Amazon’s Highly Subsidized Foray Into Middle-Earth
Paris Marx is joined by Thomas Coughlan to discuss Amazon’s foray into Tolkien’s fantasy world, the big subsidies it received to film in New Zealand, and how its decision to move the series to the UK is giving fuel to demands to reassess the support for Hollywood productions.
Thomas Coughlan is a senior political reporter at NZ Herald, and formerly was a journalist at Stuff and Newsroom. Follow Thomas on Twitter at @coughlthom.
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Paris Marx: Thomas, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Thomas Coughlan: Thanks for having me.
PM: I’m really looking forward to speaking with you. I’ve been reading your reporting on the Amazon series, the new Lord of the Rings series that filmed the first season of it in New Zealand. And I wanted to get a bit more information on that now that. At the time this episode airs, the season itself will be starting the first season. But we’re speaking about a month before that. And so I want to start with I guess to get an idea of how people are thinking about this. It’s been quite a lot of work for the people working on the show, but also quite a journey for New Zealand itself as it is fought to win the production and then subsequently lost its future seasons. What’s the mood down there these days about the series and the broader decades-long project of associating New Zealand with Middle Earth?
TC: It’s incredible how strong that association is. Whenever I travel overseas, and I say where I’m from, one of the first things they mention is Lord of the Rings. I don’t think there are many countries in the world which would have a strong association with one single film. Australia, our closest neighbor, I don’t think has such a strong association with one film series but that link with New Zealand is very strong to the extent that I think a lot of people probably associated over there is more with New Zealand than the country in which the books were written. And the country in which the books sort of most accurately describe a mirror, which is obviously the UK. The association started in the 90s, the director of the films is a New Zealander. And I think that the association is a fair one. The films didn’t just come to New Zealand to film on location, because the locations are quite nice. They really were made by 1000s of New Zealanders. The director of the films, Peter Jackson, established massive film studios in Wellington, where I live actually, in the suburb where I live. And he established with a workshop, the physical effects company, the costume company, with a digital digital effects company. It was a massive undertaking, and the Lord of the Rings took the New Zealand film industry to a different level — to the point where it could compete with other countries much larger. So it’s a point of national pride because all of a sudden, New Zealand saw itself as a kind of underdog competitor to Hollywood. In fact, the city where I live in Wellington, call itself Wellywood for a while, and it even has a sign which mimics the Hollywood sign but says Wellington, but in the Hollywood lettering. It’s kind of cringe, but it’s the way New Zealand was back then. And obviously, The Hobbit, also a Peter Jackson film, and it sort of followed the same kind of trajectory.
And the other thing that encouraged the film to come and return are these tax breaks that the government gives the film industry. So for every dollar that you spend in New Zealand, you get 20 cents back. And if you spend a large amount of money in New Zealand, then you get 25 cents back. So it’s an incredible tax break that for a quarter of every dollar you spend, a quarter of every dollar can come back to you. It’s massive, and it’s incredibly costly. And there was a time when The Hobbit films were potentially going to leave New Zealand because of some local industrial strife. They were won back with a sweetheart tax break deal. And there was some concern that the Amazon series would not film in New Zealand. And it was great kind of point of national pride that they came to New Zealand. New Zealand is no different to any other country in the world right now. There are some immense social problems in New Zealand with health care with housing, I mean, you know, everything that I’m sure everyone around the world is facing right now. And I think as these tax breaks have attracted more and more films to New Zealand; Avatar is made here; other massive Hollywood productions; Mulan was made here, and large TV series are being made here as well, to the point now where these tax breaks were meant to cost about $60 million a year. They’re now costing quarter of a billion dollars every year. And there is a big political debate now over whether or not the film industry deserves such massive subsidization effectively, and whether that money should be spent somewhere else.
There is a real tension because there’s a real sense of pride when you’re from a tiny country like New Zealand that’s used to being completely, in many cases, New Zealand has literally left off world maps. We’re so insignificant, some people that people genuinely forget to put us on the map. In fact, the famous globe at Universal Studios in Los Angeles doesn’t have a New Zealand country on Earth, I think until Peter Jackson filmed King Kong and asked them to put one. I’m not sure if that’s an urban legend. But that is what I’m told. And it’s there’s that tension there that these things are very costly. And it’s kind of alarming to see so much of your government be captured by one industry. But there’s also a massive sense of pride because you watch these films, and they are incredible, and what a tiny country is able to do in terms of making films as good as anything Hollywood can make is fantastic.
