An underperforming taxpayer subsidised industry

Getting diverted again on Saturday, because of yet another road closure to assist the film industry, reminded me that I had been intending to write briefly about the screen industry data Statistics New Zealand released last week.

Perhaps I missed the coverage in the local papers, but the only media story I’ve seen on these data was in the Wall Street Journal, in a story headed “With no hobbits, New Zealand movie industry is hobbled”. The author quotes a US industry figure observing that “New Zealand is a global hub for filmmaking with an exceptional reputation”. Perhaps, but the numbers don’t seem to be moving in the right direction.

Gross revenue of screen industry businesses was $3221 million last year, slightly up for the year, but still 2 per cent lower (in nominal terms) than in 2012.

Gross revenue from production and post-production of feature films was (down a lot last year and) less than half of that in 2012.

There are almost 10 per cent fewer jobs in the screen industry than there were in 2005 (and while I promise not to keep mentioning it, New Zealand’s population is a lot larger than it was in 2005).

And this in an industry where 40 per cent of the revenue for “production” comes from the New Zealand government: it makes the export incentives in places a few decades ago to encourage non-conventional exports look niggardly.

Statistics New Zealand also recently released a detailed breakdown of exports of servces for 2015.  Here is how exports of “motion picture production services” have gone over the last few years.

movie exports

There has been some growth in “Radio, TV, and other artistic services” but nowhere near enough to offset the fall in the movie side of things.

SNZ also reports some industry value-added estimates, but the most recent data relate to 2014 financial years.

screen industry VA

Presumably the 2015 numbers will be lower.

And although much the hype is around Wellington –  still important on the movie side of things – what is striking is the decline in the industry in Wellington.

screen gross revenue wgtn

Another way of seeing this over a longer period is to turn to the regional GDP numbers.

The published numbers don’t identify film or screen industry activities separately.  But they do have a category called “Information media, telecommunications and other services”.  Much of the screen business activity must be included in that industry segment.   But here is how the share of this industry segment in GDP has behaved for Wellington on the one hand, and for the median New Zealand region on the other.

film share of gdp

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, the industry breakdowns of the GDP data are only available to 2013.   When it is available, the relative picture for Wellington is likely to be even worse by 2015.

The Wall Street Journal article summed up the subsidies.

New Zealand, along with the UK, Canada, and several US states, offers incentives for businesses producing films here.  A cash grant was increased to 20%, from 15%, from 2014 –  partly to clinch the “Avatar” deal.  This allows international productions to claim back 20% of the money they spend in the country.  Some productions receive an additional 5% rebate.  And local ones receive a 40% grant.

Even MBIE was opposed to the increased subsidies.   The industry has the feel of a sinkhole, into which public money is poured with little very evident payoff.  At least when we subsidized manufacturing exports in the bad old days, we got more of them.  But screen industry exports have been falling.

The head of the government’s Film Commission is quoted as saying “we need to keep growing.  We want those jobs here”.   But do we?  If so, why?  And at what cost to the rest of us.  (And as the SNZ data show, most of these jobs aren’t even particularly well remunerated.)

Ah, but “industry experts say that the movie business’s economic contribution cannot be measured by revenue alone”.  Tourism spinoffs are apparently the thing.  WSJ readers are told of tourists spotted along “Miramar’s main retail strip”, but perhaps won’t appreciate that Park Road isn’t exactly Hollywood Boulevard.  More importantly, perhaps, as I highlighted last week, although tourism had a good year last year (and export education as well), New Zealand’s overall services exports remain weak by international standards (especially for small countries) and have been some of worst-performing among advanced economies over recent decades.

services X change since 2005

We massively subsidise the film industry with direct subsidies.  We also subsidise the tourism industry with the rapid expansion in working holiday programmes –  this time, the subsidy isn’t direct from taxpayers, but from lower-end New Zealand workers facing greater competition from temporary foreign workers.     Much the same could now be said for export education.

And yet we have so little to show for it all.  A better class of cafes in Miramar perhaps, but not much beyond that.  Sadly, it is all too typical of the disappointing New Zealand story –  although perhaps made worse by the direct government hand in these industries.