Kiwi film-makers capture more than just Hobbits

The New Zealand Government’s determination to alter its labour laws and pour additional incentives into The Hobbit to ensure Middle-earth doesn’t relocate to Ireland or any other alternate location shows just how important to the Kiwi economy as a whole, never mind just its film industry, Peter Jackson and his furry friends have become.

There’s no doubt that since The Lord of the Rings franchise first set up camp down under in 1999 the economic impact on both the film and tourism industries has been immense.  Crews, production and post-production facilities have been the principal beneficiaries of the movie’s spend while tourism has seen an impressive 40% increase since the late 1990s.  Doubtless James Cameron’s Avatar would very likely not have spent the $218m in NZ it did had Peter Jackson not led the way.

But how has the indigenous film industry fared amidst this massive injection of Hollywood dollars and the global attention that has ensued?  Perhaps not surprisingly it has indeed seen its fortunes rise, with a doubling in both average production output and domestic box-office comparing the pre- and post-Ring decades.  However this can’t simply be attributed to the ‘Jackson effect’.  New Zealand film-making and its box office were already on a steadily rising trend before Gandalf arrived and have achieved similar levels for short periods in the mid 1980s and 1990s.  What does seem to have happened post-Rings is that a higher level of production  (around six films a year at an average combined box office of just over €7m) is now being sustained. 

With a not dissimilar population (4.3m) to Scotland, New Zealand’s film output is about the same but, crucially, generates around ten times as much revenue in its home territory (if you consider Scotland to be Scottish films’ home territory that is.) achieving an average (2005-9) domestic box office share of around 3% compared to around 0.6% here in Scotland.  Indeed over the period 2000-8 New Zealand films easily out-perform all of the small countries’ output we have examined in terms of average box office per film.

Somewhat contrary to the evidence we have collected from other small countries New Zealand’s film-makers seem to have managed to boost audiences for their films with only a modest increase (from 3.5 to around 6) in annual production.  On the other hand the share of the total box office has actually fallen by half over thisperiod which reminds us once again how, at such low volumes, individual titles can distort averages to the point where they are in danger of becoming dangerously misleading.  Nonetheless there is no doubt that New Zealand film-makers really are punching above their weight – a claim often, but sadly inaccurately made for our own output. (See previous posts including here.)

As ever the explanations that lie behind any small country’s greater taste for its own cinematic output are complex and cover the gamut from talent-support, production and distribution conditions to language, national identity and public policy.  The relationship between inward investment and indigenous growth is clearly not straightforward either., whether in New Zealand or Scotland.  The direct boost given to New Zealand’s (film) economy by the Ring cycle has stimulated greater attention to and investment in local production and helped local filmmakers garner international investment and profile.  Equally the variability of films’ and filmmakers’ performance remains as true in New Zealand as anywhere else and the need to achieve a level of production that escapes the ‘chaotic’ behaviour of small production volumes is no less evident down under than it is here in the Northern hemisphere.


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