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Image: Tina Tiller
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Pop CultureMay 4, 2022

The curious case of The Pilgrim, a decade-old script tearing the screen industry apart

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

A row over a 10-year-old screen project has engulfed the New Zealand film and TV industries, with the chief executive of the Film Commission on leave and lawyers involved.

It sounds like a show you’d be keen to binge. The Pilgrim is pitched as a “six-episode conspiracy-thriller that melds rich character development of a traumatised SAS officer on the run with massive political corruption in New Zealand and an international conspiracy of impending mineral exploitation of Antarctica”. There’s a serial killer, and a shadowy international organisation. It sounds like Jason Bourne meets The Night Manager, and both are referenced in the pitch. It sounds fantastic.

The project was a lifelong dream. The Pilgrim dates back well over a decade, starting life as early as 2008. Contrary to rumours rife within the screen production industry, it’s not in fact a biopic, but did draw on the experiences of David Strong, whose bio describes him as a former lieutenant colonel of the NZ Army who “served operationally in the Middle East, Sarajevo, Bosnia and East Timor”. Strong would go on to work in the film and television industry, including as military adviser on The Water Horse, and as a director of a short film, Pacific Dreams. The Pilgrim script was initially for a film, and did what most scripts do, spending years as a fervent dream of its creator and meeting a largely indifferent response from production companies. 

That might have been the final verdict but for an odd series of events that pulled the script out of development hell at the same time as its creator vaulted from obscurity to become the chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission. While NZ On Air’s chief has a much larger budget, it’s likely no single public servant has more power to make or break a screen project than the leader of the Film Commission. 

This is why an apparently run-of-the-mill letter sent in March of this year set off a furore within the industry that continues to boil to this day. The letter is signed by Dame Kerry Prendergast, the former Wellington mayor turned governance star who chairs the Film Commission board. It’s just a few paragraphs long, and breezily drew the attention of Spada, the Screen Production and Development Association, to The Pilgrim, saying that Strong’s relationship with the project was declared from the start, but that “the conflict has been appropriately identified and continues to be appropriately managed”.

Less than a week later, Spada fired back a four-page letter from a barrister at Harbour Chambers in Wellington, setting out the guild’s numerous objections to what it perceives as an unmanageable conflict. Multiple parties are now alleged to have lawyered up, Strong is entering his fourth week on “special leave” and as we publish staff are being told of an independent review into both this specific instance and the broader management of conflicts of interest at the organisation.

The Spinoff was supplied with a document setting out an independent review of the Film Commission’s “conflict management policy and processes as it relates to interests declared by David Strong as chief executive… including, but not limited to, all aspects of The Pilgrim. The QA [quality assurance] review is to consider in particular the steps taken by each of the board and chief executive, as well as other parties as appropriate.”

It’s the first official acknowledgement of a drama that has been unfolding behind-the-scenes in the screen industry for months – but also a rare direct communication from an industry that’s typically publicity-shy when it comes to the creation and funding of its work.

This story is based on conversations with more than a dozen figures within the screen community, with multiple sources at platforms, funding bodies, guilds and production companies. It’s a relationship-based industry that is characterised by immense volumes of gossip, fortunes made or lost according to whether a project goes ahead and a huge amount of suspicion and scrutiny about funding decisions. 

As a result none of those spoken to were comfortable being quoted in anything but the blandest terms – so events and facts have been constructed based on multiple sources, and the receipt of a number of letters and other primary materials exchanged between various parties. The situation was summed up by one text that read “don’t quote me as I’m waiting on a funding decision which will definitely be rejected if my name turns up here!” 

(Neither David Strong nor Film Commission chair Dame Kerry Prendergast had responded to multiple requests for comment by our publication deadline.)

David Strong (left) and Phil Smith

The Pilgrim fails to progress

For a decade The Pilgrim seemed likely to join the vast majority of scripts that languish unmade and gradually make the journey from the consuming passion of their creator to a frustrating memory. Most major production houses in New Zealand seem to have encountered it in one form or another over the last decade, most turning it down, with one saying that its chief problems were being very expensive, with its military setting and multiple international locations, while also not being particularly good.

It’s worth explaining how films and TV dramas typically come into being in Aotearoa at this point. A project often starts in the mind of one or more creators before making the page, and eventually being shopped around to various production companies who might plausibly make it. If they like it, they will try to find either a TV network or a distributor who likes it enough to agree to screen it. It’s only then that the real power centres of New Zealand’s film and TV industries come into view – the government-backed funding agencies that decide whether a project is worthy of millions of dollars in public funding. These consist of NZ On Air, which works with TV channels and digital platforms to create content for their audiences, and the New Zealand Film Commission, which focuses on film and has a broader and more global remit.

