Cultural Policy Analysis:
New Zealand Film Policy

New Zealand has a long history of film development and cultural policy implementation. Notably, the New Zealand film sector is subject to simultaneously imposed political and economic objectives. Therefore, the purpose of this report is to examine the reasons for the cultural policy implementation in film production, as well as its consequences. The report focuses on the macro operations of the New Zealand Film Commission and its film production incentives, after the newly-elected the Labour government introduced a difference course of action for the cultural sector. The report provides the political-historical context that has led to the establishment of current film policy to understand the motivations of policy-makers and their intended goals. Further, the policy goals are evaluated to assess their efficacy and attainability. Finally, the social, cultural and economic impacts of the policy will be critically assessed to determine whether the measures implemented were successful and how sustainable it is.  

Politico-Historical Context

Policy is a combination of government’s direct or indirect actions, that aim to deal with the state’s assorted issues (Anderson, 1975; Peters, 1996). Every policy has an element of intentionality, as in their actions governments seek to achieve certain pre-determined goals. Cultural policy, therefore, refers to the state’s strategies that aid production, distribution, dissipation and consumption of various art forms (Mulcahy, 2006). However, the governments have been continuously questioned whether the perceived inherent value of arts justifies tax expenditure, while other public sectors must prove their financial contribution to nation’s welfare (Craik, 2005). Similarly, voters prefer to choose parties that are more accountable and place their emphasis on efficacy of tax revenue allocation (Craik, 2005). Thus, a new approach towards has emerged, where aesthetic outputs were no longer perceived as good-in-themselves, and the cultural entities are judged by their ability to satisfy community’s socio-economic needs (Mulcahy, 2006).

 In New Zealand, the cultural policy change was driven after the election of the fifth Labour Government in 1999. For the first time the state has been strongly supportive of the arts, aiming to address ongoing socio-economic challenges with cultural policy adjustment. As such, New Zealand has been facing a cultural and economic threat from the expediting pace of globalisation (Skilling, 2005). Globalisation is a process of increased international capital movements and emergence of global markets, which lead to greater cross-border trade and cultural exchanges (Craik, McAllister & Davis, 2003). The newly-elected prime minister Helen Clark has hence remarked that New Zealand was “surrounded by the images and perceptions of others”, and was in danger of becoming “a suburb of Los Angeles, London or Sydney” (Skilling, 2010, p.182). Moreover, globalisation has increased the immigration velocity, meaning that New Zealand’s population was becoming more diverse. Consequently, various cultural influences diluted the sense of the national identity, which was initially fragile due to the country’s colonial history. New Zealand was referred to as a “hollow society” (Jesson, 1999, p. 205).  Culture was then treated as a medium to affect how communities perceive themselves by constructing shared values and rules, that unify the nation (Mulcahy, 2006). Subsequently, an issue of national identity was placed in the heart of the policy (Skilling, 2010).

 Moreover, developing a strong national identity would project into a better reputation for the whole New Zealand. This transcends the issue of social wellbeing and aims to design a ‘brand’ that would convey a consistent and positive message to various global spectators (Skilling, 2005). Clark has stated that the global perception of New Zealand was outdated, and that there was too little awareness of the nation (Skilling, 2010). Consequently, the Labour ‘s new cultural policy has also aimed to establish an image of the country as innovative and creative. In this respect, globalisation presented an opportunity to sell local goods and assets to the foreign markets, while simultaneously stimulating domestic employment growth and upskilling. The spill-over effects would also include increased tourism and greater foreign investment into the knowledge sector, subsequently increasing New Zealand’s economic competitiveness. Thus, the macro cultural agenda of the Labour policy was framed so that to contribute to the nation’s financial goals (Skilling, 2010).


