With "The Hobbit" franchise ending in 2014 and "The Lord of the Rings" movies but a distant memory, New Zealand has tethered itself to yet another mythical world in "Avatar" in hopes of keeping both its tourism and entertainment industries soaring to all-time highs.
Director James Cameron joined New Zealand Prime Minister John Key in the capital of Wellington Monday to share the news that not two but three "Avatar" sequels would be shot in the South Pacific island nation in the coming years. The first of the highly anticipated films has a tentative release date of Christmas 2016, with the follow-ups rolling out in theaters around the world through 2018.
Most live-action shots in the original 2009 “Avatar” blockbuster were captured in the fantasy-like wilds of New Zealand’s North and South Islands, while Wellington’s WETA Digital handled much of the visual effects. Released in 2009, the film won three Academy Awards and remains the highest-grossing movie in history, with an international box office record of some $2.8 billion.
It is with these numbers in mind that one begins to understand why the New Zealand government offered Lightstorm Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox a whopping 25 percent rebate, up from 15 percent, to keep the franchise on Kiwi soil. The filmmakers agreed in return to invest a minimum of NZ$500 million ($413 million US) during production. Cameron said that without such an agreement, he would’ve been forced to produce the films elsewhere.
"It's quite a thrill to be officially saying that we're bringing the 'Avatar' films to New Zealand," Cameron gushed at a news conference in Wellington. "We had such a wonderful experience here making the first film."
Several nations vied for the "Avatar" franchise, offering various incentives to ink the deal. Yet, New Zealand was always seen the favorite. With its soaring alpine peaks, fern-filled rainforests and glittering glacial lakes, the Pacific nation has carved a niche in the fantasy market, staging everything from “10,000 B.C.” to “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”
It was Peter Jackson’s "Lord of the Rings" trilogy that launched what is now a multibillion-dollar film and television industry based out of Wellington. Government figures put the industry’s economic value at nearly $3.3 billion, though a higher New Zealand dollar has pushed costs up and films out in recent years.
The subsequent "Hobbit" franchise, whose second film topped the U.S. box office this weekend, created roughly 5,500 jobs in this nation of just 4.4 million people, while nearly a tenth of all tourists to New Zealand this past year cited the movies as one of their main reasons for visiting, according to government figures.
New Zealand Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce said Monday that the "Avatar" sequels would provide hundreds of jobs and thousands of hours of work directly in the screen sector and across the economy. “They will be a very big boost to the screen industry while we look to develop more New Zealand-sourced productions.”
The government said in a separate announcement Monday that it was boosting incentives for both overseas and New Zealand productions to encourage more film and TV and develop a more sustainable film industry. It raised the baseline rebate from 15 percent to 20 percent, with an additional 5 percent for productions like "Avatar" with specific benefits to New Zealand.
One obvious benefit New Zealand anticipates is tourism. In return for its hefty investment in "Avatar," the government made several requests to ensure that the blue-skinned Na’vi people are as closely tied to brand New Zealand as their hobbit predecessors.
Similar to the deal with Warner Bros. for "The Hobbit," New Zealand will host at least one official red-carpet "Avatar" premiere, while each DVD and Blu-ray Disc will include a featurette on New Zealand as a tourist destination. The filmmakers will also promote New Zealand and its film industry alongside each film to ensure that the franchise “will be of substantial benefit to New Zealand economically and culturally.”
The year before the first "Lord of the Rings" film came out and thrust a mythical vision of the islands in front of a global audience, New Zealand received just 1.7 million visitors. Six years later in 2006, that number had surged 40 percent to 2.4 million.
Numbers have remained steady at about 2.5 million ever since, thanks to heavy marketing around "The Hobbit" trilogy. But the government hopes its tourism industry, which accounts for 9 percent of the GDP, can ride a new high on the wings of “Avatar.”