PM: I think that makes a lot of sense, and we’ll dig into many of the points that you’ve talked about in giving us a really good overview of the development of this series over times and the more questions that are rising more often as New Zealand faces these challenges that Canada faces as well with health care and things like that. I want to talk specifically about the Amazon series, and then we’ll get into some of those bigger questions. In 2017, Amazon bought the rights to the appendices of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for $250 million US dollars. And essentially, the events of the Second Age of Tolkien’s fantasy universe are contained within that part of the book, The Lord of the Rings books and Jackson’s film series take place in the Third Age, so it’s a bit different from you know, what we’ve seen on screen up to this point. How long did it take after that deal was made for contact to be made between Amazon and the New Zealand government about having the series set in New Zealand once again?
TC: So early contact took place very soon after the deal was announced. But I think the main negotiations were in 2019, when most discussions took place. There were two kinds of issues with the discussions first where the films would be filmed. So obviously, New Zealand got in quite early to make sure that they would still be filmed here. It’s quite an incredible thing, I think, for the government of the country to approach film studio to make sure that they make a TV series in their country. Then there was the question over the size of of the rebate that the country would get, and that sort of took place over over 2019 and then 2020. It was sort of a pandemic related issue with the negotiations. New Zealand did not want to be left out of this production and got in quite early. And I think the first press release announcing that films would likely be filmed here was sent out 2018-2019, I’d need to check, but it was very early on.
PM: So it was very quick for the government to really get involved and try to ensure that this property was going to come back to New Zealand and stay in New Zealand, because of this long term association?
TC: The New Zealand government surveys people who come to New Zealand to ask them why they’ve come here. Obviously, for most of the world, unless you come from Australia, or the Pacific Islands, it’s quite a long trip if you holiday in New Zealand. So we really want to know what drives people to come on holiday here, because tourism is quite a big industry for us. And to this day, one of the top five reasons for coming here is because of the association with Lord of the Rings. I’m sure there are a number of times when Canada is seen on screen that would inspire people to go to Canada. But that strong association with one film is quite unusual, I think. So for tourism reasons, the New Zealand government was quite keen to make sure that no other country — the production has now gone to the UK, and there was strong interest from places like Ireland or Croatia — that the government was very concerned to make sure that no other country could kind of muscle in on New Zealand and form a relationship with Lord of the Rings so that New Zealand was always a preeminent kind of Lord of the Rings associated country.
PM: No, absolutely. And I want to come back to the tourism point a bit later in our conversation as well. So can you tell us a bit about how these negotiations actually played out? What were the two parties, Amazon and the New Zealand government, looking for from these negotiations in order to have this series filmed in New Zealand? And how did the New Zealand government try to convince Amazon to stay within the country?
TC: One thing that New Zealand’s got up its sleeve is that we do have the infrastructure here to do this. And one of the only issues with New Zealand is that sometimes there was so much production in New Zealand’s that we actually lack the infrastructure to do multiple large productions at once, which is a nice problem to have that so many people are keen to film in your country, that you can actually have them all at the same time. New Zealand had that up its sleeve; obviously, it’s got the locations up its sleeve. And actually one thing that the producers didn’t anticipate is the fact that New Zealand had quite a successful COVID-19 response. That meant there during 2020, when some of the series was filming, that New Zealand productions were able to get back up on their feet and started filming in a really unencumbered way. Whilst the rest of the world was sort of in lockdown, New Zealand was able to not be in lockdown and continue filming. Of course, they didn’t know that when they were negotiating, but nice to have. And, of course, the tax break thing, which we’ve already discussed. And that is obviously a huge incentive when effectively a quarter of your productions budget is being underwritten by the New Zealand government. And I think the calculation that the government was our government was working on as is that the series is a whole, across the multiple seasons that they film would work out to be about a billion dollars for the whole thing. I mean, we don’t know how many seasons it’s going to run to but but we were assuming about a billion dollars. So quarter of a billion dollars New Zealand dollars from the government to underwrite the series is not it’s probably not to be sniffed at in terms of what we wanted out of it.
Well, the government was quite attracted to Amazon Studios, because New Zealand’s tech industry are small games companies, PikPok and the like. We have Zero, which is an accounting software firm, which is one of our great ticket exporters; they’re all around the world now. But obviously, we’re not the US. I imagine we probably have a much smaller tech sector than Canada, UK, other kind of comparable countries. So forging a relationship with Amazon was quite important, and the government was quite keen to try and get a bit more of the wider Amazon group to take an interest in New Zealand. So they were keen to negotiate visits from, and this is something that Amazon had to bring to New Zealand as well, as well as lots of money to spend here, you know, they are one of the biggest tech companies in the world. And so New Zealand was quite keen to forge a relationship with a broader company, Amazon Web Services, potentially setting up a cloud server here, done now, although that was sort of separate to the deal. We were keen to forge connections between different parts of the Amazon kind of ecosystem in the Amazon world, so that our tech sector could piggyback on that and develop with Amazon.
