Cultural confidence required
By Keith Newman

After the next election the government will have to throw out ‘the hands-off ideas’ and provide broader support for cultural industries if New Zealand is to be seen as a top player in the ‘knowledge economy, says one of our top movie producers.

John Barnett, chief executive of South Pacific Pictures, the man behind Shortland St and executive producer of What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, says the government needs to actively pick winners and its ‘bright future’ package, focusing on science, technology and education and small business incentives, does not go far enough.

He said a healthy local film or music industry could not be maintained without guidance and assistance from a government in creating the right climate. "Confidence in ourselves is critical to building an information economy".

While there is significant government and opposition thinking about the knowledge economy strategy and talk about ‘creativity, culture and innovation’, Mr Barnett said there was virtually no mention of art, the cultural industries, how this workforce might be constructed or what role they might play in this economy.

"We are the only OECD country with no strategy or vision. Our competitors have all made the shift. We are still at the beginning of the journey along with Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia."

Everyone has worked out where they are going and how to get there, has a strong sense of a national identity and characteristics and is comfortable with the idea of a knowledge economy, he said.

However, he believed cultural industries would drive attitude and innovation, providing "a tangible matrix" to identify New Zealand as unique and innovative – this in turn would provide a moral boost to our sense of nationhood. "A country without its own images on film and television screens is like a house without a mirror. Our sense of ourselves, our confidence and our beliefs, are encouraged and enhanced by the confirmation of our voices, humour and lives as seen and shared on TV screens every night."

Mr Barnett said it was ironic the government which scrapped the television licensing fee, the main part of funding for New Zealand On Air, was now talking about creating a knowledge economy. New Zealand On Air which made it possible for Shortland St, created the talent pool to make Hercules and Xena and the confidence for US studios to back Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Over the next 18-24 months nearly $750 million in foreign exchange will be generated by the film and television industry in New Zealand. That’s twice the earnings of wine and fashion interests combined. The biggest component Lord of the Rings worth $350 million. Sony Pictures is filming Vertical Limits in Queenstown at a cost of around $100 million, a similar budget to that spent Hercules and Xena and their offspring. The combined exports of South Pacific Pictures, Taylor Made, Animation Research, Dunedin’s Natural History Unit, Gibsons and other smaller production houses add another $100 million to the mix. "None of this would happen without a domestic base," said Mr Barnett.

For over 100 years, he said, we have got by on climatic, topographical advantages – easy pastures, fast growing trees, cheap hydro power and good grass. "None of these or the agricultural products they created required us to think about who we were. Although we got smarter at growing and processing and built our economy on the advantages we had over the rest of the world, in the new world order we are competing not on the best back lawn or a level playing field but from the bottom of a barren wasteland," said Mr Barnett.

The omission of culture was not deliberate. "It’s just not understood how much culture is the glue that holds all the bits of our identities together. We’ve have a problem with culture in New Zealand. For the best part of 150-years we’re been happy to accept other people’s ideas, books, music, theatre, and films and television. For most of that time we failed to believe we had anything much to offer other than as an efficient agricultural producer in a spectacular landscape and an ability to play rugby better than other countries.

He said New Zealand was finally emerging with a belief in our own images and sounds and recognition the culture is diverse and not defined by one image alone. "We’ve reached a point where we are happy with a music culture which incorporates Kiri Te Kanawa, Neil Finn, The Feelers, Kapa Haka, the National Youth Choir, Shihad, Che Fu and Malvina Major – all with a distinctive New Zealand flavour. In literature we pride ourselves on the range of authors and the ideas they represent and in film were accepting Goodbye Pork Pie, Footrot Flats, Once Were Warriors and Scarfies are all representative. However in television we are struggling to accommodate the range and diversity that makes up our population in its beliefs hopes and aspirations, he said.

However, our ideal world would not be achieved unless we understand where we are going, how to get there and how to ensure those changes are made, he said. An Irish analysis had concluded New Zealand created ‘a great base for its garden but failed to plant it’. "There are a few brave shoots and plenty of weeds. With careful strategic planting Ireland has achieved much better results than New Zealand where there has been no strategy, no vision, few champions, little institutional support and little participation by the educational sector and government," said Mr Barnett.

In Ireland there had been early underlying support to encourage authors to relocate and pay no tax on their literary earnings. It bought in more writers and foreign exchange, as they began to publish in Ireland more Irish books were produced, more jobs created and tax revenue collected. Mr Barnett suggested the New Zealand government might like to look at the same incentives for musicians and songwriters. "If music copyright earnings were tax free and the money had to stay here, this would likely result in a growing band of European and North American artists locating here which in turn would translate to a growth in our own industry," he said. This would be a good confidence booster for other intellectual property industries.

And politicians needed to think what an increase in children’s drama or documentaries on television would do to re-inforce our self image and bring greater confidence for creating information-based industries. "There might be some rubbish at the outset but you can’t achieve the best of anything if you only have one of them," he said.