There were whispers a few weeks ago that all was not well in Peter Jackson’s Wingnut Films studio, but no formal statement ever emerged from the famously secretive setup. However, it now seems that at least some of these rumours were true. In a long piece in today’s Dominion Post, which is mainly concerned with how the film industry in Wellington appears to be losing business to its rival, Auckland, a couple of hundred miles further north, journalist Kimberley Rothwell confirms that Christian Rivers, although still contracted to direct the remake of The Dam Busters, has sold his Wellington house and headed off to the USA.
A dozen or so years ago, Wellington was booming, says Rothwell:
In 1999, production started on The Lord of the Rings, and the label “Wellywood” was born.The massive two-year production drew Hollywood right to Wellington’s door and brought hundreds of millions of dollars – some put the estimate at $1 billion – into the local economy.But at the same time, advertising agencies moved a lot of their TV work to Auckland, and production houses such as Silverscreen and Flying Fish, powerhouse producers of TV commercials, closed their Wellington offices.
The slump hasn’t all been caused by Jackson or Wingnut, or their well-documented problems getting The Hobbit into production. A massive project about the life of Christ, called Kingdom Come, has been put on hold for the moment as its production company South Vineyard tries to avoid collapse. All this means that local freelances are struggling, although they are hoping that things will look up in the future. Jackson himself gets kudos for being incredibly ‘loyal and dedicated’ to his crew members but the simple fact is that there doesn’t seem to be the work there at the moment.
The irony is that Wellington’s biggest film model building and digital company, Weta, is ‘humming’, but with post-production work. The Dominion Post couldn’t find a single shoot currently going on in the Wellington area.
To those of us outside New Zealand, this might seem a parochial matter. The country’s total population, after all, is under four million, less than a third of that of greater Los Angeles, the most important city in the English language film industry. If work on the Dambusters remake was transferred to Auckland it would hardly cause a flicker on the radar of the average enthusiast.
But to those on the ground – the technicians, scene painters, caterers, drivers and all the rest of the cast of thousands whose names scroll down the screen as you rush out of the cinema to get to the bar more quickly – it means a lot. These are their jobs after all, daily work which pays their mortgages and supermarket bills. If the cold wind of recession bites further into the Wellington economy there will be fewer presents round the Christmas tree this year. Even if the temperature is a comfy 20 degrees.