isn’t necessarily dead yet, although Hobsonville won’t be the place for it.

The information coming out yesterday was that ATEED and the Auckland Investment Office (AIO) followed the process announced in early July of issuing a request for expressions of interest and following up on responses via the AIO. In late September the AIO entered into discussions with two parties (one from NZ, one from overseas). However, it was unable to reach a satisfactory agreement with either party by the Council-imposed deadline of 31 October.

There was widespread industry support – expressed in a flurry of media releases in early July – for the idea of the Hobsonville screen precinct or, at least, for improved studio facilities to better serve the region’s industry and inbound productions.

Yesterday statements claimed that neither party with which the AIO held discussions “was prepared to assume the risk of the development or operating costs of the precinct”. When the first public pronouncements were made in July about what was required and when, such commitment wasn’t required by the 31 October deadline.

It seems there might be more to this decision than a failure to deliver on the AIO or ATEED’s part. The goalposts, it seems, might have been moved.

It’s unclear what (if any) guarantees ATEED was able to offer around the issues of change of use for the land, resource consent, ongoing government incentive support for inbound or co-production, rates relief or any of the other behaviours which could impact on such a project.

It is, perhaps, understandable that – in the absence of any firm commitments – a potential operator would be cautious about making commitments of their own. The six week window within which discussions were conducted is hardly long by the standards of plans to develop infrastructure projects.

When Len Brown leaves office, as it seems he plans to do at the end of his current term, there’s no certainty of ongoing mayoral support for the creative industries. Indeed, if the region gets another John Banks it may not need an inbound production to burn down its studios.

Council seems determined not to have Hobsonville Point become Auckland’s Miramar. Some will argue it set ATEED up to fail with such a short window in which to achieve a deal with an operator. The AIO supported the screen precinct plan, claiming it had “a lot of merit and commercial legs”. During his time here to attend the Big Screen Symposium, producer Jon Landau also lobbied on behalf of the precinct.

If the precinct isn’t to be created in Hobsonville Point, where else is there? Auckland, at least within a reasonable length of drive from the CBD, isn’t exactly flush with spare land. That which is available is not necessarily suitable and Council (in either previous or Supercity incarnations) has never been accused of going the extra mile when it comes to developing infrastructure projects.

Improved studio facilities could be created at the existing premises in Henderson, although not the scale of precinct or cluster envisaged for Hobbywood.

On Friday afternoon Film Auckland expressed hope a precinct would still go ahead.

ATEED wasn’t in the mood for lying down after the Council meeting yesterday, media release target=”blank”>issuing a statement which said “developing the Hobsonville proposal created a sense of momentum for growth which ATEED is determined to hold on to.

“One thing this process has shown is that there is gold in Auckland’s screen production sector beyond our traditional domestic and US markets. There is great interest from China and other emerging markets in the precinct. Doing nothing is not an option.”

Despite the fighting talk, doing nothing is something bureaucracy excels at. It’s hard not to believe that the screen precinct’s window of opportunity is closing. It’s also not hard to believe that, while people continue to blow on the embers of the precinct ideal to keep it alive, Council will use that as reason to do nothing to upgrade existing facilities.

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