Smith swells with Southern pride

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You don’t have to live in Auckland to be media mogul in New Zealand. Queenstowner Phil Smith, whose production company’s been 70 per cent snapped up by Aussies, discusses the advantages of Southern living with Philip Chandler 

Championing regional New Zealand has been integral to production company Great Southern Television’s success, Queenstown boss Phil Smith says.

That success has been crowned with Australia’s largest broadcaster, Seven Network, buying a 70 per cent slice.

In a deal thought to be worth almost $14 million, Auckland-based retail magnate Sir David Levene sold his 50 per cent stake while co-founder Smith’s stake reduced from 50 to 30 per cent.

Smith points out that though Great Southern’s headquartered in Auckland, it was born in Queenstown in 2002.

“Shows like Eating Media Lunch, with Jeremy Wells, were written in a woolshed in Queenstown.”

Shows like Remarkable Vetsand The Pretender were also shot here, he says.

“All of our competitors sit in Auckland.

“We joke they sit in SPQR [restaurant] trying to think up ideas, whereas we actually see ideas.”

He gives three examples from the 50-odd shows he’s created.

“I was on the ferry to Stewart Island with [Queenstown mate] Paddy Baxter and he said, ‘you should check out the crayfishermen down here, they’re crazy.”

Cue primetime TV3 series, Million Dollar Catch

“Another night, [local mate] Mark Burdon says to me, ‘Phil, sit down’.

“He plonked a bottle of gin on the table and said, ‘I’m going to tell you about shearers’.”

Cue Prime TV’s biggest show, Shearing Gang, which has run for four seasons.

Then there was the time Smith got chatting in Arrowtown with former Kiwi band The Exponents’ bass player, Dave Gent.

“We came up with a $4m movie which got made.”

Smith co-wrote that with playwright Roger Hall’s daughter Pip Hall.

He says Seven’s buy-in is “an acknowledgement that you can be regional, and that the stories are in the regions – we’re still getting stories down here of people doing fantastic things that are different”.

Ironically, till Great Southern, regional NZ hadn’t been Smith’s stomping ground.

Starting at Auckland’s NZ Herald newspaper as a cadet reporter, aged 17, he joined the Financial Times in London at 20, covering its Africa beat for two-and-a-half years.

After joining TVNZ as a reporter, he worked in London, covering wars in Europe.

He then became an Auckland-based producer for broadcaster Paul Holmes’ top-rating current affairs show, Holmes

In a coup, he next convinced a TVNZ executive to let him do a golf show with the late Phillip Leishman. They were given the rights to The Golf Show for a dollar.

Eventually, the pair sold their sports show production company to a United Kingdom company for $7m.

Smith, however, says he was still a Southerner at heart.

The Invercargill-born 53-year-old says his parents met at the Arrowtown campground, “and we always came here for Christmas”.

Almost 20 years ago, he says his local cousin Gill Dagg’s husband John was chopping down trees on Queenstown’s Slope Hill Road.

Smith and his wife, broadcaster Leanne Malcolm, visited for a coffee.

“He said, ‘you never lose money in the Basin’, so we bought this six hectares for $280,000, I think it was.

“Leanne’s mum went crazy because she thought I was wasting all of Leanne’s Nightline [a news show she hosted] money on this, and now she sits on the deck saying it’s the greatest thing we ever did.”

Smith says he gets “goosebumps of pride” whenever he talks about Queenstown.

“If anyone overseas talks about NZ, Queenstown’s in the first sentence. Everyone knows Fergburger, and The Blue Door.”

However he has a warning: “We have to be careful we don’t let it be cheapened.

“I think it’s an elite tourism resort – I hate the word, but people have to spend an amount so that we can allow it to remain pristine.”

He even advocates the government appoint a Minister of Queenstown. While it’s an adventure capital, Smith says it’s also a highly creative place.

“You feel like you’ve got the space and time to create and write.”

Something Smith himself has certainly taken advantage of, over the years.

scoop@scene.co.nz