The Film Commission invests in films at every stage, from development to production to distribution, and has an annual budget of around $26 million. But it also administers screen production grants, shorthanded as “spig” in the industry, which rebate investment to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The Film Commission is involved in everything from policy to relationship building in a way that draws a tremendous amount of scrutiny, courtship, grumbling or fawning adulation, depending on which way its decisions swing.

Historically its leaders have often come from the production community, and due to the potential for conflicts of interest, they have historically had to be scrupulous about cutting business ties with the sector. Famously Dave Gibson, a recent Film Commission chief executive, had to sell the design and production  company that bore his own name, the Gibson Group, when he took over in 2014. 

The industry is made up of thousands of contractors, ranging from writers to camera operators to caterers to directors and producers, most working from project to project and for whom the difference between one script being greenlit or dying might be life-changing. The various elements are overseen by a relatively arcane structure known as guilds, which represent interested parties like cinematographers, writers and directors. One of the most powerful and vocal is Spada, which represents producers, the largest businesses within the sector and thus those whose creative dreams and bank balances are most directly entwined with the Film Commission’s decisions.

A soldier dreams of the big screen

David Strong emerged from the military with a passion for cinema. He worked on major productions like Mulan and Amazon’s Lord of the Rings, while also nursing passion projects – a common reality in the industry. The Pilgrim was his, and eventually he found a willing audience at Great Southern. Run by Phil Smith, a veteran of the industry who made his name on Holmes at the height of its power, Great Southern has become one of our largest production houses, responsible for everything from factual series like The Casketeers to current affairs like The Hui and expansive drama like One Lane Bridge. 

TVNZ liked the pitch, and in early 2021 approved the project to go in for development funding from NZ On Air. Development funds key people to shape the concept and script ahead of rolling into production, and given the entities involved, that funding was something of a formality – especially given that the public money was matched by both Great Southern and TVNZ. NZ On Air duly gave its approval in July of last year.

However, just as his longtime dream project was starting to ramp up, another thunderbolt was about to hit David Strong. Following the resignation of Annabelle Sheehan, the Film Commission was casting about for a new chief executive. Despite a relatively low profile within the industry, Strong applied for the role and surprised many when he was appointed in June, just as The Pilgrim was progressing through NZ On Air. 

Contrary to prior executives, he did not make any attempt to divest himself from involvement with The Pilgrim, instead being at pains to make his role in the production clear to the Film Commission board as he went through the appointment process. And unlike previous boards, which industry sources say were scrupulous about requiring a clean slate for incoming staff, the current board was happy to allow him to retain active involvement with the project. 

It’s unclear precisely what that meant, with one TVNZ source characterising it as that of a consultant, there to ensure that the crucial military elements retained the patina of plausibility. To retain not just a financial interest, through he and his wife’s company Craftinc, but also a creative role is highly irregular, industry sources say. Despite the relaxed attitude of the board, this was to become a consuming battle in less than a year.

What prompted the board’s ease with the situation is apparently the fact that The Pilgrim had by this stage definitively morphed from a film project into episodic television. This meant it moved from the purview of the commission, where it would be about as large a conflict as could possibly be imagined, into that of NZ On Air – an agency with which the Film Commission has close and collaborative links, but tends to have little administrative crossover.

That was true during peacetime, but all this played out during the pandemic. Te Puna Kairangi / The Premium Production Fund was announced in December of 2020, with culture minister Carmel Sepuloni saying it would provide a huge $50m budget to “tell New Zealand’s stories to a global audience”. The fund was open to film and television, and was seen as a way of both channelling some cash into a crucial industry that was hurting, but also had some major opportunities during the Covid elimination window, when New Zealand was able to make productions while other countries were largely locked down. 

The difference was that this fund would be administered by the three main government funding agencies: NZ On Air, Māori language funders Te Mangai Pāho – and the Film Commission. Because The Pilgrim was such a heady idea – shot in different countries, with munitions and a high need for costuming and special effects – it was a natural candidate for the fund. So despite its framing as a TV production nominally meaning it wasn’t under Strong’s purview, there was clear potential for it to leap from NZ On Air’s drama funding and into Te Puna Kairangi. As more industry figures joined the dots between Strong’s appointment and The Pilgrim, the whispers grew louder, and likely prompted Prendergast’s letter to Spada.

