Pork-Barrels Out of Bond: Subsidising the Amazon LOTR TV series
Time for another wee rant.
This time, it’s the sight of our Government prostituting itself to Amazon. Never mind money (or national dignity), all they care about is ensuring Our Corporate Overlords continue production of the upcoming Tolkien television series in New Zealand:
That rebate is not a mere tax rebate, of course. No, nothing as minor as that. It’s a full 25% subsidy on Amazon’s expenditure in New Zealand… and if Amazon is spending $650 million or more (as the article estimates), that means the New Zealand taxpayer is throwing a cool $160 or so million at Jeff Bezos’ company. Every man, woman, and child in New Zealand will be giving Amazon – not exactly the poorest of corporations – at least $30.
Which begs the question. Is this
prostitution corporate welfare worth it?
In my humble opinion, no.
I think this works on two levels: my opinion as a Tolkien geek, and my opinion as a New Zealand citizen (and taxpayer!).
As a Tolkien geek, while I am cautiously optimistic about this Second Age series… I would stylistically prefer a different vision of Middle-earth from that of Peter Jackson. Sure, New Zealand has some pretty scenery… but so does Scotland. I’d have been on board with an overseas production that offered a fresh take on Tolkien’s text. Not least because it means some other country gets to be the one to French-kiss Jeff Bezos.
As a New Zealand citizen… ugh. It might sound strange coming from someone like myself, but Tolkien’s work is fiction. It’s a fun world, and a fun story, but it’s still fiction. And more importantly, it is not our fiction. Re-inventing a national identity (“New Zealand is Middle-earth!”) around stories that were neither written by, nor about, this country feels strange. Tolkien was a South African-born Englishman, who never visited New Zealand… so why are we trying to desperately turn ourselves into a Middle-earth Disneyland, a country that “markets” itself (ugh) as a fantasy land of make-believe? It’s demeaning, and speaks to a world that has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. It’s also depressing as hell that New Zealand politicians feel obliged to pay the Danegeld to Amazon, out of fear of a public backlash – no-one wants to be the politician who “loses Middle-earth”.
(To reiterate: fantasy is important. Fantasy can explore the human condition, and is a genre of storytelling I love dearly. But you don’t re-invent your life to revolve around immersing yourself in it. That’s just Lotus-Eating. Our governmental decision-makers are now reduced to this… because they are too scared of what will happen if they deny the Lotus-Eaters their fix).
With that out the way, there are also the economic arguments… the idea that Amazon’s investment will bring jobs and tourist dollars into New Zealand. Sure. But if I wanted to create worthwhile jobs for New Zealanders, I could find other ways of spending $160+ million of taxpayer funds. The expenditure might not be as glamorous as spending it on the most expensive television project of all time, but I’m sure I could do it. I am sure you could too. And if we broaden the question from job-creation to wider social benefits, think of how many hip operations $160 million could pay for. Or school-teachers. Or police-officers. Or giving our military better equipment. Et cetera.
I am also sure that we could come up with a system that does not simply tax the public for the benefit of a handful of rich people in Auckland. Because that’s the funny thing about this expenditure… it’s really a re-iteration of 1980s trickle-down economics, the notion that if you give rich people more money, that will somehow trickle down to the peasants. The New Zealand Government is hoping that while Amazon is spending untold millions on expensive CGI, landscape shots, and overseas actors, it’ll find the time to hire the odd local firm in Auckland or Queenstown. Or even just buy coffee, allowing more 20-something baristas to work at minimum wage. As though exactly the same benefits could not be achieved via funding ten local film productions at a fraction of the cost.
As for tourism… I think Coronavirus has taught us to be careful before putting all our eggs into that particular basket. I would also note that there exists something in Economics known as Diminishing Marginal Returns. With people already visiting
Disneyland New Zealand for reasons of Middle-earth tourism, would huge numbers of additional tourists come here because of the Amazon series? Diminishing Marginal Returns would suggest not. Or at least, we would be getting less tourist bang for our buck than with the initial Peter Jackson movies, which created the phenomenon of such tourism in the first place. Peter Jackson’s series clearly has an element of nostalgia for many people. We have no idea if the Amazon series will be similarly well-regarded twenty years from now, or if it will be just another Game of Thrones-style fad. And that is what makes this Amazon series such a highly expensive gamble… a gamble for New Zealand, and not just Amazon.
It is possible that I am wrong, of course. Maybe the Amazon series will be such a run-away success that it provides the New Zealand Government with an extensive return on its investment. After all, who remembers the corporate welfare from twenty years ago that enabled the Peter Jackson movies to be made in the first place? It’s just that when one has seen New Zealand’s own labour laws rewritten to end collective bargaining within the film-industry (a law that the current Labour Government has altered, but not truly eliminated), one develops an aversion to such industry shake-downs. And that is quite apart from the wider question of unhealthy national identity. Does New Zealand – a country whose people make their own films (and who write their own books…) – not have some other source of self-worth than this? As a Tolkien geek myself, it’s a depressing question.