The only country that’s seemingly halted the spread of the novel coronavirus could screw it up—for Avatar. New Zealand’s economic development minister revealed under questioning that he’s been using little known powers around the country’s strict foreign travel ban to issue hundreds of exemptions for “high value foreigners,” apparently including James Cameron’s Avatar sequels crew.
New Zealand has been the model of effective coronavirus response over the past two months. As part of that response, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s government issued strict travel restrictions for all foreigners, which were partially altered a month after the nation entered lockdown to allow the arrival of essential workers and for humanitarian needs. Paired with mass testing and widespread contract tracing, these moves have resulted in only 1,154 cases and 21 deaths since the pandemic began.
As the country has slowly begun to ease restrictions internally, the government has given the green light for movie and TV productions to return under strict safety guidelines, paving the way for production on Avatar and Amazon Studios’ Lord of the Rings to resume. But it looks like some of those rules were already being conveniently bypassed. According to the New Zealand Herald, Economic Developer Minister Phil Twyford said that New Zealand’s Cabinet has issued several travel exemptions using a little-known category for foreigner arrivals in the country who are considered key workers for projects of “significant economic value.” That means hundreds of non-Kiwis have been getting around the country’s strict travel ban for over a month now.
It’s a power the Cabinet granted Twyford on April 21. Since then, he’s used it for a “couple of hundred” in several critical industries, including energy and water infrastructure. Twyford wouldn’t comment specifically on whether Hollywood studios have been included, saying it’d be “inappropriate” to discuss, but it would seem that they are. Avatar producer Jon Landau recently announced that he was returning to New Zealand this week to resume production. In total, there have been about 1,500 travel approvals for foreigners, mostly for family members or temporary visa holders. And Avatar sequels, apparently.
In a post on Instagram, Avatar producer Jon Landau shared that he was preparing to return to New Zealand with a production crew this week, along with a photo of one of the sets. Landau told Radio NZ production will be employing the same people they were already working with in New Zealand, but will also be bringing in crew from overseas—albeit a smaller team than before.
“We feel we’re coming back to the safest place in the world possible, thanks to a team of people that we’ve worked with.,” Landau said. “We believe we have a very thoughtful, detailed and diligent safety plan that will keep everybody as safe as possible in these unprecedented times.”
Even though Twyford said everyone who’s been admitted to the country has had to undergo quarantine or managed self-isolation, the revelation of the exemptions have received criticism from New Zealand residents—mainly because the government is already in a bit of hot water for how it’s unevenly implemented some travel restrictions. Earlier this month, it was reported that over two dozen people had requested “compassion exemptions” to leave their quarantines early to visit loved ones on their deathbeds and all were denied.
“There’s a set of criteria that we’ve been using to make the decisions,” Twyford said. “The people have to have some skill or expertise or talent that is critical to their project that can’t be met by someone in New Zealand... It has to be time critical... And the third thing is that it has to have significant economic value, some wider benefit to the economy, to supply chains, employment, rather than just being a problem for that particular industry.”
Cameron is concurrently working on four planned sequels to 2009's Avatar. The first one was set to come out this December but has been pushed back (yet again) to December 2021 because of the pandemic. There’s been no word whether other projects currently in development in New Zealand, including Lord of the Rings, have likewise be given travel exemptions—unless they already have been.
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