Hobbit-in-chief Peter Jackson (Photo: Getty Images)
Hobbit-in-chief Peter Jackson (Photo: Getty Images)

MediaJuly 4, 2018

Want to scrap Hollywood tax breaks? Fine, but RIP to our local film industry

Hobbit-in-chief Peter Jackson (Photo: Getty Images)
Hobbit-in-chief Peter Jackson (Photo: Getty Images)

Want New Zealand to continue to keep making good local film and TV? Then it’s time to get over rebates and subsidies for big Hollywood productions, writes film industry professional Rajneel Singh.

People who have known me over the years know that I’ve never exactly lived the Hollywood lifestyle.

I am single, I still live in a flat with four other people, I have no dependents and still, year after year, my friends have heard me talk about my dealings with WINZ or joke about living near or, in some years, below the poverty line. That is despite the decade-and-a-bit that I have worked full-time in the film, television, corporate and web-video industry. No, I do not work on big-budget international productions, but I still somehow make ends meet as a solo person hovering around that definition of “not particularly well-off”.

Most people in the industry, however, do have family. They have children, mortgages and have the right to care for themselves and their loved ones as anybody else does. And their income from local film, television, corporate and web-video work would be quite comparable to mine were it not for the huge boost of cash and jobs that big-budget international productions provide. After all, the film and television industry isn’t just creatives. It is mostly made up of blue and white-collar labour whose creative input is balanced out with genuine cog-in-the-machine roles, just like how a web designer or an architect or even a business manager has creative aspects to their jobs while still fulfilling a vital function of regular everyday business. Our industry is a regular everyday business; full of regular everyday people. And, for them, there’s no celebrity-studded parties in the French Riviera, no million-dollar studio deals, no Hollywood mansions in their future. There is only the next job – which means the next mortgage payment, the next school uniform for their kids and hopefully the next batch of savings to sustain them through their retirement.

L to R, former Minister for Economic Development, Steven Joyce, Jane Campion, former Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Maggie Barry, James Cameron, Sir Peter Jackson and Jon Landau pose during the screen advisory board inaugural meeting at Park Road Post Production offices on January 14, 2015 in Wellington, New Zealand. Formed in 2013, the Screen Advisory Board aims to help the New Zealand screen sector create skills and connections to compete on the international stage and attract overseas finance. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

It is a harsh reality that New Zealand content-creators simply don’t pay enough money and don’t make enough content to sustain our local industry on its own. Population, demographics and economies of scale simply prevent this from happening. So we are dependent on international productions because – in the mathematics of making content for a country as small as we are – it is cheaper to refund some of the money you would already be making (in the form of tax breaks) than it is to pay directly for the work to be done from scratch. Some would spitball it would be 500-800% more expensive to recreate that same level of content, upskilling, technological innovation and international exposure using taxpayer money than it is to let foreign productions pay for them and for us to reap the benefits.

A vast – and I do mean vast – amount of what we make in New Zealand, for New Zealand, by New Zealanders is also made at a discounted rate. I have seen camera, lighting and gear suppliers give discounts as high as 95% off their equipment to local productions because they reason that they can make most of their money from international gigs instead. And often, when they give you these incredibly generous discounts, they’ll throw in stuff for free on top of that. Why? Because they don’t want local filmmakers to be creatively limited while working on their local project for New Zealand audiences just because they couldn’t afford to get the nicer piece of gear that would’ve made their work all the better for having it.

This generosity isn’t even limited to equipment, but also time. Take a survey in any room full of film industry workers: “Has anyone ever worked a 15 hour day when you were paid only for 8?” Watch as nearly every hand goes up. “Have you ever worked a 20 hour day when you were only paid for 8?” Be shocked as almost the same hands go up. Because that’s how we, as New Zealanders, like to roll: we give a crap about each other and about our own culture and voice. When you know that there is no more money and there are no movable deadlines, but you still care about what it is you’re making because it’s for your community and your people, you go that distance. That’s the film and television industry way and it happens weekly across the entire country, year after year.

If you have ever watched any New Zealand music videos…then it is likely you have watched content made by people (and shot on equipment) who weren’t paid what they needed to break even, let alone take any money home. If you watch New Zealand web content, the same deal applies. I guarantee it. Local television and film content? A mixed-bag of jobs paying mostly what would amount to above-the-poverty line wages, with some well below-the-line. And yes, sometimes below the legal minimum wage too because once you tally up all those extra unpaid hours, whoops you’ve slipped beneath the per-hour definition of the minimum wage.

Scarlett Johansson in the New Zealand-shot Ghost in the Shell

Nobody wants to be in this race to the bottom when it comes to subsidies and rebates. I recently appeared on an epic YouTube video essay decrying the problems with this system. Most of us would much rather just be paid properly for time and effort working on New Zealand content for New Zealand audiences. That’s the dream and it is currently an impossible one. There have been occasions when people, even media outlets, have argued that we just shouldn’t have local television shows, local music and local films at all. Better that than coughing up the money to pay for it from vital government coffers. We have all seen what no frills, zero-budget web content looks like. And if you actually are happy for all New Zealand content – be they TV shows, commercials, the news or even Taika’s next movie – to end up looking exactly like no-frills web content then, by all means, you have the right to claim that the film and TV industry doesn’t require tax payer support.

But if you think that our content, our ability to make an impact overseas and our stories overall have improved over the last 30 years, then I can tell you it is because of the amount of investment that we have put into them. We are bigger now than we ever were, we are more experienced now than we ever were and we are able to produce things you have actually liked and been happy to brag to your friends overseas about because we nurtured and let our industry thrive. Time did not make New Zealand film, television, ads and web-content better. Practice did. And you can only practice if you can afford to live while you’re practicing.

I don’t know how we get out of this mess. But I think one of the reasons we are in this mess is because nobody wants to really talk about the issue on an official level. The fact that New Zealand content is made at well below international pay scales is just a “harsh reality” so nobody officially ever acknowledges it. The fact that international productions are genuinely subsidising the shortfall our government can’t afford to pay is another “harsh reality”, so nobody officially acknowledges it. Audiences like you and me also want content, lots of content, all of the content, but nobody really wants to admit that it costs money – tax payer money, your money – to make it happen in this country. But these points are never a matter of discussion, but rather they are sidelined in favour of fickle denialism over what our film and television industry is supposed to be, how successful it actually is and how making it sustainable is always someone else’s problem.

Entertainment is a double-edged sword when it comes to taxpayer money. People only complain about entertainment when it stops being entertaining, but while the going is good society is often looking for ways to get more of it at a lesser cost…until of course the content becomes so bad that it ceases to be ‘entertainment’. It is why we dress up nearly all New Zealand entertainment content under the word “culture” because “culture” is meant to exist regardless of its value.

But it doesn’t hold the criticism back for long.

When The Lord of the Rings was making a name for New Zealand, the complaints were few and far between, despite the government support and taxpayer money it had used up. Now that many Kiwis see the New Zealand film industry and Hollywood as synonymous, they’re asking why we can’t compete directly with Hollywood without government support. As if the entertainment industry was some kind of meritocracy rather than…well…an industry. The answer to that question is the reason why we didn’t have The Lord of the Rings until we eventually did: We grew.

And now, counter-intuitive as it may seem, saying “you’ve grown enough” isn’t going to keep us where we are. It will actually send us backwards to a point New Zealand’s storytelling ability, including its quality television, film, ads and web-content, will be talked about purely in the past tense.

Why? Because we will no longer be able to afford to make more.

The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.

Sign up now

Keep going!