The Future of Film in Queenstown Lakes

I’m one of those people who stays in the cinema long after the lights come on and people start trickling out. The popcorn is gone and the story seems to have ended - only it hasn’t, really.
Watching the credits is one of the most important parts of watching a film. As I see those names scroll up the screen—literally hundreds,…

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I’m one of those people who stays in the cinema long after the lights come on and people start trickling out. The popcorn is gone and the story seems to have ended - only it hasn’t, really.

Watching the credits is one of the most important parts of watching a film. As I see those names scroll up the screen—literally hundreds, if it’s a major blockbuster—I think about how each of those names represents a job. Hundreds of names, hundreds of jobs. As an extra treat, I like to stay right until the very end of the credits, which is when the logo of the local film office or film commission is normally displayed, showing where the film was made.

Thinking about jobs created by the film industry is, in a nutshell, my job. I manage Film Queenstown Lakes, which is the official film office for the Queenstown Lakes District. We’re one of 300+ film offices/film commissions located all over the world, from Alabama to Zagreb. We sit in a unique space between the film industry and government, helping to facilitate, promote, and develop our local screen industries. 

The film industry in Queenstown Lakes represents the third most active physical production hub in the country, following Auckland and Wellington. On a good year, the screen industry can bring $35 million into the district. While this could seem surprising to some – seeing as we’re not an urban centre like the first two – it’s not surprising to anyone who’s spent time here. Our stunning landscapes are obviously ready-made for the screen, playing a starring role themselves. But it’s not only that. We’ve also got world-class film crew and film businesses who call Queenstown Lakes home, boasting decades of experience working on international productions. Supporting businesses like helicopter companies, sign-makers and hoteliers are also no strangers to working with film productions. From the earlier days of VERTICAL LIMIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS, to TOP OF THE LAKE and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, to the more recent fantastic local TV shows like ONE LANE BRIDGE and UNDER THE VINES – Queenstown’s filmography is impressive, and most locals have rubbed shoulders with the industry in one way or another over the years.

I first started working for the film office in 2018, fresh to Queenstown following two years in London working in international events for the broadcasting, advertising and entertainment industries. One of the first things I learned about the film industry when I arrived in Queenstown was that, while most people’s minds jump to Middle-earth when they think of South Island film, it was actually advertising that had held the industry up over the last two decades. Over the years, Queenstown had become known as a hotspot for big-budget TV commercials, and that’s where many of our local crew had developed their skills and reputation for being able to get the job done in our unique outdoor locations.

But the advertising industry was changing. I already knew this from my time in London – the job I’d left behind was working for Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the glitzy awards show and conference for creatives in the advertising industry. Much of the chatter and keynotes at the 2017 festival I’d worked at in Cannes were about how the days of the big-budget blockbuster TV commercial were behind us. The rise of streaming, influencer marketing and ad-blockers was putting a stop to that. So, what was next?

This shift could have spelled doomsday for the industry in Queenstown. But as with any change—like the unpredictable outdoor environments our crews work in—the answer was to adapt. The big brands and advertising agencies standing on stage at Cannes Lions that year were talking about the rise of branded storytelling, clever social media advertising, and the importance of a brand’s role as a culture creator, not just a peddler. Meanwhile, there were locals down here in Wānaka who were already doing just that. It wasn’t surprising for me to meet people like Tim Pierce and Toby Crawford from The Beards (previously Two Bearded Men) in Wānaka, who were already working in the branded storytelling space and making a name for themselves. Or people like Nick Stevenson and the team at Hunt Cinema, who found success creating branded stories for a market integral to the Queenstown Lakes identity – mountain biking and outdoor sports. This was the new world of advertising in action, right here in Queenstown Lakes. 

Five and a half years later, the industry looks different and the same all at once. More innovative content creation and video production houses have popped up around the district, churning out awesome work. But the big commercials haven’t completely died, either. We’ve still had a few great ones roll into the wider region – like the Lloyds Bank commercial featuring beautiful horses running across a Dunedin beach, the KitKat ad depicting Central Otago landscapes as the Wild West, the Subway spot that sailed a boat shaped like a giant sandwich on Lake Whakatipu, and the very Kiwi Toyota Hilux commercial that filmed on Queenstown Hill.