Each season was going to have a different kinds of tech focus. And so as part of each season returning to New Zealand, Amazon would offer a different part of its company. Amazon Web Services, for instance, might come and meet with other cloud computing interested places in New Zealand and we would forge connections with that part of the company. So because of the series has now left New Zealand, I guess we’ll never know how successful that might have been. It sounds like a bit of a pie in the sky kind of thing to be honest, like Amazon was going to send a different executive each time to New Zealand to meet with people over here. Obviously, in the pandemic we shut our borders. So we couldn’t take advantage a bit. But I think the government was quite attracted to the idea that Amazon executives would fly to New Zealand for each season. We could send young, bright up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs to meet them. And they could shake hands and take a photo and whatever. And maybe that would, that would supercharge our tech industry. But obviously, that won’t happen now, because the series has now left and because of the pandemic, so heavily affected the first season at Amazon, I don’t think there was much of a tech kind of crossover either. So, there you go!
PM: That’s completely fair. And I appreciate that about the negotiations to get that insight into it. And I have some questions about a few of those aspects of it. But I think before we get into those, just a couple other things about the the deal between Amazon and the government, and the negotiations and how this kind of played out. First of all, I remember, near the end of when these negotiations were kind of finishing up, there was this kind of last minute prospect of the series being moved to Scotland. On Amazon side, they were saying we might film it in Scotland instead of New Zealand. Do you have any idea if that pushed things to a close, or if that pushed the New Zealand government to make concessions that maybe it wouldn’t have made if it wasn’t so pressing at the end there?
TC: These things do come down to sort of brinksmanship at the end. And I guess the thing that Amazon really wanted and in terms of bringing these negotiations to a close is we have this thing called ‘value uplift.’ And so most production that comes to New Zealand, if you spend whatever amount of money, you get 20% of it back if you’re filming a film production. So that’s baseline, which I think is pretty good; it’s pretty generous rebate. If you start any other company in New Zealand, and you don’t get that level of rebate. In fact, the tech sector here is quite pissed off, because a lot of what New Zealand does in the film industry is tech. Its visual effects. Visual effects is a really big part of what New Zealand does. So they get 20% of every visual effects dollar rebated, but if you are a game company, for instance, which is fishing in the same talent poll as the visual effects companies, every dollar a game company spends, well, they don’t get any other back. There’s no special tax deal for the game companies. So there’s a kind of tension between the tech sector and the film industry because the film industry is heavily subsidized and the tech sector is not and they’re fishing for the same talent. The film industry can pay much more for talent than the game industry or the tech industry.
Anyway, Amazon wanted to make sure that it got that 5% uplift — that they got 25% of every dollar back rather than 20%. And this is the kind of thing that New Zealand could hold over Amazon is just saying: We can give you a quarter of every dollar you spend back and not just 20% if you demonstrate a significant value to the country at large. And then sort of we’re the ticket partnerships with Amazon. That’s where the the tourism partnerships with Amazon came in for an extra 5% of the tax rebate, that we would give them an extra 5% tax rebate that they could demonstrate to us that they would give significant extra value to New Zealand. But I mean, certainly there is a global race to the bottom in terms of tax subsidies for films, doesn’t allow me to recall what the UK offers productions in Scotland or there’s a Scotland specific state scheme. But I know that New Zealand had to recently increase its tax subsidies for the film industry because countries like Ireland and the UK were so, so competitive. So we are really racing to see who can subsidize the most.
PM: That’s interesting. It’s an ongoing debate in Canada as well, because we provide film subsidies as well. But usually the one that is of particular interest up here is subsidies for video games industries, because we have a really big gaming sector, in large part because the subsidies are so lucrative for many of these video game companies that that come and relocate here.
TC: Well, the game industry in New Zealand is really frustrated with the film industry because they get nothing. So it’s interesting that you subsidize yours. The game industry are very keen for either the subsidy to go completely so that they aren’t always outbid by by the film companies for for talented staff, or for the game industry to be subsidized as well.
PM: That’s interesting. And I noticed that Weta Digital, which obviously was one of these companies started by Peter Jackson, was recently sold to Unity, one of the big game engine makers. Do you have any idea of that changes the equation in New Zealand if that will mean more visual effects work in New Zealand or more that being moved offshore?
