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New Zealand Making a Pitch to Filmmakers

March 15, 2000|LAURA ACCINELLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

New Zealand's politicians are trying to sell that faraway corner of the South Pacific as a haven for filmmakers, touting their scenery, film facilities and, most important, non-SAG salaries and favorable exchange rates of 49 U.S. cents for a Kiwi dollar.

And they are having some success--demonstrating the growing competition Los Angeles faces in keeping filmmakers at home.

The island nation of 3.5 million people and 60 million sheep is doubling for Middle Earth in New Line's $200-million "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Nepal in Sony's $100-million "Vertical Limit" and the Santa Anita Racetrack in "Born to Run," a modestly budgeted movie about a girl and her horse for Disney Channel.

Already, screen production in New Zealand was up 47%, to $155 million, in the country's fiscal 1998-99 year from the previous year, according to a New Zealand research survey. And those figures don't include the big-budget watersheds, "Lord of the Rings," and "Vertical Limit."

In the same way that elected officials several years ago joined forces with tour operators to launch a worldwide campaign that has made tourism New Zealand's top moneymaker, film industry organizations and the government are cooperating in marketing what's available.

"My city's buzzing. We've got 'hobbits' walking down the main street of Wellington," said Mark Blumsky, mayor of the New Zealand capital where Peter Jackson is filming the J.R.R. Tolkien "Rings" trilogy.

In early February, film director Jackson launched Film Unit in New Zealand, the most complete post-production facility in the Australia-South Pacific region, according to its general manager Sue Thompson.

In late February, at the Locations 2000 Expo at the L.A. Convention Center, while an Elvis impersonator shilled for Memphis and a costumed Masai warrior pitched Kenya, Blumsky and Bob Harvey, his elected colleague from the western suburbs of Auckland, pitched New Zealand.

"Three years ago, no one knew how to get in touch with our film people, our line producers, production-servicing people or even what the country looked like," said Jane Gilbert, who in 1998 started Film New Zealand, the locations arm of the New Zealand Film Commission. "New Zealand became accessible. As a business, we had to minimize the tyranny of distance and show that we have an infrastructure not based on apple boxes and sheep."

She brought six Hollywood executives to Auckland, Wellington and Queenstown in February 1999 with Air New Zealand providing the air fare. The trip resulted in Sony's "Vertical Limit" and Disney Channel's "Born to Run."

"It opened my eyes," said Roderick D. Smith, vice president for motion picture production finance at Disney, who made the trip with counterparts from Sony, DreamWorks and Saban Entertainment. "I was struck by how open and eager to help out workers are there. Here they are so compartmentalized. A wardrobe assistant would never drive a truck," he said.

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