Striking SAG-AFTRA members and supporters picket outside Disney Studios on day 95 of their strike against the Hollywood studios, on 16 October 2023, in Burbank, California. Photo: AFP / Getty Images
There are lights and cameras, but where is the action?
Workers in Aotearoa’s screen industry are struggling to find jobs, with an ongoing pay dispute between Hollywood acting union SAG-AFTRA and the chief executives of major production companies stalling the already slow drip of international productions.
On Thursday the union said negotiations had resumed, with industry leaders in New Zealand hopeful that the almost six-month pause could soon end.
President of Aotearoa sceen producers’ guild SPADA, Irene Gardiner, said the film and TV sector relied on a mix of local and international projects.
“International is the big money-maker for the New Zealand economy, but you need the domestic industry to feed it and people can work across both,” she said.
“It’s like an ecosystem where you need the two parts, so it is pretty challenging when one of those parts is struggling.”
Irene Gardiner said it was “pretty challenging” when the international sector was struggling Photo: Supplied
The recently resolved writers’ strike and ongoing actors’ strike meant Hollywood productions that would have employed hundreds of Kiwi workers were put on hold.
“It particularly affects our crew sectors: camera operators, sound operators, lighting people, continuity, all the people who work on those big international shows,” Gardiner said.
Visual effects artist Sean Fleetham said he had been out of work since May.
“Unless you’re really lucky, it feels nearly impossible [to find work]. I was doing videography to keep myself afloat, but when that slowed down I had to dip into my savings until I found another job.”
‘Lumpy and cyclical’
New Zealand Screen Guild president Brendon Durey said instability was not new for the film industry.
“The screen industry’s always been, traditionally, a very lumpy and cyclical business,” he said.
“Having three or four months off work is not really unusual – people have peeled off to their side hustles and other jobs. There are still a bunch of people who are hurting, though.
“Is it hurting? Yeah. But is it something we’ve never seen before? No.”
Durey worried that Aotearoa was not as attractive as it used to be, with the government’s rebate on international productions being outclassed by other countries.
“Australia’s put its rebate up to 30 percent, the UK’s [is] at about 40 percent. They realise that having a strong international servicing will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars and create jobs,” he said.
“We’ve kept ours at 20 percent, and we don’t need to be racing to the bottom. But I think we need to have a really good think about what’s a suitable level to maintain our industry.”
He said a flat 25 percent rebate would be a suitable compromise and would attract more international productions to New Zealand.
Streaming’s effect on the market
Without major international projects, crews were finding work on domestic productions. But in the age of streaming, Gardiner said local shows were not as profitable.
The uphill battle against Netflix, Amazon and Disney made the rivalry between TVNZ2 and Three look like child’s play.
“The biggest impact of all is the impact that the international TV streamers are having,” she said. “They’re just taking out so much of the ad revenue because they’re taking out viewership. That cuts down local [budgets].”
To level the playing field, Gardiner said producers were turning to co-productions: projects funded both locally and internationally. That included shows like The Gonea recent mystery series funded with New Zealand and Irish tax dollars.
Peter Burger on set. Photo: Peter Burger / supplied
Director Peter Burger said the extra funding came with some strings attached, but the benefits were massive.
“A certain amount of the spend had to be in each country, so we shot mainly in New Zealand and then all the post-production happened in Ireland. There’s a lot of conditions that come with it.
“But what it means is you can pool your money and produce something that has that extra layer of gloss, it has a few stunts and all the kinds of things that make drama exciting.”
He said the best way to compete with giants like Netflix was to pool resources with other similarly sized countries.
“I really think it needs to be the future of local shows, because it’s the only way to get our budgets above a very small scale. To feel like you’re competing with everyone else you’ve really got to have enough money, and that often means co-productions.”
‘Dry’ years to be expected
Despite a difficult year, Burger said Aotearoa’s screen industry had a bright future.
“If we were a bigger industry, we would be able to take those knocks a bit better. But that’s New Zealand, that’s who we are. The fact that it was a dry year doesn’t make me feel pessimistic, I think it’s just… you get that sometimes.”
Peter Burger on set. Photo: Peter Burger / supplied
On Thursday, SAG-AFTRA’s negotiating team resumed talks with the AMPTP, which represents production companies.
If they reach an agreement, it will not be long before the cameras start rolling again.