Article published in Sep/Oct 2020 BayBuzz magazine

Imagine a Hawke’s Bay screen industry! A rural Hawke’s Bay screen production ‘village’ could help put the regional economy in the limelight, capitalising on the urgent need for Covid-free film-ready locations and the burgeoning global demand for entertainment content.

Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst confirms there’s international interest from film makers and a government ‘shovel ready’ funding application has been made for local film infrastructure, which her council is supporting.

ABOVE: First year screen production students using a green screen at EIT. Photo coutesy EIT

Hastings District Council planners and economic development team are evaluating at least two sites on the outskirts of the city on behalf of an undisclosed film company.

She says an independent planning consultant who helped write the Hastings District Plan is working with the council, the film company and local industry advocate, the Eastern Screen Alliance (ESA), to identify land with poor soil “suitable to set up film studios”.

The proactive approach, says Hazlehurst, is much preferable to the film company “going down the resource consent process and finding they are not able to achieve their goals”.

International screen production companies are desperately looking at Covid-free countries to meet the massive surge in demand for movies and streaming entertainment after their own studio closures during lockdown.

Shovels before camera

Many New Zealand studios are booked up for the next two years. Amazon’s Lord of the Rings TV shows and the Avatar sequels have taken significant space and the new South Auckland X3 mega studio with four flexible stages (11,725 sqm) was booked up before building was complete.

So, with some $3 billion in ‘shovel ready’ recovery funding still up for grabs, at least five regions are in the running to secure some for new film infrastructure in the hope we might become the next movie mecca.

The creation of film-ready infrastructure is caught in a kind of twilight zone between funding, consenting, the fact most construction is unlikely to start until 2021, and immigration issues for film makers.

Avatar producer James Cameron and 50 crew were granted exemptions in May to resume work on the billion dollar Avatar 2 and another 50 essential film workers for other high-end movies have been allowed in since June.

However, advocates for big screen productions are frustrated at the slow response of Government and local authorities. Around four international film investors have allegedly gone elsewhere, including Ireland, following difficulties with our immigration, our bureaucracy and offshore investment rules.

Film, fruit and wine

A big selling point to attract production companies will be the ability to prove Hawke’s Bay has anticipated some of these challenges and is film-ready in other ways.

The ESA has been on the case with the region’s mayors and economic development people since early 2019 in a bid to add film to our fruit and wine brands.

The not-for-profit trust – one of 17 regional film offices (RFOs) with links to the New Zealand Film Commission – has put a business plan to the five local councils to support its pitch for Hawke’s Bay as a film hub.

Manager Patrick Sherratt reckons around 57% of production budgets filter into the local economy – accommodation, restaurants, pubs, supermarkets, hiring cars and cranes, purchasing equipment and electrical and carpentry supplies for building sets.

“A big budget screen production can employ anywhere from 300-500 people which is huge in terms of job creation,” he says.

“When a film production company contacts us, which might be a referral from the commission, it can happen fast and you need to be able to respond to their queries.”

Crew action ready

Hastings City Council has seeded $10,000 for a website to feature a high-quality image library of locations and a database of resources including actors, stunt people, camera operators and crew who are available to work on productions.

The ESA has so far boosted its directory of film professionals from 12 crew who can work behind and in front of the camera to over a hundred.

Material gathered over the previous decade needs a complete update; older location photos may now have houses, roads or power poles or cellphone towers in the vicinity.

Hawke’s Bay’s natural assets include beaches, swamps, lakes, mountains, hills, wineries and art deco and Spanish mission architecture and wilderness areas that could with the right script and imagination pass for scenery anywhere in the world.

“That website has to be top notch, that’s our shop front,” says Sherratt. “I’m getting inquiries every week from people who have worked in the film industry locally or in London or LA or elsewhere and are coming back to HB or looking to New Zealand for a change of lifestyle,” says Sherratt.

The alliance needs a manager and an office assistant to take the calls and keep things moving, with Sherratt suggesting the FOMO factor (fear of missing out), should be the region’s big driver.

And if the councils and other support isn’t forthcoming? “We’ll just carry on in an ad hoc manner like the past decade or so,” and the big opportunities will go to other regions, he says.

EIT screen training

In the creative mix is a concerted effort to get behind local storytellers and film makers to create their own content and sell it to the world; a local screenwriters group was established in August.

Sandra Hazlehurst sees the film project as a huge opportunity to diversify the local economy and train young people to be crew members in the film industry.

She’s asked the East Coast regional commissioner of the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) for support in those training opportunities.

Meanwhile, the ESA has begun discussions with the Eastern institute of Technology (EIT) in Taradale, which already has a Diploma in Screen Production, 15 students currently and a lot more inquiries post-Covid.

