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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

MediaAugust 31, 2023

What makes a ‘New Zealand production’? A contentious movie project tests the question

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Aotearoa is desperate to make more movies. But a film called The Canyon is stalled over a dispute about whether a UK director can make a New Zealand film.

The global film industry is not in a great position right now. Despite the success of Barbenheimer, box office receipts are tracking around 25% behind 2019. The rise of streaming, social media, dominance of franchises and the golden age of television have combined to narrow film audiences. Most troubling are the combined writers and actors strikes, Hollywood’s gnarliest since at least the ’60s, which have stopped the pipe of new productions while also rendering its biggest stars unable to promote pre-existing work.

New Zealand has been deeply impacted by this confluence of unfortunate events, with some extra thrown in for good measure. Our screen production industry is heavily reliant on a steady flow of incoming production, but was disrupted while the government took its time reconfiguring our tax incentive scheme to match a more aggressive approach from other countries. This was part of what led to New Zealand losing the giant Lord of the Rings TV project to the UK in 2021.

Against this backdrop, a new feature film with a multi-million dollar budget from a first time producer and writer would seem to be exactly what the industry needs. The Canyon, written by Mt Maunganui-based Tom Furniss, was successfully sold by producer Nick Garrett to Arclight Films, which lists hits like Crash and Hotel Mumbai among its credits.

Laurence Fishburne was reportedly attached to star in The Canyon, the film at the heart of the dispute. (Image: Archi Banal)

The Canyon is squarely commercial in its intent, and a source suggested Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, John Wick) could potentially star. Vaughn Stein (who has worked with bankable talent like Margot Robbie and Simon Pegg) is attached as director. Its synopsis gives a sense of feel and genre. “A woman, struggling to find courage in her troubled marriage, fights for survival after a skydiving accident leaves her hanging from a 1,000-foot high ledge in the Grand Canyon.”

The film is rumoured to have a budget in the $10m-$15m range, financed by its presale to Arclight, along with the support offered through the government’s 40% “domestic New Zealand Screen Production Rebate”, known colloquially in the industry as the SPR (pronounced “spur”). It would create 70 jobs across its duration, according to Garrett. This is no small number at the best of times, but particularly meaningful when large numbers of industry professionals, from catering to set design, have been out of work for months.

Hitting the wall

However, The Canyon is in considerable jeopardy. The film’s status as a “New Zealand production” has become deeply contentious, pitting its producers and those sympathetic to them against the Director’s Guild, or DEGANZ. The issue is complex, but at its core asks what qualifies as a New Zealand film, whether those who aren’t New Zealanders can helm one, and who decides.

Film is an atypical industry. It has heavy government participation and a whiff of geopolitics, with countries competing to offer the best subsidies to attract highly mobile productions to their shores. Those productions are largely created by freelancers who work on a product which often costs millions of dollars to make, but is spent in a year or less. As a result, those freelancers are often organised into guilds – or unions – representing different aspects of the industry. DEGANZ is the directors and editors’ guild, and says it exists to “ensure the creative, cultural and financial wellbeing of New Zealand directors”.

The Canyon’s director Vaughn Stein at the premiere of his 2018 film Terminal. (Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic via Getty Images)

That combination of heavy state involvement and guild participation is where The Canyon has run into trouble. While it did not receive any direct government funding, to make up its budget producer Garrett relied on the assumption that his film was a New Zealand production, and thus eligible for a rebate of as much as 40% of its budget. Eligibility is largely determined by a points system, which Garrett says he met. But because his film relied on a UK director, he also needed what is known as a Letter of Non Opposition, or LONO, from DEGANZ, to allow Stein to work here.

That hasn’t happened. DEGANZ head Tui Ruwhiu sent an email to members saying that the board had voted unanimously against providing the LONO, as The Canyon “does not, as a New Zealand film with a non-New Zealand director, meet the Guild’s purpose”. It went on to note that producers of The Canyon “had not considered or approached any New Zealand directors to direct this New Zealand film” (it’s worth noting that it’s often the case that funding is contingent upon the use of an approved director).

Ruwhiu’s email to members went on to suggest other alternative arrangements, such as making the film an official co-production with the UK. Garrett says this would compromise the deal with Arclight and needlessly reduce their rightful ownership. When it sent the letter refusing the LONO, DEGANZ threw a bomb into the film’s budget.

