Gordon Campbell on the Christian take-over of Wellywood

Everyone knows that Hollywood is a den of godless, Obama –loving pinko liberals. That being so, New Zealand’s transformation, post Rings, into a minor hub of Christian movie making seems like…well, a minor miracle. In my experience, local film crews tend to be more the hell-raising sort than the Sunday-go-to-church type.

Both Narnia films have made extensive use of New Zealand locations. Philip Anschutz, the Christian conservative billionaire who runs Walden Media, the force behind the Narnia films, happens to be a committed Christian who says that the films he makes, while entertaining, should contain a moral message. And Christians don’t come any more committed than 81 year old Paul Broman, the Japan-based Christian impresario whose family firm has been behind the big budget Kingdom Comemovie, that was due to be shot in Wellington next month.

I say “ was “ only because there are persistent rumours, persistently denied that the Kingdom Come project is in trouble, or is even about to collapse and become Kingdom Gone. I’m sure there is a parable about not counting your metaphorical chickens – or your virgins with lamps – too soon, so some caution is called for, either way. What we do know about Kingdom Comeis that things have got to the stage of building sets, settling on locations – Lake Benmore is to become the Sea of Galilee – and the issuing of casting calls for people with Middle Eastern or Mediterranean features. One can only have faith that the people crunching the numbers wouldn’t have got this far without having the financing for the film securely locked down.

Because walking on water, in a film financing sense, is a pretty hard act to sustain.

All along, the project had been shrouded in secrecy. Recent stories on Kingdom Comehave indicated that Grape City, ( the Japan-based Broman family software company behind the project) have been wanting to fly ‘under the radar’ for the meantime. The film-makers have wanted to be invisible, yet truly and mysteriously present. Well, since Kingdom Comeis likely to qualify for taxpayer support under the government’s Large Budget Screen Production Grant scheme, light needs to be shed on these strangers in our midst. Especially if, as Scoop inquiries reveal, they have lent support to the regime in Myanmar, and have been decorated by the generals for their efforts.

So, who are these people ? Paul Broman, his son Joshua and Naoyuki Baba – all of whom hold executive positions at Grape City – are serving as the producers on this film, which will provide a cinematic account of the life of Jesus Christ. Kingdom Comewould be, in that sense, something of a prequel to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, but presumably without the same emphasis on the gory bits. According to the Grape City company website

Paul Broman is a former American citizen who emigrated to Japan in 1950 to carry out evangelical work, and he is now also known under his chosen Japanese name, Masaru Iwasa. Under that name he headed the Bunka Orient Company – the predecessor to Grape City – and in October 2001, he made a donation of $US110,000 in dental equipment to the repressive military junta that runs Myanmar. One of the generals presented Broman/Iwasa with a “certificate of honour” in gratitude. At last count, Broman had 22 children, of whom 12 were adopted in infancy.

There are some structural similarities between the Walden Media organisation run by Anschutz, and Grape City. Walden Media is known for the strong links it makes between its entertainment films and the related educational material it promotes to schools, museums and libraries. Grape City shares the same global outlook and a similar interest in the crossover points between entertainment, education and evangelism. There are more superficial parallels. Dean Wright, the director of Kingdom Come, previously worked on Titanic and on LOTR – but was more recently, the visual effects supervisor on the first two Narnia films.

Grape City has made a lot of money from educational software programmes, and the Bromans also run a large Christian school in Japan called the Meysen Academy, which claims to have 4,000 students enrolled. The school has its own zoo, onsite.

On the Meysen Academy website, several other members of the Broman brood appear in key positions. Judith Broman and Samuel Broman appear to run the English language programme, while Philip Broman is chair of the school’s body of regents. The guiding text at Meysen Academy is taken from the book of Job : “The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.”

Clearly, Kingdom Comematters a lot to the local actors and technicians who might find work on it, but the film’s eventual fate may not be such a big deal for the bar and café owners in Courtenay Place. Somehow, the core players in this project don’t sound like a late night party crowd.

More generally, it is an odd aftermath of Lord of the Rings fever that New Zealand should have become a location of choice not only for neo-Christian entertainment films ( such as the Narnia series) but also for outright Christian propaganda films, which Kingdom Comegives every outward sign of being. That’s not a niche you would have predicted say, back when Peter Jackson was making Meet the Feebles. Arguably, New Zealand should also not be greeting the film with open arms and offering it government support and financial assistance, until the Bromans current stance and possible links to the repressive regime in Myanmar are clarified.

The economic and employment value of such film projects to New Zealand are regularly touted. According to Film New Zealand’s latest annual report, about $915 million has been pumped into the New Zealand economy since Jim Anderton first launched the Large Budget Screen Production Grant scheme in 2003.

This is of course, only the gross figure. Reportedly, Peter Jackson’s King Kong alone received a $48.6 million grant from the scheme, while The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe received some $16 million. According to one economic evaluation, the net value of the LBSPG scheme lies somewhere between a $33 million gain and a $38 million loss.

Undoubtedly, these international film projects do provide employment here. Again, citing from the Film New Zealand annual report, overseas film projects provided some measure of employment to 7, 754 local crew and 1, 107 local actors last financial year. Judging by exit surveys, Film New Zealand calculates that 54% of the related economic benefits accrued to the Wellington region.

Unfortunately though, that well now seems to be going through something of a dry patch. Eight international film projects were being made here in the year to June 2008. Yet apart from the TV action series Legend of the Seeker, little else of any size from offshore is currently being shot here.

True, several offshore projects are still doing post-production work here – including the James Cameron epic, Avatar – but film industries in this part of the world have been taking quite a hammering of late. In passing, the lukewarm critical and box office reception in the US for Baz Luhrmann’s $125 million epic film Australia underlines the folly of hoping that one single project could possibly lift the entire Australian industry out of its doldrums. For its part, New Zealand currently seems to be reverting to its traditional advantages – our scenery, the low value of the Kiwi dollar and our relatively cheap, skilled labour.

Looking ahead…the Key government has promised to review the Film Commission. One can safely bet that as John Barnett strongly advocated in his recent Onfilm article, there will be more transparency in future about how much money the Commission has invested in particular films. That is easily done. Striking a tougher balance between sales and marketing on one hand, and production funding on the other, is also not rocket science.

Not every film that is funded by the taxpayer will be a box office success. Ironically, the same right wing commentators who mock the idea of picking winners in the national economy, still expect the Film Commission to do what Hollywood studios are patently unable to do – and pick winners every time, or even most times at bat, in their funding decisions.

In fact, the Film Commission’s governing legislation ( it was written back in 1978) requires it to do something that TVNZ has also found to be a difficult dual mandate – it has to act commercially, while fulfilling a cultural mandate at the same time. The Commission has often tried to do the former, played safe and ended up with mediocre genre imitations. It is easy to point the finger at the failures, and at the institutionalized thinking that they reflect.

However, anyone who has seen Gerard Smyth’s excellent recent film biography of Alun Bollinger can also see the successes as well. It would be tragic – and creatively suicidal – if the Film Commission review forced the organization into an even more narrow commercial mould. If that happened, not even God could save the local film industry.