However, it still encourages graduates to leave the region because the current industry is little more than a small screen niche player.

Local production companies including Grundy Productions, Indelible, Engage and Top Blokes are typically into corporate marketing, events, recruitment, advertising and promotion, music videos, streaming services or social media video productions.

While they might take on one of two EIT trainees for work experience, the real opportunities lie outside the region.

Tessa Tylee, lecturer and programme coordinator in screen production since 2014, has helped rewrite the EIT course to better align with industry needs.

Students start off learning to be film making technicians (grips). Then learn to use a range of cameras, trolleys and cranes, the specifics of shot sizes and construction, editing, storyboarding, script writing, sound, lighting and making a documentary.

Expanding from two to three years means students have greater technical awareness and are more confident in pitching themselves for work. By August, at least two third-year students had been offered jobs in Auckland.

In association with the EIT creative arts IdeaSchool, Tylee is hoping to see greater collaboration across art, design, music and fashion as part of a Bachelor of Creative Practice, a leading-edge approach.

“Screen is not just about cameras and directors it’s about all those other elements together,” she says.

Tylee, director, researcher and producer of several award-winning TV documentaries, returned to Hawke’s Bay from Auckland in 2007 and with Gilly Lawrence and Mirabelle Brooke set up Film Hawke’s Bay to support the growth of a local industry.

The hardest part of the volunteer work was getting buy-in from councils who fully funded RFOs in other regions. Only Hastings got on board.

She was getting “burned out” and greatly relieved when newcomer Patrick Sherratt and his wife Leigh Kiddle took over the reins in early 2019, rebranded as the Eastern Screen Alliance, and brought in new trustees.

ESA trustees include original Film HB trustee Gilly Lawrence, son of the late Bruno Lawrence who works full-time in production lighting; local resident Derek Slade who’s general manager of Auckland-based GripHQ, Daniel Betty a manager, actor and comms person for Toitoi and former Maori TV producer Michelle Lee.

Hastings mayor Hazlehurst admits the region has “never seriously been proactive in supporting the film industry” but “now is the time for Hawke’s Bay to become a film production destination”.

She concedes previous efforts at having a regional film office (RFO) haven’t been properly funded by multiple parties, including councils, and is hopeful that will change.

Money and jobs

Currently the New Zealand film industry, including local and global projects, generates $3.3 billion annually, employing up to 16,000 people in prime seasons.

With the right film making infrastructure, the Film Commission believes we could double the $400 million from global projects that were in production in 2020.

The Government included $140 million in the 2020 budget to incentivise international productions, then added a rescue package of $73 million to cushion dozens of films from the full impact of the pandemic and boost five new movies and TV series.

Tessa Tylee, the ESA team and a growing number of Hawke’s Bay creatives are convinced the area has huge potential as a film location but it needs investment.

The cost of bringing production gear and people to the region is a major obstacle, and while we’re addressing the need for more skilled people, local infrastructure will be essential.

A region serious about film as an economic booster would need to rapidly ramp up way beyond retro-fitting old warehouses or cool stores for studio space.

The big players play big. They need moving stages large enough for massive sets to be built; computer-controlled lighting, backdrops and green screens, camera tracking and … close proximity to open spaces.

They would need post-production facilities, rehearsal spaces and outbuildings for admin, possibly accommodation and gigabyte speed networks for processing and sharing massive files across the country and the world to collaborate on special effects and animations.

Can we do this?

So, does imagining Hawke’s Bay as a film hub with a rural production ‘village’ have enough traction to create more than a blip on an international filmmaker’s radar? And can it get beyond shovel-ready to consenting in time to catch the wave of pent-up Covid demand?

Although Hastings is pulling out all the stops for suitable land, studio construction could present its own drama or possibly even horror scenarios, given concerns about protecting productive soils.

Patrick Sherratt says most New Zealand film studios are repurposed buildings and there’s no precedent for creating a hi-tech production studio from the ground up.

Attempts at new builds in Auckland and Christchurch became such a planning nightmare that investors walked away.

Perhaps a more coordinated local and central government effort is needed to adapt, allow and even encourage environmentally-sustainable industries like big film or serious hi-tech campuses to Hawke’s Bay?

We talk about diversification, but how far are we really prepared to go to change the game?

Writers craft local screen scripts

A number of scripts based around Hawke’s Bay books and original ideas from local writers are destined to become films or TV series or are in development to pitch to local or international production companies.

A quick once-over of what’s happening suggests there’s no shortage of creative and technical people who would be an asset to a scaled-up content creation hub building on the region’s pioneering history of film-making.

This Town, filmed in Central Hawke’s Bay, was the first New Zealand movie released post-Covid and features local boy David White, who wrote and produced it.