TC: Yes, that was a massive deal, and it does allow Weta Digital to grow globally. They’ve kind of split the company. So part of Weta is still owned by Peter Jackson part of the digital effects arm. But the majority of it has gone to Unity. And I think a large part of that is with a significant IP. So they do a lot of in-house development. They’ve done some VR stuff, and they also like crowd simulations. For instance, I think Weta on the Lord of the Rings was one of the pioneers of really sophisticated AI cloud simulations. I think before they used some sort of a particle effects thing to do large crowds, and then Weta came up with a program called Massive, which basically created large crowds using sophisticated AI. So you’d have the soldiers fighting each other and quite sophisticated ways in these massive digitally created crowd scenes. There’s incredible software. And they’re still, I think, the leaders at crowd simulation. So we’re told that it won’t mean that large amounts of of work will shift offshore. And we’re told that everyone at Weta in New Zealand has been told that they’re safe in terms of the jobs.
For digital effects work, you can be working anywhere. I think that’s part of the attraction for New Zealand is that you don’t need to be close to Los Angeles to do the sort of work; you can do it anywhere in the world. But they have been told that significant amounts of work will continue to be in New Zealand. Obviously, it’s very positive for people like Peter Jackson who own the company, and for the execs. There is some concern that maybe the kind of really exciting Weta stuff, which is breaking new ground, in terms of developing new software programs to deal with new and exciting visual effects challenges, that sort of stuff will go offshore, and that sort of stuff won’t be done in New Zealand anymore. And what will be done in New Zealand is kind of the grunt work, for want of a better term, just sort of plowing through tedious digital animations and the like. And I think that’s probably the only anxiety, the main anxiety that people here have.
PM: That makes a lot of sense. I want to dig into a few of the topics we’ve been discussing, and the things that were really key to those negotiations between the New Zealand government and Amazon in a little bit more detail. We’ve been talking a bit about the film subsidy scheme, how that works in New Zealand, how you get 20% back, and then you can get an extra 5% on top of that, depending on negotiation with the government, and how there was also a law brought in in 2010, around the time of The Hobbit films in order to keep Warner Brothers in New Zealand, that was dubbed The Hobbit law. Warner Brothers got some additional subsidies as a result, but one of the key things was to restrict the ability of workers to unionize and the sorts of things that they could demand when they were working on these film projects. After this experience with Amazon, and as you were talking about with the ongoing debates around the film subsidy scheme, is there any feeling that maybe the government has gone a bit too far in making these concessions to the film companies in that having Amazon leave is going to give more energy to those who would like to see those things changed?
TC: Yes, I think the cost of the scheme has certainly brought that debate to the fore. Also, the Avatar sequels had been in production in New Zealand for years now. And there’s so much James Cameron likes to do a lot of his own sort of in-house development. And so he’s been claiming this film subsidy for many, many years to make these Avatar films and do sort of R&D with significant support from New Zealand’s taxpayer. And I think the Amazon and the Avatar films have both kind of raised this question, because again, during the pandemic, New Zealand shut its borders, and it was very difficult for New Zealanders to come home. And I think about one in five New Zealanders lives abroad. And so being able to come home and reenter your own country is a massive issue for New Zealanders. And so the borders were basically completely shut. And the only way to get into the country was to go into a quarantine hotel for two weeks before you’re allowed back into the country at large. And that basically meant that only 6000 or 7000 people at a time, could reenter the country, which when you’re used to hundreds of thousands of people at a time entering the country every day. It basically made it almost impossible for some people to get home. However, the Avatar film crew was allowed to come into New Zealand because they were filming Avatar at the time, and we didn’t want the production to grind to a halt. And again, that sort of raised the question of whether film studios were getting a good deal out of the New Zealand government, because they had the right to reenter the country, when the country’s own citizens were not allowed to get into the country easily.
And there were heartbreaking stories of people saying goodbye to dying relatives over Zoom. They were legally not allowed to enter the country because they couldn’t secure a place in the quarantine hotel. And the Avatar film crew was allowed in no-questions-asked basically. And you can imagine how that just didn’t sit well, that these incredibly wealthy film producers were allowed not just money, almost a higher level of of human rights and human dignity. And that really, that was quite controversial at the time. And now of course, the film subsidy regime, obviously the pandemic has been very expensive for New Zealand as well as every other country, there was a lot of pressure on the New Zealand government to spend money everywhere. So the government is currently reviewing the film subsidy regime with a focus on on talking about its financial sustainability, because it is so so generous that so many productions are being attractive to New Zealand. And if it continues to grow at the rate it’s growing, we’ll be spending potentially billions of dollars a year on subsidizing film productions. And it just at a certain point, it just becomes financially unsustainable. Because it’s great for the film industry; it creates so many jobs; it creates an incredible industry in the country.