Given the state of the industry, some saw this as highly irresponsible. Screen industry veteran John Barnett, the producer behind Whale Rider and Sione’s Wedding, contacted The Spinoff with his concerns about the fate of the production (with which he is unaffiliated), castigating the guild for its decision. Barnett described DEGANZ’s refusal to grant the necessary LONO as a “1960s-style stunt” jeopardising precious IP, professional development and employment at a time of acute industry stress.

Barnett is not alone in raising questions. A story in industry news source ShowNews asked “is it reasonable for a guild or union to object to a foreign national working in one role, when the SPR criteria allow that to happen?” Garrett himself is similarly bemused, attributing the guild’s refusal to an inability to understand a film made without NZ Film Commission funding. “We’ve financed this film in a very specific way, and it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around that. Instead of being supported for not relying on the government for equity, we’re being screwed over.”

The guild position

While Garrett and Barnett paint a picture of a rogue union acting in the narrow interest of its members against the broader health of the industry, DEGANZ head Ruwhiu sees it very differently. He says the elevated rebate exists to foster New Zealand film and should be reserved for that purpose. According to him, the fact it’s set in the US and has a UK director shows that it is not, in fact, a New Zealand film at all. Ruwhiu’s letter to his membership relayed the Grand Canyon-set synopsis, noting acidly that it “suggested to the board that its description as a New Zealand film was tenuous”.

He also said that the guild was only approached for the LONO 11 days before Stein, the director, was set to land, giving it no time to engage with substantive negotiations with the production which might have resolved the impasse. Despite “repeated requests” for “context and additional information… little was provided”. As if to underscore the rancour, Ruwhiu went on to question other aspects of the film’s operations, including whether its US actors had received the necessary exemption from SAG-AFTRA to participate, and if Equity NZ, the guild which represents actors, had signed off on the film.

Garrett says that the answer is yes on both counts – that he has the necessary strike exemption, and that Equity NZ have been supportive throughout. To him, it’s only the director’s guild which is holding up his production, and that its opposition came as out of the blue. The Canyon is his first film as producer, and Garrett says he has been working on it for three years. He believed the LONO was essentially a formality. “The [Guild] website says that if you give them all the information they need, they issue a letter of non-objection within 24 hours.”

He now believes that this one guild is contravening the intent of the new rebate framework, despite his film qualifying for the rebate under a points system. “It’s quite clear that there’s two conflicting opinions here… it seems as though DEGANZ overrode the Film Commission on this particular issue. My big question for the industry at large is who’s actually setting the rules here?”

That is still not entirely clear. The Spinoff has asked the NZ Film Commission for clarity but it simply pointed to the points system, under which Garrett believes The Canyon qualifies.

Can The Canyon be bridged?

The story is not yet entirely over. Film Auckland, which represents the interests of the broader industry in Tāmaki Makaurau, provided some clarity, and potentially some hope, for the embattled production. Its deputy chair Alice Shearman says that while a LONO is helpful, its absence is not necessarily the end for the production, and its ability to access the full rebate.

“Immigration NZ takes [LONOs] into account when issuing these types of visas, but they are not the deciding factor,” says Shearman. “It is concerning that the media are involved at this delicate stage of the film’s financing journey and [we] hope that this is resolved without unnecessary and potentially premature sides being drawn.” She went on to say that Film Auckland “understand and support” both DEGANZ and The Canyon production, which is quite a difficult position to sustain.

Given that Stein was to land here any day now, the window to amicably resolve the deadlock is closing. As of today, the sides remain opposed, and the rhetoric pointed. “[The guild] seems to have a complete misunderstanding of how films are financed in this country,” says Garrett. “I think there needs to be a bit more education of people who don’t have their arses on the line going out and raising the money for these things.” He went on to reiterate the economic consequences should the deal funding The Canyon collapse. “This is a really commercial film, employing 70+ crew, at a time when it looks like the economy is going down the toilet.”

Ruwhiu and his organisation remain unrepentant in their opposition. “DEGANZ considered carefully the impact of the strike and the lack of major productions flowing into New Zealand at this time,” he says. “However to allow a non-New Zealand director to direct a New Zealand film… could potentially set a precedent whereby all New Zealand film and TV productions were able to going forward.”

Whether the immediate needs of this production, or the guild’s vision for its membership prevail remains unresolved. In an industry short of work and with low morale, a relatively small production has suddenly assumed very high stakes.

Correction: an earlier version of this story suggested a co-production implied a lower rebate, it does not. The Spinoff  regrets this error.

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