Stepping back in time, Blerta, a 1970s troupe of travelling film makers, photographers, lighting technicians, musicians, actors and hangers, often based at Waimarama, had a huge impact on the nation’s film, television and music industries.

Key members Geoff Murphy and musician, actor Bruno Lawrence, based at the Snoring Waters community, sparked a handful of Kiwi films they were involved in, including Uenuku (1974), Wild Man (1977), Goodbye Pork Pie and Smash Palace (1981), Utu (1983) and Quiet Earth (1985).

Members of the Lawrence and Murphy family continue the tradition; Bruno’s son Gilly Lawrence is full-time on film productions and a trustee of local film advocacy group Eastern Screen Alliance (ESA). Murphy’s son Matt, and Hepi Mita, his offspring with trailblazing Māori film maker Merata Mita, are both highly active in the industry.

Lust in the Dust

Maybe Waimarama will again be a catalyst for a creative outpouring if the screen play currently being written around local author Barbara Anderson’s book Long Hot Summer becomes a TV series.

Anderson spent all her summers at Waimarama and the book is set in 1930s Hawke’s Bay around a community that gathers to film an amateur cowboy movie called Lust in the Dust.

One of the scriptwriters is Hastings councillor and author Sophie Siers, along with her husband, Andy, and ESA manager Patrick Sherratt and his wife Leigh Kiddle, who have had their own movie Taniwha accepted for filming in the Bay of Islands.

ABOVE: This Town (2020).This page: Utu (1983)

Siers says the team have completed the first of eight parts in the Long Hot Summer series, including checking in with some local families as the book is based on a number of real-life characters.

She’s hopeful production might be able to stay in the Bay. “With the right infrastructure all kinds of opportunities might open up for small and local productions and quality international films.”

Bridget Sutherland, lecturer in art at EIT, is scriptwriter for a psychological drama under development called Taking Possession, with plans to film around Havelock North and Napier once all the pieces fall into place.

The story includes reference to the Whare Ra temple in Havelock North and the mysterious workings of the Golden Dawn cult. It’s to be produced by Angela Littlejohn who has Hawke’s Bay connections.

Hero bomber pilot

The Eastern Screen Alliance has also fielded an inquiry from researcher Glenys Scott who worked with Porangahau writer Hillary Pederson on I Would Not Step Back, the life story of Dannevirke bomber pilot Phil Lamason.

Scott, a long-time friend of the hero pilot who died aged 95 in 2012, envisions a TV series and is working with an assistant director from the movie 1917 who arrived from London when that industry shut down.

Kate Powis recently returned to Napier after being stranded as a cruise ship worker in England and is now working on her third screenplay.

It’s an historical drama based around the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake that will time shift, with the present day referencing stories of those caught in the deadly shake.

And producer Victor Carson, a veteran of 24 films, is writing the screenplay to Mark Sweet’s 1960s family drama, The History Speech.

He’s liaising with ESA to involve as many local professionals as possible. “It is a genuine Hawke’s Bay story … during one of my frequent visits to Napier a friend recommended the book. I read it in one sitting and loved it and could visualise the film possibilities.”

Carson is hopeful filming will begin late in 2021 or 2022. His company, Film Buff Productions, was based at Fox Studios in Sydney for many years.

So what do we need to be a film hub, BayBuzz asked Carson? His unequivocal response, “…you need a studio”.

A natural history

Inquiries to ESA from film professionals, scriptwriters, editors and grip crew hardly touch on the freelance talent available who have gear and will travel.

Take Christopher Tegg, former Havelock High student, back in the Bay after 14 years behind the editing desk at Natural History New Zealand in Dunedin (formerly the NZ Film unit).

He worked on “dozens of documentaries for Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet …” but balked at the increasingly tightened production schedules.

After 27 years studying most aspects of the craft, he’s enjoying the freedom of working in Hawke’s Bay orchards while slowly returning to his original dream of being a film maker.

His first local outing was the mockumentary showcasing Hastings mayoral hopeful Jonathan Busby (Tegg as actor) gadding about in Havelock North with outrageous ideas, including turning the village into a gated community.

Since then he’s produced mini documentaries that are available free online (Hawke’s Bay – Above and Beyond).

Tegg believes Hawke’s Bay is a prime spot for film making. “It’s like LA; it’s flat, the landscape isn’t overwhelming, it’s got good weather and consistent sun which is important for film making and Napier feels like Hollywood, particularly during Art Deco week.”

Lead photo: Tom Allan. Patrick Sherratt, Eastern Screen Alliance.

Secondary image: First year screen production students using a green screen at EIT. Photo courtesy EIT.

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