New Zealand Film Commission

As the new cultural policy sought to unite economic and social goals, it has directly affected all cultural sectors. New objectives and performance expectations were established, particularly in film. Namely, The New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) is a key government-appointed agency responsible for developing the film sector. Initially founded as a welfare organisation, it treated film as a merit good, where funding decisions were not directed to elicit financial returns (King, 2010). Subsequently, the Commission used to fund a wide variety of genres and subjects (King, 2010). However, the new policy has tasked NZFC with economic and nationhood building activities, which has ultimately changed its operation goals and funding criteria. As a result, NZFC mission statement in 2000 was “to contribute to the creation of cultural capital in New Zealand through audience-targeted feature films within a sustainable screen industry” (Conor, 2004, p. 74). Yet the cultural imperative was combined with a more market-focused objective after The Screen Production Industry Taskforce reviewed the industry. It has regarded screen production an economic force, capable of taking New Zealand back top half of the OECD rankings. Subsequently, NZFC’s main objectives now include the following: increasing economic activity, attracting larger domestic and international audiences, nurturing talent and producing more culturally significant films (Conor, 2004; Jackson & Court, 2010; NZFC, 2012).

As such, The Screen Production Industry Taskforce report has argued that New Zealand culture is “a worldwide saleable commodity” (Screen Production Industry Taskforce, 2003, p. 12). This statement effectively pairs agendas of a market-oriented funding approach and national identity building. For NZFC it meant that funding applications could no longer be judged simply by the artistic merit of the film. For example, in 2003 and 2008 the of the Large Budget Screen Production Grant (LBGS) and the Screen Production Incentive Fund (SPIF) have been respectively set up to encourage international and local production (King, 2010). Both were simultaneously financially and culturally driven, with a focus on building New Zealand brand and identity, development of better-skilled workforces, and increasing films’ gross revenue. This has signified the film policy’s pivot towards the ‘third-way’ rhetoric -  a hybrid model, where film sector policy became a part of the state’s broader economic agenda. NZFC was hence expected to deliver the ‘best of both worlds’ in terms of financial and social benefits (Skilling, 2010).


Economic Performance

To an extent, the new cultural policy has experienced success. At present, the film industry is among the highest in productivity and wage, being a major contributor to the nation’s GDP (PWC, 2014). In the beginning of 2000s production of Lord of The Rings trilogy and its financial success has greatly stimulated the favourable view of the industry and its potential (NZ Institute of Economic Research, 2002). In 2005, the New Zealand film industry has grossed $699 million (Statistics New Zealand, 2005).  In 2016, the total profit from the film industry has grown over $1 billion, indicating the continuous growth of the sector (Radio NZ, 2019). The data also shows that New Zealand’s film industry, particularly in production and post-production, is largely subsidised by overseas investors (Statistics New Zealand, 2005; Statistics New Zealand, 2016). Successes in this direction could be attributed to the LBGS and later the New Zealand Screen Production Grant (NZSPG) which have been purposefully set up to encourage international investment. The schemes have helped to attract many international productions to be shot in New Zealand, such as ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, ‘Avatar’, Pete’s Dragon’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (King, 2010; NZFC, 2017).

Furthermore, the economic ripple effects have also followed through increased employment, tourism expenditure and long-lasting improvements in perception of NZ as a production site (Clydesdale, 2015). In 2005, the sector accounted 3,331 film workers, while in 2014 the total has increased to 5,178 employees (PWC, 2014; Statistics New Zealand, 2006). Moreover, the industry has reported an upskilling trend for the local film contractors. Ultimately, the increased filming activity taught the industry producers how to manage more complex projects, while establishing strong networks of skilled workers and vendors (Conor, 2004).  Further, the release of the LOTR trilogy, harnessed NZD$33 million a year in increased tourism profits (NZ Institute of Economic Research, 2002).  Subsequently, later both LBGS and NZSPG sought to attract overseas projects to simultaneously build perceptions of New Zealand as a filmmaking location and a tourist destination. The initiatives perpetuated the effect, and in 2014 it was estimated that approximately 12% of tourist reported that mainly film motivated them to visit the country (PWC, 2014). For instance, the entire Hobbit trilogy increased tourism earnings, adding US$186 million in welfare gain (Li, Li, Song, Lundberg & Shen, 2017).