The film industry is a great industry, but these companies don’t really pay a lot of tax in New Zealand, because obviously, when the film was made, it’s produced by an American company usually. And so Amazon will release it, and Amazon will make money wherever Amazon is financially located — Ireland or somewhere, probably. And they will pay tax in that country; Amazon won’t pay a lot of tax in New Zealand. So these companies that are very heavily supported by the New Zealand taxpayer are not themselves paying a whole lot of tax in New Zealand because they don’t sell any products here. They make a product here; they don’t sell it here. So those sorts of questions that were brought to the fore. And the the deal has soured. The Hobbit Laws, at the time, were very controversial. They have been slightly changed now that was that the incoming Jacinda Ardern government tweaked the laws. They didn’t totally change them. Essentially, what the Hobbit Law did was it made impossible for film workers to unionize and kind of treated film workers like Uber drivers, kind of Uber style contractors with very little rights, and very little say in things because industrial action from the New Zealand actors union threatened to move the production offshore.
PM: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense, what you’re describing. And when you talk about New Zealand or seeing that these film crews were allowed in, the Avatar film crew in particular, while loved ones and family members were not allowed into the country, you can certainly see how that’s evocative. But then also seeing how one of the things that I believe you wrote in one of your pieces was how the Avatar production being about this kind of fantasy, Indigenous culture gets more funding than Maori filmmaking in New Zealand.
TC: And that’s a really interesting thing that has come up over the development of New Zealand’s film industry. In the early days, Lord of the Rings was 20 years ago now, and in the early days, it was cool that a New Zealander was making a Hollywood film in New Zealand with New Zealand cast and crew. The principal cast were all foreigners, but a lot of the secondary cast were Kiwis. And that was cool — everyone loved it! There’d be actors from popular soap operas in New Zealand who would appear in The Lord of the Rings, and people would love that because it was like being in on a joke that your favorite kind of soap opera doctor was playing an elf. I mean, Brett Mackenzie from Flight of the Conchords was an extra in Lord of the Rings. And even now you watch it and you laugh, because you know that he’s a joker and whatever, he’s hilarious, but in The Lord of the Rings he’s in the background, looking all serious. But as time went on, and the industry developed, there was always a question over the extent to which the Hollywood productions nurtured a domestic film industry. And to some extent, they did. A lot of Hollywood productions would provide massive incomes for New Zealand domestic film makers. So they could make a lot of money working on Hollywood films, and then they’d go off and work on something local, on something related to New Zealand, which was great. So they kind of had a symbiotic relationship in that regard — that the New Zealand local film industry was kind of propped up by Hollywood money, one day, you’d be making a mess of blockbuster, and the next day, you’d be making kind of a local production.
But as time went on a bit of a rift kind of developed there where, you know, Hollywood productions got special treatment, and it’s really hard to get money for a New Zealand film. We have a very small film industry. And other countries have a local kind of film commission funded by taxation or whatever that funds local productions. New Zealand does that too. We’ve got a government Film Commission, which puts money into local films and funds local films that have a local flavor, that talk about New Zealand stories, and are made by New Zealanders. But the quantum of money that the government gives to New Zealand films that are made by New Zealand is about New Zealanders, it’s a fraction of the money that is given to these international productions. And there’s a tension as well that the film commission is they’re part of the government that is responsible for administering these massive 100 million dollar film subsidies and is responsible for attracting these massive companies from offshore to make their films in New Zealand, but it’s also responsible for cultivating local talent and for funding local films and for, effectively, being like a studio for local filmmakers. And there’s a sense that it can’t kind of do both at the same time. You can’t on the one hand be dishing out hundreds and millions of dollars to Hollywood and cultivating relationships with Hollywood studios, and also kind of working on the domestic industry as well. There’s a sense that it’s distracted by this mess of Hollywood productions and perhaps not doing enough to nurture local talent. And it’s possibly when the film commission looks at the kind off sums of money that it looks at on the one side, you’ve got 10s of hundreds of millions of dollars being spent every year on Hollywood productions, and then, and then 10s of millions of dollars every year on New Zealand productions. And I think the allegation that it’s a bit distracted by Hollywood is probably a fair one.
PM: That rings true for me as well, in seeing the debates that happened here in Canada about subsidizing and attracting all these Hollywood films and these big streaming companies. And whether that really benefits the local industry, that’s something that we deal with here, too. So it’s interesting to hear hear you talk about it in the New Zealand context, I want to talk a bit more about another aspect of the deal that we were discussing was the degree to which the New Zealand government wanted to work with Amazon, beyond Amazon Studios, and actually these other parts of the companies and get benefits from that. I guess I have a couple questions on on that front. Can you see any evidence that this strategy worked, and that there was really much collaboration with Amazon in getting these other sectors of the business to look at New Zealand and look at doing business in New Zealand, and was there concern as well — and this is something I see in Canada as well, with the government not really caring so much, because it’s more about economic growth and attracting these companies — but concern with partnering with a company like Amazon, where there has been, I think, increasing scrutiny in recent years, with their union busting practices and how they treat their workers and these other impacts of their business model.
