Fifteen years ago, KJ Jennings became a film commissioner at a regional start-up film office in a south island of New Zealand. The local government had noticed a lot of film production around the area and wanted to enable this to grow bigger.

Seeking outside connections to help him in his new role, Jennings joined the Association of Film Commissioners International. All of a sudden, he was with “his” people. “We’re a really unique user group,” Jennings said. “There’s only about 300 of us. All the sudden there was somebody I could talk to who knew what I was talking about. On the surface we’re competition, but the reality is this is how we’re living our lives. Anything I was going through, someone had already gone through it.”

That was Jennings’ introduction to the AFCI and it was one of the most positive influences on his career. “Any time of year I could call or email someone and say, “Hey, I’m going through this, how did you deal with it?”

Jennings was a member for 6-7 years before he ran for the board. “I thought it was time to give back but also how do we make it better,” he said. In 2015 he became chairman.

Navigating the Return to Film Business

Jennings says members’ response to filming during coronavirus has varied widely. “If you’re in an area that’s done well in managing COVID and you’ve got a good incentive program, you’re probably booming. In New Zealand we’ve had a good run with COVID and have some massive productions up. There are other areas that are fully locked down. From a film commission perspective, they are trying to manage this new world.”

Fortunately, film commissioners are inherently really good at thinking on their feet and dealing with issues – “we’re problem solvers, but this is the biggest curveball anybody’s ever seen,” Jennings commented. We have a good advisory board at the moment and the issue isn’t managing a production, it’s managing a production during COVID. Everybody’s working way harder trying to achieve the same result as before.”

As Jennings puts it, the film industry pulls off miracles every day so they are amply qualified to tackle the pandemic. Forecasting out into 2021 or 2022, Jennings states there’s a massive backlog of production. “The demand for content has increased so there’s an imbalance. From an industry perspective, they are good to go. The limiting factor is if the environment isthere for us to do this in.”

Some regions and governments are putting more money into the commissions and their film programs because they know how film can kickstart the economy. “If you get a $100 million dollar project in, all the sudden there’s $100 million in your community that wasn’t there last week. That trickles down across your communities,” said Jennings.

At the same time, some of the governments are having massive cutbacks, which has caused some angst among film commission executives. The AFCI is working on a toolkit to help with some of the messaging around the importance of film production.

“There is absolutely a bigger demand right now than ever,” Jennings said. “There’s a bigger demand for production than at any other time.”

To help film producers, AFCI has created a COVID-19 update section on its website so the industry can, at the touch of a button, see what’s happening in each state and country.

“This also creates for our members an opportunity,” states Jennings. “Perhaps in the past you may not have had a competitive incentive program and that was a key decision-driver. But now, if they can actually go and shoot there – that’s priority number one, so it’s going to provide opportunities for other areas. It used to be ‘our incentive is 20%,’ now it’s ‘our COVID capability is this and that.’ I think certainly for the next one to two years that will be what drives production. It won’t go away for the foreseeable future.”

Jennings continued, “One of the things that we’re hearing from the industry is the speed in which they can test a crew. If they go to an area and have to wait 5 days because the testing system is overloaded, that puts the production off schedule. The film commissioners have relationships with nearly any place you might want to shoot. They now have to have that into the medical community.”

Focusing on Education

Like many organizations that have had to pivot from in-person events, AFCI is exploring new ways to connect with its diverse base of members. Jennings states that the organization is looking into ways it can customize what they’re doing and how they’re delivering services. “We’re looking at new ways online because some of the smaller members wouldn’t have the budget to go to an event in LA. So they weren’t able to experience that, now we’re going to find ways to bring that to them.”

AFCI also has turn-key education for film commission operations. This starts with film commission fundamentals program that helps newbies understand the intricacies of film production and incentives.

Looking toward the future, Jennings sees a bright opportunity for film commissions even in this strange work environment. “What everybody’s realizing is that you can work from home, maybe two days a week, you can be as efficient. The feedback I’m getting is that people are focused. They’re more energized. Some of the big players from studios are now saying that they’re not going into the office till mid next year,” he said.

He does expect a rapid uptick in production once the pandemic subsides. “For production crews, it’s like, ‘where can we go do our business?’ The incentive will be still a key driver but the backlog is tremendous. They have projects in the pipeline for years and years and years. The demand is there and the production is gagging. That’s the interesting new opportunity.”