The March letters

“As you are aware, David Strong was appointed as the New Zealand Film Commission’s chief executive in 2021,” Prendergast’s letter began, before backgrounding his links to the production community. “One such association is ‘The Pilgrim’, a drama series currently being developed by Great Southern TV (GSTV) in association with CraftInc Films.

“David wrote the original film script in 2008. More recently, prior to David’s appointment as the NZFC’s chief executive, GSTV came onboard to develop the project as a drama series… The NZFC board and David continue to work together, along with relevant parties including NZ On Air, to appropriately manage the conflict situation.” It does not describe how the conflict will be managed, and the whole letter is less than 250 words long.

Spada was shocked at the way the letter minimised the opportunity for conflicts of interest. They saw huge potential for it, largely because while the agencies that fund film and television are separate, the companies that make it absolutely are not, and most of the scale operators consistently work across both film and television. For example, South Pacific Pictures, perhaps the most famous studio we have, is behind Shortland Street and Outrageous Fortune but also made Whale Rider and Sione’s Wedding. Spada’s members were concerned that anyone involved in an active project, regardless of whether it was in film or television, would find it hard to dispassionately assess another proposal from the same company when it came across their desk. 

In a statement provided to The Spinoff, Spada said its members were “very concerned about any conflicts of interest that may undermine the public’s confidence in the way that screen funding agencies operate… [Spada] is acutely aware that any reputational damage to the NZFC as a funding agency also threatens to seriously impact the public perception of its members specifically, as producers and production companies, and the New Zealand screen industry generally”.

Even if Strong were to step aside from such decisions, multiple industry sources expressed concern about whether more junior staff would feel comfortable suggesting the denial of funding to a company they knew their boss had a business relationship with – irrespective of the assurances of the board. This seemed to manifest in decisions made later last year, in which Great Southern received development funding for two of the seven total projects from the new premium fund. While it’s a major and established production house, and no one The Spinoff spoke to has suggested anything untoward, the potential for conflict was manifest, in many other producers’ eyes – and now there was also the appearance of it.

“The CEO has to be beyond reproach, and can’t be seen to be competing with, and in fact taking funds away from the very film-makers he’s meant to be supporting,” said a source. “He’s in a privileged position of power and influence in a village-like film/TV ecosystem.”

NZ Film Commission chair Kerry Prendergast (Photo: Getty Images)

Casting for blame

While some in the industry suggest that Strong was naive to think such a conflict was ever manageable, no one is suggesting that he ever hid his association with The Pilgrim. In fact, it’s there proudly at the centre of his bio on the Film Commission’s website, and is in some ways among his more impressive achievements in what is a very tough industry to climb in.

Instead the chief focus of industry ire is the board, particularly Prendergast. As far as governance roles go, the Film Commission board has always been an attractive one, with its association with a glamour industry, but also one with a manifest need for rigour. That need for scrutiny explains the presence of John McCay, a partner at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, Brett O’Reilly, former CEO of Auckland tourism board Ateed, and Pania Gray, who worked in the office of the auditor general for some years. 

Still, it’s the chair who is ultimately accountable for issues of this nature, and ultimately makes the call on the appointment of executives. Prendergast is a huge personality, and was mayor for Wellington’s transformation into a film industry centre. She has gone on to a storied career in public sector governance, chairing Tourism NZ and the Environmental Protection Authority among a number of other roles. 

Industry sources were surprised by the way legitimate concerns around conflicts of interest were minimised in Prendergast’s letter to Spada, and their reply, which runs to four pages of numbered questions, clearly demonstrated a depth of feeling within the production sector. 

It asks a series of very pointed questions, before making it plain that if it remained unsatisfied by the response, the lawyer had “been instructed to make a complaint to the Office of the Auditor-General and seek an inquiry into this matter and the NZFC’s wider management of conflicts of interest”.

It concluded: “Spada fully understands the gravity of this situation and what it is requesting. It does so with the intent of wanting to ensure the integrity of the New Zealand screen industry is upheld and protected for all who work in our industry.”

The letter set off a swift escalation, which has seen lawyers involved on both sides, and the Film Commission has agreed to an independent inquiry to try to placate an always restive, currently incensed industry. 

Caught in the middle, Strong recently started his fourth week on special leave. He has scarcely been seen in the Film Commission offices since his return from what should have been a career highlight trip to LA to support Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog at the Oscars in March. Now a review looms over him and his board, thanks to the suddenly hot progress of his decades-old dream project, making his job near impossible, despite him never having made any secret of his involvement in it. 

So as a result of a seething industry, a board that might have misjudged its passions and a relatively inexperienced executive, The Pilgrim is no closer to finding its ending.

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