TC: It’s hard to do a sort of counterfactual here, because we had a previous relationship with Amazon Web Services. But certainly that relationship has deepened since the film series was filmed here. So it’s hard to know whether or not, what begot what. So Amazon Web Services has deepened its relationship with New Zealand. And I think that the government’s quite happy with it. They’re obviously a big company, and it would be great if they set up locally here, and hired New Zealand engineers to work here. But again, it’s hard to know whether that would have happened anyway. And the other issue with the counterfactual is the series moves to the UK. At the end of last year, they announced there wouldn’t be some filming subsequent seasons in New Zealand. I think there are two reasons for that. One of them was that even at the end of last year, New Zealand’s border was still effectively closed. And I don’t think the film crew for the series was that excited about having to quarantine for two weeks, whenever they sent people to New Zealand to film, which is fair enough. That’s tough — doing two weeks in a hotel, quarantining for being allowed out of the country, especially, one imagines Hollywood film stars, are not used to being locked in a hotel room. One imagines they’re not it especially excited about that. So that I think that that was that was an issue they didn’t mention at the time. But I think that was an issue that that at that point, it did appear to be no end in sight to the length of time that New Zealand would have its borders effectively closed for the pandemic. So I think, I think New Zealand’s pandemic response possibly played into it.
The other thing that that London and the UK have over New Zealand is just that it’s so much closer to the United States and Europe, where most of these actors are from and most of the cast members of the crew are from as well. So I think it’s just easier and easier place to get to. The UK is a nice place to be, so I think that they just wanted to be there more than here, which is fair enough. And I think Amazon Studios is also centralizing a lot of its production in the UK, so so it’s part of a bigger deal to make a lot of TV in the UK, as part of a massive effort to centralize its production in one place. New Zealand is just too small, I think, to produce that amount of television. The Lord of the Rings was great, because it’s soaked up so much of New Zealand’s production capacity. But I think if Amazon wanted to film three, four or five TV programs or films in New Zealand at the same time, that would have been impossible. So anyway, they left.
And also because of the pandemic, the side part of the deal, which was to forge a relationship with other Amazon companies, or other parts of the Amazon empire, that never really happened to any great extent. Amazon was meant to fly executives over. I’m not sure whether they would have ever flown Jeff Bezos. It’d be interesting to know whether that would have ever happened. But they were told — they were asked to fly people over here as part of the deal. And obviously, because the borders were closed, that never probably happened either. So New Zealand really didn’t get any of that part of the deal to any meaningful extent; I think anything that happened was over Zoom. So it didn’t, as is often the case with these deals, it looks good on paper, but it never really took off. It will be interesting to see when the series comes out to what extent New Zealand markets it as a film as a tourism kind of thing, because I mentioned New Zealand’s not keen to give it too much publicity, given the fact that other seasons will be made in the UK, but obviously, having spent so much money on subsidizing this thing, they will also I imagine want to make sure that that people know that it was filmed here.
PM: Very much of two minds — on one hand, this is the last opportunity for New Zealand to really be the only place that is Middle Earth, so to speak. But then on the other hand, you know, the the company has taken this series out of the country and future seasons are not going to be filmed in New Zealand. So, you know, how much effort to, to put behind it. And I did want to pick up on that tourism piece, because it was something that we were talking about earlier. And obviously, it’s very key to the relationship that New Zealand has had with the works of Tolkien over these two decades since the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, created by Peter Jackson. For two decades, as I said, New Zealand has styled itself as Middle Earth and tourism campaigns to bring in a certain kind of traveler interested in the series. Is there an idea of how well this actually worked — the benefit of having that association? And what does it mean now that the UK and potentially other countries will be able to make that same claim?
TC: I think there will always be an affection for New Zealand as the Lord of the Rings. New Zealand has done it very effectively; tourism has always been quite big for New Zealand, and the government’s very good at marketing a country in that way. The charm of the original trilogy is how much of its practical effects and how much of it is just real, beautiful locations, they often like splice two locations together in the camera. But digitally is not the camera. But when you visit New Zealand, there are some locations that are recognizably very much from the films. And there are other locations where there’s kind of a vibe, if you like, like it feels like the films that you go to Rivendale it’s about an hour from where I live. And it’s not recognizably Rivendale, because so much of that was taking about four or five locations and putting them together, you don’t step out of your car and think, oh my god, I’m here. But you do feel like you’re in an otherworldly kind of place. Because that’s just what this country looks like. It’s a very beautiful place to visit.
