Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt. This week he talks to entertainment powerhouse John Barnett.
Outrageous Fortune, Sione’s Wedding, Shortland Street, Whale Rider. These enormous hits that are such a big part of the cultural fabric of Aotearoa can all trace back to John Barnett. His career has taken him from having an independent production company before there was much of an independent industry to speak of, through to managing Fred Dagg and creating best selling albums. He also brought us the Footrot Flats movies before moving into South Pacific Pictures which were state-owned by TVNZ where he led a management buyout.
South Pacific pictures has played an amazing role in building our creative industries. Long running hits like Shortland Street, Outrageous Fortune, Almighty Johnsons and Westside have created a base for the industry to gain experience and great pay while living in the arts. John Barnett stepped back from South Pacific Pictures a few years ago but is still involved in helping bring stories to screens. To talk about his career, on telling some of New Zealand’s most important and loved stories, and on the entrepreneur’s journey, John Barnett joins us now.
What is it that a producer does? Because one description that I love is that a producer does whatever it takes. Whether it’s going to meet Fay Richwhite who at the time were the wealthiest people in the country, heading straight in and talking to the owners of the exhibitors, or organising the music rights yourself, it’s such a fascinating job that includes everything.
Well it does. I mean I must say, New Zealand was a smaller place. Fay Richwhite had that status but I knew Michael [Fay] from university when he was studying to be a lawyer, so it wasn’t hard to go in there. They got into a few of our films and we had a lot of fun.The exhibitors were looking for a product so they’re interested in having that conversation with you and if it doesn’t go anywhere it doesn’t go anywhere, but they’ve got to keep talking. That was their business.
So what does a producer do? Well, when it came to an animated film [Footrot Flats], I couldn’t draw a straight line and I couldn’t sing a note, so I wasn’t going to be sitting around telling anybody what to do.
Pat Cox was there and because of his commercials and music experience, he had technical knowledge of how that kind of film worked. We set up a studio in Sydney [since] we couldn’t get animation on that scale done here. It took two years of employing a workforce in Sydney and you have to be across everything, but when it comes to the things that you don’t know about, you just have to leave the team to do what they’re there to do. You don’t want to interfere with the creative process. When the artist who drew all the backgrounds first started on it, he’d never been or seen New Zeland and so he drew what were clearly Australian landscapes. Clearly the first thing we had to do was to fly him to Gisborne and have him live on Murray’s farm for a week. Then it looks like New Zealand.
So there are a lot of people involved and it’s about creating an environment where everyone can contribute their best. You have to be involved all the time and know what’s going on and think ‘what happens if that happens? What’s my back up plan?’