Social impacts

As the most emphasized cultural goal in the film policy, the weakness of national identity has been strongly battled by NZFC. The new film policy undertook a top-down perspective, where the government intended to build and convey a pre-defined vision of the country as an “innovative, vibrant and creative Pacific nation” (Skilling, 2005, p. 28). As a result, NZFC’s policy included a commitment to support national filmmaking and improve bicultural understanding by including Maori film-makers and their stories. Interestingly, material scenic imagery has been found to develop and support territorial identity, forming shared connections between people (Blunt, 2007). In New Zeeland this could be observed through films such as ‘The Piano’, ‘Whale Rider’, ‘River Queen’ and LOTR series. Consequently, a study of Pakeha and Maori living overseas, has found that images of local flora and fauna have invoked feelings of nostalgia and belonging in the members of both ethnicities, hence unifying them (Thornley, 2012). 

Moreover, as the Labour portrayed economic and cultural imperatives to be complementary, certain social goals of the policy have indeed translated into economic gain. For example, local indigenous Maori expressions through films, such as ‘Once Were Warriors’, ‘Whale Rider’ and ‘Boy’, have shown to gain both financial and critical success (Henry, 2012). For instance, ‘Boy’, a coming-of-age film about a Maori youth, became the second largest-grossing New Zealand movie, at $9,322,000 in box office earnings (NZFC, 2017). This film was only overshadowed by ‘Hunt for Wilderpeople’ at $12,181,582, which was acclaimed for its strong local focus, fostering a sense of community and interweaving Maori and Pakeha cultural influences (Flux, 2016). This illustrates that these films have successfully resonated with both local Pakeha and Maori population, uniting disparate ethnicities, while capturing international audiences (Henry, 2012). Finally, the employment in film of Maori has nearly doubled. Subsequently, the cultural policy encourages the industry to move away from being portrayed Maori as cultural tokens but allows the latter to produce own stories (Henry, 2012).

Nevertheless, juxtaposition of economic and cultural imperatives may limit the policy’s desired outcomes. First, there is a degree of contradiction in the conjunct goal of developing “world-class” films and building a sense of national identity (King, 2010, p. 2).  The former implies production of films that appeal to international tastes and habits. For instance, over the years Hollywood has developed content and aesthetic conventions that tantalise culturally diverse audiences. This restrains distinct cultural expressions, hence impeding ability to convey distinct community images (King, 2010). Consequently, NZFC has been placing a stronger emphasis on financial imperatives, rather than cultural, and promoting productions that appeal to overseas audiences. This is reflected in the monetary allocation of funds and the content supported by the Commission. For example, the LBGS was receiving $40 million a year, while the support for local filmmaking accounted at $10 million (Conor, 2004). Similarly, Director Duncan Petrie (2007) observed that, due to the financial pressures, the national cinema expresses the majority of cultural goals in the lower-budget funding initiatives. Otherwise, the content provided a very narrow representation of New Zealand. This has also raised the questions on the NZFC ability to break the industry’s dependence on state funding if local productions were under-supported in the first place (Conor, 2004).

