There’s no sign of a release date for Pearl
There’s no sign of a release date for Pearl

Pop CultureJanuary 31, 2023

The NZ-shot, taxpayer-backed horror film you can’t watch

There’s no sign of a release date for Pearl
There’s no sign of a release date for Pearl

Filmed in rural New Zealand during the Covid-19 pandemic, Pearl was one of the biggest critical darlings of 2022. But, as Stewart Sowman-Lund reports, there are still no plans to release it here. 

It cost New Zealand taxpayers more than $1.5m. It was filmed entirely on our shores. It raked in stellar reviews and generated its fair share of awards buzz too. But, despite being released in major markets around the world several months ago there are still no plans to let New Zealand audiences watch Pearl.

Written and directed by Ti West, Pearl is the unplanned, unannounced prequel to X – another slasher film shot and produced in New Zealand. Both starred up-and-coming scream queen, Mia Goth, and both were hits with the public and critics upon release. X topped Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best horror films in 2022, while Pearl was considered an instant classic, briefly generating some long-shot Oscar buzz for Goth’s performance.

The films were shot back-to-back in New Zealand, utilising our Covid-free status as an excuse to shift production from the United States and a chance to offer work to our local industry hungry for opportunities. Much of the crew working on the numerous Avatar sequels was pulled in to help out during a break in their production. According to the New Zealand Film Commission, 215 New Zealand crew members worked on Pearl. We also supplied nine of the main cast and 124 extras.

The script was also written largely in New Zealand and may not even exist were it not for the original film being shot here. “Ti West wrote half of Pearl on arrival in New Zealand when we were in quarantine. New Zealand gave us a unique opportunity where we really found a way to make it all work,” producer Jacob Jaffke said in comments shared on the commission’s website. “We had the opportunity to make a movie for less money than the first movie and we could do it five weeks after we wrapped X, so that’s what we did, and we carried the crew through.”

It cost us money, too. Under the New Zealand Screen Production Grant, film productions at least partially produced on our shores are able to claim back funds as an incentive. Though controversial, and seen by some as a slush fund, the fund is the primary reason big budget productions like Avatar were made in New Zealand and also ensures that production companies like Wētā continue to have a steady stream of films wanting requesting their visual effects work.

Pearl may have been a comparatively cheap film, heading into production with a reported pre-marketing budget of about $1m, but it still benefited from the scheme. A spokesperson for the New Zealand Film Commission told The Spinoff that “the total qualifying NZ production expenditure for Pearl was $8,001,529 and the total rebate/grant was $1,600,306.”

So when will New Zealanders be able to see the film that it helped fund, staff and provide a landscape for? It’s been suggested that since X was given an all-too-brief limited release early last year, local distributors may have been put off even bothering to release the prequel. Regardless, the Film Commission’s website still prominently displays Pearl on its “made in New Zealand” page, which includes the detail that the film will be made available “soon”. That now seems unlikely, considering Pearl was given a plum September release date in most parts of the world. The commission didn’t have much more to add when approached by The Spinoff. “I’ve checked on this with all parties and there isn’t a New Zealand date for theatrical release for Pearl as yet,” a spokesperson said. Requests for comment to Neon, a possible streaming home for Pearl, were not responded to. 

A sequel to Pearl – the third film in the series – is expected to be filmed later this year. Whether or not it will be shot in New Zealand, however, is unclear.

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