And I think, as the series went on, The Hobbit films, for instance, but also made here, but they’re so digitally [produced]. Filmmaking now is just so heavily computer assisted, that if you just don’t watch the films and recognize your country, and I just don’t think that people come here and think: Oh, I’m going to see this part of The Hobbit, Because you watch The Hobbit, and you just know that you’re not looking at anywhere that’s really real. Having watched the trailer for the Amazon series, it’s looks great. It looks incredible. But you don’t look at that trailer and think: Oh, wow, that’s my country. Because just frankly, it doesn’t look like my country, and it doesn’t look like anyone’s country. I just think when they film it in the UK, I’m not sure that people will watch the series and think: Wow, this looks like England. Although I could be wrong — Game of Thrones has been big for Croatia and Northern Ireland. And there’s quite a lot of CG in that TV show.
But other things like I think quite Kennelly, the person who owns The Hobbit, where they filmed Hobbiton. It’s part of the deal for reusing that location. When they made The Hobbit films, they asked for the filmmakers to leave the set intact, and so you can actually go to Hobbiton now and its film set has been completely left there. So it’s beautiful. It’s actually like going to the film and living in the film. And so things like that, I think New Zealand has an advantage in because whatever Amazon does with the series, and I’m sure it will be very cool, I just don’t think you can break that connection with the first trilogy, which is just so strong. It’s possibly just me, but I don’t think whatever the series does, I don’t think you’ll either kind of top that affection, particularly for a place like Hobbiton. You go there and if you like the Lord of the Rings, and a lot of people love it or the rings, you’d go there and you just feel like you’re in the film. And I think Amazon and the UK would have to work quite hard to kind of recreate that.
PM: I think that makes a lot of sense. And you certainly do get that feeling when you visit the Hobbiton set down there. And when I was last in New Zealand in 2019, just before the pandemic, I feel like even then when you saw the promotions for tourists and visiting sites that were used for filming in Middle Earth or so to speak, that they were mainly about sites where the Lord of the Rings was filmed not so much where The Hobbit was filmed, because so much of that happened on the soundstages. And I think also because there’s less of a connection that people feel toward that series than the original one for many of the reasons that you’re citing there.
TC: Bluntly, The Hobbit series wasn’t as good. And the locations were just too digitally altered. You know the get off the road scene, that famous scene? That’s in the middle of Wellington, the capital, that used to actually be on my walk to work, I’ve walked to work through that hilltop, and you can go there now, totally just unchanged, right like that the actual tree was a fake tree. But everything around it is just totally the same. And it’s incredible, you go there, and you get this eerie feeling that the black, the Ringwraith is just going to come riding along that that road. And if you love the films, or the books, to be able to go to that location to feel that feeling is awesome. It’s cool. And locations like that just yet you can’t kind of the series will have to be pretty good to have scenes like that, that are just so iconic, that are so evocative and that are so tied to a particular location. Genuinely, I think that location in particular, plus Hobbiton, I guess, is if you’re into Lord of the Rings kind of worth the trip. Some people are so into Lord of the Rings, they will travel from Europe, which is as far away from New Zealand as you can get back, it’s so far away that you can fly via the US or you can fly Fly via Asia. And it takes basically the same time to get here from Europe. Doesn’t matter which way around the world you travel. And people will fly all that distance just to see these locations, and it costs so much money. And it’s takes so much time. But some people think it’s worth it, so good for them.
PM: No, I think it’s a completely fair point. I see a couple final questions to wrap up our conversation. You were talking about how there is this really generous film subsidy in New Zealand. And for Amazon to get this series started, it needed to spend a lot of money for that first season to build the world that it was going that this was going to take place in a lot of the props, the sets, all these sorts of things. So it costs extra money to put that first season together. Is there a feeling that Amazon, a company whose annual revenue is something like double New Zealand’s GDP, really took advantage of New Zealand and the film subsidy, and then left to go somewhere else for future seasons?
TC: Yes, there was a very strong sense of betrayal. Because the government went to the election in 2020, promising like $130 million dental policy for dental care. Dental care is not covered on the public health system in New Zealand. And Amazon clicked its fingers and got $160 million dollar subsidy just like that. And dental care here in New Zealand for poor people is horrific. And the richest company in the world owned by at points in 2020, Jeff Bezos was the richest person in the world, clicked on his fingers and got and got their money basically no questions asked. People were sickened by the ease at which the government opened the checkbook for this production. And yes, the fact that it left didn’t sit well, particularly. People don’t think about these things too deeply. But there were questions raised about the extent to which a lot of the IP for the series has been developed on the back of the New Zealand taxpayer. And then they get to take that IP and, and use it somewhere else. That’s not right. There’s bad blood. So yes, I think the answer to your question was yes.
