New Zealand’s Hot Doc Makers

Small budgets and tight production schedules are a fact of life for factual producers in New Zealand, but that doesn't change one essential fact - it's a pretty good time to be making docs in the land of the kiwi....
December 1, 1999

Small budgets and tight production schedules are a fact of life for factual producers in New Zealand, but that doesn’t change one essential fact – it’s a pretty good time to be making docs in the land of the kiwi.

New Zealand broadcasters and viewers have embraced docs as a viable primetime strand. Two channels in particular, pubcaster TVNZ’s TV1 and commercial broadcaster TV3, have regularly scheduled documentary slots in their respective primetime lineups, and regularly air docusoaps, reality series and other non-fiction lifestyle programming.

On the downside, budgetary and editorial restrictions imposed by New Zealand On Air (NZOA – the government agency that funds domestic doc-makers), not to mention broadcasters’ thirst for ratings-friendly subject matter, make some producers feel as if their creativity is held in check in their homeland.

Documentaries greenlighted by either TV1 or TV3 are partially funded by NZOA, provided producers offer significant New Zealand content or address local concerns.

The grass is always greener…

While some production companies thrive making programs for local audiences, some NZ filmmakers (much like some of their counterparts in countries like Canada) prefer to bypass the broadcasters at home. The international coproduction route offers both access to markets around the world and freedom from local restrictions.

Working with Kiwis holds a certain appeal for international partners, as well. As a matter of necessity, doc-makers in New Zealand have learned to do more with less – and do it fast. Budgets for half-hour docs average around NZ$30,000/$50,000 (US$15,300/$25,500); one-hour docs are about NZ$100,000-$150,000 (US$50,100/$76,500). These budgets result in short production times – about three weeks of shooting and editing.

Demand for series tends to dominate over one-offs. ‘There’s no profit to be made in a one-off documentary, unfortunately,’ says John Harris, managing director of Auckland-based Greenstone Pictures. ‘We do them [only] for professional pride and satisfaction.’

Typical NZ-based docs tend to be light and entertaining, observational, people-based stories, as opposed to nature or investigative BBC-style docs. Time and budget constraints tend to limit their scope. ‘A lot of doc makers are capable of making [investigative docs], but they may be frustrated because they can’t shoot a documentary over a long period of time,’ says Jude Callen, development producer for Auckland’s Screentime.

Those New Zealand documentary filmmakers who want to create larger works seek overseas financing and markets. ‘The kind of niche programming I do fits in far more easily with many networks around the world than here,’ says James Heyward, who runs Queenstown-based Making Movies. ‘And the budgets I am able to attract vastly exceed anything I could hope to get in New Zealand.’

Because most docs produced locally are rich in New Zealand content, their international sales are limited. As a result, some producers are attempting to sell program concepts, rather than programs themselves, on the international market.

The following is a look at how three up-and-coming New Zealand-based prodcos – Queenstown-based Making Movies; Greenstone Pictures and Screentime of Auckland – are dealing with the various challenges of trying to sell at home and abroad.

Greenstone Pictures

Five-year-old Auckland-based Greenstone Pictures produces docusoaps, reality series and one-off documentaries. Although the prodco has primarily focused on the New Zealand market, this year managing director John Harris began seeking overseas partners.

In 1999, Greenstone produced six one-hour docs, and seven series (7-13 episodes each) in the reality and docusoap genres. In 2000, the prodco will produce more than ten series, and an additional six documentaries. ‘We’ve got to do a wide range of programs to survive, so we range from blue-chip docs to lightweight entertainment.’

Among the series to air on TV1/TV2 are Ship Wreck (7 x 30-minutes, budgeted at NZ$700,000/US$361,900); a second season of The Zoo (10 x 30-minutes; NZ$50,000/US$25,850 per episode), following the lives of animals and zookeepers; Epitaph (13 x 30-minutes; NZ$1.3 million/US$672,100), in which a presenter finds unusual gravestone inscriptions and tracks down the story behind them; and Love Thy Neighbour (7 x 30-minutes; NZ$50,000/US$25,850), in which people discuss real-life neighbors from hell. Epitaph has been optioned by a U.S. production company.

One-offs have included Back From the Dead -The Saga of the Rose Noelle (named best doc at the 1997 NZTV awards), a perilous sea survival story which has sold to Discovery.

While Harris has formed initial copro relationships with Australian companies, he admits that breaking into the U.S. market intrigues him the most. ‘We make damn fine programs at a moderate cost,’ he says. ‘We’re based in the Pacific where there are exotic subjects and beautiful pictures to be had. We want broadcasters to give us a call.’

Making Movies

James Heyward, founder of Making Movies, focuses his attention internationally. ‘At the moment, documentaries for New Zealand television are selected for what the channels need for good ratings, not for what New Zealanders need for good television.’

The Queenstown-based company was originally set up 12 years ago as a service business for the various film and commercial-makers who come to Queenstown to shoot. He now makes two to four docs a year.

The prodco’s speciality is outdoor adventure, or ‘blood and guts,’ as Heyward puts it. In November he started shooting The Longest Day with National Geographic Channels, about a group of athletes competing in the Southern Traverse (an Eco-Challenge-like competition). Budgeted at US$155,000, the 52 minute one-off is set to deliver in April 2000. Other projects slated for 2000 are the expedition doc Tibet 2000 and White Nile: the Final Challenge (with Nat Geo on board), which will begin filming in the spring.

Making Movies recently re-cut and sold Risk: Yelling in the Face of Life, a 52-minute copro with Sydney-based Orana Films, Melbourne-based D Network and NZOA. ABC Australia and Discovery’s Travel Channel in the U.S. have both picked up the film.

Like others trying to crack the U.S. market, Heyward feels frustrated by the labyrinth of bureaucracy he must sort through to find proper commissioning executives. Furthermore, because of New Zealand’s geographic location, he feels it’s important that partners understand the importance of swift communications. ‘I can tell within 48 hours whether it will be a successful and mutually beneficial relationship . . . based on how long it takes to communicate.’


One of the new kids on the block, two-year-old Screentime currently focuses on lifestyle programming. The Auckland-based production company produces a half-hour weekday lifestyle series called 5:30 with Jude (NZ$20,000/US$10,300), which airs on TV1, as well as a travel program, Wish You Were Here (NZ$50,000/US$25,700 per episode), a 13 x 30-minute series currently airing on TV2.

In addition to lifestyle shows, Screentime has produced four one-hour documentaries in 1999, and hopes to equal that amount in 2000. Currently in pre-production for 2000 is Late Arrivals, a one-hour doc looking at the phenomenon of couples who choose to have children later in life. Docs remain a labor of love rather than a source of profit, according to Jude Callen, Screentime’s development producer.

Screentime hasn’t brought any of its programs to the international market yet. Callen believes it would be hard to sell them abroad because the regionality of the subject matter wouldn’t resonate with overseas audiences. She does not rule out sales in the future, particularly if the company partners with an international producer, which she is investigating.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.