Film Policy Issues 

Moreover, due to its limited finances and accountability pressures, NZFC seeks to mitigate financial uncertainty by promoting distinguished individuals (King, 2010). In many funding schemes, such as Boost Fund, New Zealand Screen Production Grant or Post-Production Fund, there are clauses stating that only producers and directors with a proven track record are eligible for support (NZFC, 2015a; NZFC, 2015b; NZFC, 2015c). Subsequently, the New Zealand feature film industry became more successful through continuous investment in a small group of creatives, such as Peter Jackson, Niki Caro, Christine Jeffs and Taika Waititi (Dunleavy, 2012). Yet, this jeopardises the core goals of freedom of expression and diversity acceptance. The Labour government envisioned New Zealand as a “land where diversity is valued and reflected in our national identity” (Maharey, 2003, par. 27). Nevertheless, given statement implies an equal opportunity for funding, where cultural and artistic expressions are not valued differently (Skilling, 2010). Yet, current support of an exclusive elite group of filmmakers only constraints cultural perspectives, as views of these individuals cannot be representative of the entire nation’s diversity (Dunleavy, 2012). For instance, Taika Waititi’s ‘Boy’ was criticised for stripping away culturally significant traits from its plot, although being positioned as a Maori film (Dunleavy, 2012).

 What is more, the concept of national identity precludes a notion of ‘sameness’. In Labour’s rhetoric ‘inclusive’ and ‘cohesive’ societies are equivalent terms (Skilling, 2005). Nevertheless, prosperous civil societies require a society-wide discourse, where marginalised groups can highlight social inequalities and question institutionalised assumptions (Stevenson, 2003). This is a bottom-up approach, where citizens learn from each other and negotiate their identity. In contrast, Labour focused on uniting citizens through “shared purpose, celebrates our history and defines our future successes” (Skilling, 2010, p. 182). Arguably, this is a top-down glorification strategy, which predominantly acknowledges positive historical circumstances and avoids cultural dialogue (Stevenson, 2003).  This leads to silencing, marginalisation and even stereotyping, where individuals with views divergent to the policy makers’ are excluded (Stevenson, 2003). This means that one’s cultural value is perceived by its ability to contribute to the country’s brand rather than one’s citizenship (Skilling, 2010). Notably, a study of Maori filmmakers has shown that their majority does not perceive government support as reliable. They felt as if they had to constantly justify their ethnicity by sharing specific indigenous content (Henry, 2012). Consequently, despite the increasing volume of Maori expression, NZFC had little success in facilitating critical reflection and identity negotiation in film (Skilling, 2010). This has also led to several stereotypes about New Zealand, where Maori culture is perceived as merely an indigenous token or simply a feature of All Blacks haka (Thornley, 2012).


Conduct Issues

Furthermore, the success of cultural policy could also be examined through strategies implemented to carry it out. In terms of operations, Labour assigned the NZFC not only a role of an investor but an executive producer as well. The Commission was expected to guide the project conduct and even alter film scripts (King, 2010). Nevertheless, the Commission’s conduct was frequently criticised. For instance, the Film Production Taskforce, which was assembled to assess the capabilities of NZ film industry, has argued that the Commission lacked people with the ‘film expertise’, while the bureaucratic nature of its operations was inefficient and lacked unaccountability (Conor, 2004). This has led to a number of poor funding decisions (Clydesdale, 2015). For example, the Commission was continuously investing in a production company 'Kahukura Productions, which was in debt and eventually shut down, devastating a large percentage of NZFC budget (Conor, 2004). Similarly, Peter Jackson has criticised NZFC’s funding of ‘Dean Spanley’, a drama set in England with majority English actors, which contradicts policy’s objectives of cultural development (Dunleavy, 2012). This indicates that member of NZFC did not have the necessary knowledge or the entrepreneurial skills to appropriately react to a fast-paced market challenges.

Additionally, in the review of NZFC Peter Jackson criticised the Commissions handling of talent development goals (Jackson & Court, 2010). Scholarship argues that governments are best to act as venture capitalists, where they build ‘winners’, avoiding unsuccessful attempts to pick them —a position with which Jackson strongly resonated with (Jackson & Court, 2010; Shane, 2008). Yet, NZFC has been focusing its talent-building efforts on picking successful producers. Jackson subsequently has argued that producers mainly manage the projects and merely employ people, such as directors, screenwriters and actors, whose talent is in the centre of the business.  As a result, NZFC would be better off to provide flexible support to creatives, instead of rigid schemes, in the form of workshops, tutorials and courses, as those are found to be better antecedents to creative project successes (Clydesdale, 2015; Jackson & Court, 2010). The review also has also described NZFC as an art’s patronage organisation, that is characterised by ‘us and them’ rhetoric, where the artists did not perceive to be valued. Through the years of disappointing performance on the behalf of the Commission’s, many professionals lost their respect and trust into organisation. Hence, it could be concluded that the Commissions mode of operation discourages creativity, thus declining the degree of potential quality production, which otherwise could translate into financial returns (Jackson & Court, 2010).