We also get the occasional blockbuster that gets the town talking. From Tom Cruise flying helicopters in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT, to Jane Campion and team transforming our rugged landscapes into Montana for THE POWER OF THE DOG, we still roll out the red carpet for Hollywood when it comes knocking.  

But alongside all that, we’ve also started to see more New Zealand stories being made here, particularly multi-season episodic TV. The first season of Kiwi supernatural crime-drama ONE LANE BRIDGE started filming in Queenstown in 2019. Created by Queenstown local and then CEO of Great Southern Television, Phil Smith, alongside writer Pip Hall, the show ended up filming three seasons in the district. Quite uniquely, it featured Queenstown playing the role of Queenstown, rather than a fantasy world or a stand-in for a different country.

Not long after came UNDER THE VINES, the charming comedy-drama created by Erin White, starring Rebecca Gibney and set in beautiful New Zealand wine country. UNDER THE VINES wrapped its third season filming in Queenstown and Central Otago just at the end of 2023, and a dedicated audience will be eagerly awaiting its air date to see what’s next for the loveable cast of characters.

ONE LANE BRIDGE and UNDER THE VINES represent a shift into something interesting happening here. What if we could be telling even more local stories? What if more local filmmakers and storytellers could be making their own original content, here at home in Queenstown Lakes? What if the film industry could be seen as a contributor to our local arts and culture, just as much as it’s seen as a contributor to our local economy?

Of course, Queenstown Lakes will always be a hotspot for international film productions that come here to film in our beautiful locations with our fantastic local crew, and we’ll continue to welcome them. International productions inject money into our local economy through purchasing accommodation, transport, goods and services. They create jobs for local crew (remember all those names in the rolling credits) and provide invaluable learning opportunities for crew to upskill and for newcomers to learn the ropes. They also have cultural value. They connect our world with others, showcase our landscapes on a global stage, and provide entertainment for thousands.

But the ideal vision for the future of our film industry is one where international production sits alongside a healthy homegrown filmmaking community. Where local writers, directors, showrunners, creative directors, documentary-makers and more have opportunities to create their stories here at home in the mountains - from developing the concept all the way through to screening the final product at one of our fantastic local cinemas. 

That vision feels like it’s on the horizon. The film office supported a number of programmes in 2023 focused on screenwriting and filmmaking with partners like the Queenstown Writers Festival, Script to Screen and Ladies Behind the Lens, and the talent on display in those rooms felt like something special. We’ve also supported a screenwriters retreat in partnership with Great Southern Television for two years that brings writers from across the country to Queenstown to research and create original stories set here.

Short films are also proving to be a playground, classroom and showcase for local filmmaking talent, like Elinor Teele’s locally-made PULLING UP STUMPS and Joe Murdie’s impending PLANET 13, which he and his team have just completed a successful crowdfunding campaign for. In February, we’ll see the first instalment of Little Cinema Queenstown take place, a new short film event screening local short films. And Film Otago Southland, our regional film organisation, is getting set to launch Southern Pilots, a new screen development programme for southern stories, in partnership with Script to Screen. It’s feeling like we’re becoming more of a hub for storytelling and creativity, and the possibilities are exciting.

I know I’m not the only one who stays in the cinema after the lights brighten and the popcorn is gone. And I know that soon, there’ll be even more of us who do it. We’ll watch the names scroll across the screen, because we’ll know so many of them. From the creatives to the cast to the crew to the film office, we’ll see names of our friends and whānau, neighbours and adventure-buddies, students and mentors. There’s already so much to celebrate about our local film industry, but it feels like there’s even more coming soon. Stay tuned.

Kahli Scott

Kahli Scott has over 10 years of experience supporting the creative industries in management, strategy, administration and content roles. With a genuine passion for how arts, entertainment and creative industries can contribute to community and economic well-being, Kahli is currently managing the regional film office for New Zealand's beautiful lower South Island.