It is hard to imagine a credit roll for the New Zealand screen industry without the name John Barnett being high on the titles. The boss of South Pacific Pictures has produced, or executive produced, four of New Zealand's seven top grossing films; Whale Rider, Sione's Wedding, Footrot Flats and What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted?
The art and craft of John Barnett's success seems to be in recognising a good idea — often one that already resonates with a wide audience — then helping ensuring the resources to bring it to fruition, however long that might take. Another of his strengths is in picking good creatives to helm his projects, then letting them do what they're good at. Examples include Niki Caro on Whale Rider, Vanessa Alexander on Emmy-nominated series Being Eve (2001), Simon Bennett on Maddigans Quest (2005), and the multi-cultural writing and directing team behind Sione's Wedding (2005).
Barnett's producing career began with children's television serial The Games Affair, shot during the 1974 Commonwealth Games. "We shot it for $96,000, six half-hours, in Christchurch, on location," Barnett later told Listener writer Denis Welch. "That was the budget we had from the network and we brought it in under budget, and they said they would never give us another commission, because they hadn't thought we should make a profit." The crew included a range of future film luminaries, from Don Reynolds to Geoff Murphy. Barnett's company Endeavour followed it with a trio of documentaries profiling New Zealand writers, including a rare screen interview with Janet Frame.
When the doors of television closed to independent productions, Barnett switched to managing talent, most notably John Clarke and his alter ego Fred Dagg. Barnet's first incursion into movie theatres came about after Geoff Murphy approached him with Wild Man in 1976, an expanded episode from the Blerta TV series. Though extra footage brought it to the required length needed for a theatrical release, it seemed like a perfect time to drag in Fred Dagg to help out. The trio of Murphy, Clarke and Barnett began in Wellington on the Monday, and finished filming in Auckland on Friday, writing the script as they went. The end product was Dagg Day Afternoon, Dagg's one and only big screen appearance (although one of Dagg's relatives turns up Wild Man).
Though he had helped out in the final stages of Wild Man, Barnett's solo feature debut as a producer was the acclaimed Middle Age Spread in 1979. Roughly 20,000 people had seen Roger Hall's play about a school principal having an affair, so there was a built-in audience for the film. Indicative of Barnett's successes is a canny ability to pick projects for which there is a likely market demand.
Barnett's next project was Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1980), based on the arrest of Arthur Allen Thomas for the murders of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe, The film marked the feature debut of director John Laing, later to become longtime producer of one of South Pacific Pictures' biggest TV hits, Outrageous Fortune. Financing came from the Film Commission, plus prominent business people who wanted the story told (including Michael Fay, David Richwhite, Ron Brierley and Bob Jones). Barnett calls it a film "I'm still really proud of." Beyond Reasonable Doubt's local success meant that it helds its place in the top ten of local releases through into the 90s.
During the hectic tax break period of the 80s Barnett was New Zealand's most prolific producer, working on both local productions (Wild Horses, Nutcase), and with foreign directors shooting down under (bid budget romp Race for the Yankee Zephyr and cult horror Dead Kids). He also helped producer Pat Cox find finance (Fay and Richwhite among them) for animated hit Footrot Flats. Barnett played a hand in the film's ambitious marketing efforts, which included music and merchandising. He would go on to find finance — and the right director — for the long in development Whale Rider, years after joining the project alongside its founding producer, the late Murray Newey.
In November 1993 Barnett was appointed managing director of South Pacific Pictures, which was then part of TVNZ. Five years later he led a management buy-out of the company. Barnett was SPP's chief executive officer and owned 40 percent, with the remainder owned by Brit-based production and distribution conglomerate All3Media. In May 2014 All3Media was itself purchased by companies Discovery Communications (who own the Discovery Channel) and Liberty Global.
In 2012 Barnett handed the chief executive reins to ex TV3 programming head Kelly Martin, and became SPP chairman; the following year he sold his stake in the company to All3Media. Barnett told journalist William Mace that All3Media's "federal model" allowed individual companies to run independently, with creative freedom, so it would be business as usual. "We've made our reputation from telling New Zealand stories to New Zealanders and to world audiences," said Barnett. "That is where our future lies." Barnett is set to leave SPP at the end of 2015.
In recent years SPP's annual output has represented as much as 40 percent of local television production. Among that output, Barnett describes the company's flagship soap Shortland Street as a major catalyst in helping "New Zealanders accept New Zealand drama to a degree that had not happened before". He believes remake rights to the acclaimed Outrageous Fortune sold overseas thanks to its universal concept of "a family that lives just a little bit on the edge, trying to go straight".
One of his earliest media ventures was as part of the team that rescued magazine National Business Review from potential oblivion. Barnett went on to play a hand in the launch of long-running screen industry magazine, Onfilm, alongside founders Sue May and cinematographer Graeme Cowley. In 2007 he joined businessman Michael Stiassny to provide funding to rescue hip hop label Dawn Raid, when it was in danger of going under.
He has been a frequent commentator on developments in New Zealand film and television, including a number of critiques of NZ Film Commission policies, on whose board he has twice been a member. Barnett has also been involved in film, television and video distribution, and in the development of local multiplex cinemas, plus cable channel Sundance (now the Rialto Channel).
In 2002 Barnett received the SPADA/Onfilm Industry Champion award. The following year he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. He also been awarded an honorary Doctorate of Commerce at Victoria University, for his contribution to New Zealand film and television. In 2017 he was presented with a special 'TV Legend' Award, at the New Zealand Television Awards.
Barnett left South Pacific Pictures on the last day of 2015.
South Pacific Pictures website. Accessed 2 May 2013
'Producer John Barnett reflects' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Clare O'Leary (Uploaded 11 January 2009). Accessed 10 June 2012
John Drinnan,'The interview: John Barnett' - NZ Herald, 18 August 2007
William Mace, 'Barnett sells South Pacific Pictures stake'. Stuff website. Loaded 9 April 2013. Accessed 9 April 2013
William Mace, 'South Pacific Pictures will keep NZ focus'. Stuff website. Loaded 10 April 2013. Accessed 2 May 2013
John O’Shea, ‘A Charmed Life: Fragments of Memory..and Extracts from Conversations’ in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. Editors Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (Wellington: Victoria University Press, Second Edition 1996)
Lindsay Shelton, 'John Barnett' in New Zealand Film - An Illustrated History. Editor Diane Pivac, with Frank Stark and Lawrence McDonald (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2011)
Lesley Stevens, Footrot Flats The Dog's (Tail) Tale - The Making of the Movie (Lower Hutt: Inprint Limited, 1986)
Denis Welch, 'The Producer' (Interview) - The Listener, 5 July 2003 (Volume 189, Issue 3295)
'Right Royal Barney'(Interview) - Onfilm, December 2002