As such, contradictory policy goals and delinquent conduct could attribute to the Commission’s erratic financial performance. Prior 2005 the financial data for NZFC is unavailable, yet given statistics indicates the organisation performance has not been satisfactory to the policy’s objectives. For instance, in 2005 the domestic funding for screen production measured at 63% of total investment in the sector – a ratio which is higher than in Australia or Europe (Statistics New Zealand, 2005). Similarly, in 2006 the funding of the Commission sponsorship expenditure has increased by nearly $8 million, while the gross revenues from a feature and short films plummeted by $109 million (Statistics New Zealand, 2005). In 2010, the revenue declined again by approximately $200 million, compared to previous year (PWC, 2013). As the result, a present chief of South Pacific Pictures, has argued that lack of accountability, transparency, and erratic performance have led to an establishment of a state-dependent industry (Dunleavy, 2012). The rigid and highly bureaucratic structure could have also further stifled dissemination of knowledge, which could have enhanced its financial performance and improved the reputation among the filmmakers (Clydesdale, 2014).

A major attempt to address NZFC performance took place in 2014 when the New Zealand Screen Production Grant was introduced to substitute LBGS and SPIF. It was specifically designed to deliver more clarity to the film policy’s and better communicate cultural and business development objectives (Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, 2015). The review of the Grant has indeed shown that its implementation increased business confidence, attracted more investment and encouraged more New Zealand content (Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, 2015). However, New Zealand film industry may be in danger due to the increasing market competitiveness (PWC, 2013). Current cost advantages and NZFC incentives do not produce a substantial impact, as productions in Australia and Canada are respectively 20% and 8% cheaper. Therefore, current financial success may not be sustainable in the long-term. The situation is further aggravated with a high likelihood of skilled labour migration if there is a lack of international projects. Currently, New Zealand domestic film market is too small to sustain all industry workers. As the result, PWC recommended NZFC to either further increase the cost incentives or focus primarily on developing local production (PWC, 2013). The economic analysis therefore also illustrates the long-term incompatibility of financial and cultural imperatives. Additionally, the options offered by PWC raise the questions whether film as an art medium is worth investment as a facilitator of economic growth, and whether financial or socio-cultural objectives should take prevalence for policy-makers (Skilling, 2005).


The New Zealand cultural policy is strongly subjugated by the political context that seeks to promote economic and socio-cultural wellbeing of the nation. Consequently, the policy objectives of NZFC have been equivalent to imperatives in economic, welfare and indigenous policy. The approach managed to deliver certain satisfactory results. Investment in the sector has increased gross film revenue, employment and tourism activity. Similarly, cultural successes involved building a stronger sense of national belonging through repeated imagery of New Zealand landscape and growth of Maori cultural expression. Nevertheless, the emphasis on national branding through content funding restraints has stripped citizens of their ability to negotiate identities, limiting cultural expressions. Moreover, lack of accountability, transparency and film-making expertise among NZFC staff has led to dubious funding decisions, contributing to the sector’s erratic financial performance. Therefore, this report has shown that many factors contribute to cultural policy’s success, but given the broadness of NZFC goals and increasing market competitiveness, the positive results are not likely to sustain. NZFC would be better off to focus either on cultural or economic directions. Arguably, this is a more fruitful approach, as cultural objectives would no longer be constrained by finance, or financial goals would no longer be limited by social agenda, which could leave more space for creativity, flexibility and innovation.

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