PM: No, it makes perfect sense. And we’ve been talking about this kind of long relationship that New Zealand has had with Middle Earth and being associated with Middle Earth now for two decades. And also how there have been questions as to whether maybe New Zealand has been relying on this a bit too much, or in some of the things I was reading, in preparing for this, people suggesting that: Should New Zealand really be tying itself to this property, as you were saying that was developed in the UK, rather than something that’s inherently domestic? Does disassociating from Tolkien at this point, does the series moving to a different country also grant New Zealand an opportunity to do something else or kind of reimagine its national identity in a sense?
TC: So we’re 20 years on from Lord of the Rings. I think the Final Return of the King was 2003. So next year will be 20 years since New Zealand said goodbye to Lord of the Rings. Slowly, I think that the majority of people have moved from a sense of great pride in the films to kind of being a wee bit — embarrassed possibly over does it — frustrated that in the 20 years since the Lord of the Rings, the film industry hasn’t kind of come up with something else to kind of associate with the country, or people. And perhaps as well, I think the feeling is possibly directed offshore, that there’s a frustration that people offshore, just kind of think of New Zealand as the Lord of the Rings, then write us off, when really there’s so much more of this country and like 5 million people live here. We’ve got a great literary culture; we write books every year, hundreds of books about New Zealand; one New Zealand book won the Booker Prize nearly a decade ago, and that association happened, and then it didn’t happen. And I don’t think anyone around the world associates New Zealand with that book, in the way that they do with Lord of the Rings. So I think a lot of people in New Zealand, there’s still a sense of great pride. They’re great films, and they were made by New Zealanders. And that’s great. But I think people would love the opportunity to associate the country with something as well as Lord of the Rings. I don’t think I don’t think there’s a an appetite to kind of sever that relationship. And I think I think people would be quite upset if if that relationship actually disappeared. I think people would love the Lord of the Rings relationship to go on forever. But I think people would welcome the opportunities to add another string to the bow as it were — another kind of cultural something to kind of come up. I mean, we’ve had Lorde — she’s great, and people now associate us with her. So that’s a positive. But I think people would welcome the opportunity for something alongside Lord of the Rings!
PM: Lorde is is great as well! This has been a really great conversation. Thomas, I want to end with, I guess, a lighter question. And maybe you already got a hint at this when you were talking about the Hobbit and the series and things like that. When it comes to the series that Amazon is releasing is it something that you’re interested in? Is it something that you’ll be watching?
TC: Oh, definitely. I was a kid when they were making the Lord of the Rings, and they were making it in the city where I lived, primarily. So I loved it; I was so into it. I camped out for all the red carpet premieres. They had the world premiere in Wellington, which was, Wellington never had the world premiere for a blockbuster film. So I’m totally into the end of the series. I think it’s great. I didn’t like The Hobbit so much. Actually, I thought it got the tone wrong, I think. But I saw the trailer for the Amazons series the other day, I thought it looked really cool. So I’ll be watching it.
PM: Completely fair! And I’ll say as well, I was young when the Lord of the Rings first came out, also very into it, didn’t like The Hobbit so much. And as you were saying earlier, I was skeptical on the Amazon series, and we’ll still see what’s going to happen with it. But I feel like the most recent trailer made me feel maybe it won’t be as bad as The Hobbit.
TC: The trailer looked like they got the tone right. I don’t know why Peter Jackson — I do not know what he was thinking with the Hobbit and hills. Something was going on there. But it didn’t didn’t quite land. But the last I’ve got the time, right. So that’s, that’s good. I’m excited for it. Like as a piece of filmmaking, I think it looks really good. I think the New Zealand film industry, I mean, a lot of the reporting in New Zealand focuses on like the ugly side of it, which is the labor laws and subsidies and stuff. But I feel really bad for the film industry, because it’s internationally, the only way to compete in making movies is through subsidizing them. Every country in the world that has a film industry has some subsidy regime. And it’s kind of annoying, I imagine for the for the industry to be to know that the only way that it can exist is through subsidies when I’m sure it actually probably like to stand on its own two feet, but it can’t because none of these productions would come here without the subsidy regime, and must be frustrating for them that they’re dependent on the subsidy regime simply because if the New Zealand government didn’t subsidize films, they would all go offshore. And it must be frustrating for them that films aren’t attracted here purely because of the talent that we offer. And I think New Zealand’s film industry is incredibly talented. It is about tax deals, which is a shame. I think it’s a sad thing for the film industry globally, that it really is a race to the bottom in terms of the subsidies. It’s not about artistry or talent, which it really should be.
PM: It’s a sad state of the world that that is really what determines where film production goes and how things happen. And I’ll be crossing my fingers that this series is good as well and just try to put aside while I’m watching it, the company that is actually behind it, and looking forward to seeing some great New Zealand scenery while I’m watching as well. Thomas, it’s been great to speak with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.
TC: No worries. Thanks for having me on.