Why Asia matters to the New Zealand film industry

The blockbuster success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy shone a spotlight on the New Zealand film industry that continues to shine. Fans from all over the world flock to Hobbiton and other locations in search of ‘Middle-earth’ and tourism is reaping the rewards. But what about the flow-on effects for the film industry itself?

It’s a long way from Middle-earth to Asia, but Raymond Suen, international relations executive at the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) makes it his business to bridge the distance. 

"Our international relations activity is largely around enabling co-productions and other inbound productions," Suen says. "We’re very fortunate because New Zealand’s known internationally to be very good at film. It’s a branding thing. We have a great reputation.”

New Zealand film

Weta Workshop sculptor Sam Gao. IMAGE: New Zealand FIlm Commission


It’s no coincidence that the two top Chinese box office films of all time have involved New Zealand. Key costumes for the 2019 sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth were made by Weta Workshop, while Wolf Warrior 2 did post-production work in New Zealand in 2017.

"It’s very good relationship-building for us because the filmmakers behind those two films are among the leading lights of the Chinese film industry," Suen says.

Wellington post-production company Park Road Post Production was responsible for the sound editing and mixing on the production.

"The director, producers and whole team came over and within a week they were comfortable we could do it. They were very, very happy and they’ve said for the rest of their projects they will always look to bring them down here."

That kind of endorsement has opened even more doors, with Chinese TV productions also looking to use New Zealand locations, Suen says.

"A good example is variety shows on Chinese television. Over Christmas and New Year 2018, we had two productions filming in New Zealand, Wife’s Romantic Travel and Beautiful Youth. The latter launched on [Chinese video streaming platform] iQiyi in early March and became China’s third highest ranking entertainment show, with 52 million social followers, and its hashtag trended at 3 billion on Weibo.”

International co-productions can be even more lucrative, Suen says, as they have larger budgets than purely domestic films. Ninety-four per cent of the production of the 2018 sci-fi action flick The Meg, a China/US joint venture, was based in Auckland.

Legacies of that particular production include permanent facilities that can attract even more business, such as the construction of New Zealand’s first ever film studio water tanks, located in Kumeu; one indoor, one outdoor complete with green screen.

New Zealand film

Water tanks at Kumeu were built for The Meg. IMAGE: New Zealand Film Commission


While China is a major focus, it’s not the only focus in Asia. The NZFC has formal working relationships with five partners in Asia: China, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and India.

Each market has its own distinct characteristics, Suen says. Knowing the differences in order to engage effectively is essential, but challenging.

New Zealand makes a lot of episodic TV and there’s strong interest from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Fox, which are fairly big in Asia. Fox Networks Group Asia is based out of Hong Kong, which presents its own opportunities. 

“The Hong Kong industry is much more established. It is changing and no longer the Hong Kong cinema we used to know but it doesn’t mean it’s now the same as Mainland China. It’s something else. For an outsider looking in, it has a whole different identity. It’s gone through many cycles of changes since the 70s and 80s which was the golden era. It’s interesting as it has new opportunities for us.”

Singapore is yet another story. HBO Asia and Netflix Asia Pacific both operate out of Singapore, which provides opportunities for New Zealand in both feature films and high-end series drama.

"If you look at production now for those kinds of shows, their budgets are often the same if not greater than feature films and the quality is great — we’re very much in a golden age of series content." 

In comparison, South Korea is fairly self-sufficient, with a particularly strong post-production sector, and the industry hasn’t traditionally been involved in a lot of co-production. However, New Zealand locations and talent are attractive for the right projects. India has other challenges, including budget considerations.

Enjoying the successes while persevering with the more challenging players is par for the course when dealing with Asia. However, the legacy of The Lord of the Rings and other successes means our film industry is well-positioned for success in a challenging — but rapidly expanding — market.

“Filmmakers from Asia are drawn to work in New Zealand for a range of reasons, including outstanding technical ability. Some of the Asian industries we work with may have the very best equipment and facilities, but they can sometimes lack experienced, international-level talent to make the most of those resources," Suen says. 

"Through working on Asian productions, New Zealand crew can and do play a key role in helping upskill their Asian counterparts."

- Asia Media Centre