Transport museum looking forward to film studio

Dream big, small steps. Most importantly, start.

That’s the usual way to get things done. Isaac Newton might as well have said it.

National Transport and Toy Museum curator Jason Rhodes began quietly dreaming about bringing the film industry to Wanaka many years ago.

Now he’s getting excited about the possibility it might really happen - though because of Covid-19 and the tourism downdown, he feels he’s sitting on his hands.

Silverlight Studios Ltd has proposed a $280 million film studio on nearby Corbridge Estates and it is now going through a fast-track resource consent procedure under the Government’s Covid-19 economic recovery legislation.

A decision’s not out but Mr Rhodes is a supporter and has his fingers crossed consent is granted.

The museum has long been on filmmakers’ radars as a one-stop, prop shop.

Various bits and pieces - some big, some small - have found their way into various movies: Pete’s Dragon, Bride Flight, A Wrinkle in Time.

‘‘It’s a great thing,’’ Mr Rhodes said of the Silverlight Studios proposal on October 18.

‘‘It opens everything up on the local front. There will be more catering, there will be literally more of everything, tradies, everyone will feed off this industry, even people at the bookstore,’’ he said.

‘‘I’ve sort of been waiting for this for a long time. It works for us because are close. It will be more feasible for them and it will allow us to hire more people."

Mr Rhodes and his sister Debbie administer a sprawling complex of large hangars and shed that house more than 60,000 items (they count collections such as a 24-piece dinner set as one item).

Thanks to ongoing legacies, gifts and purchases, the museum founded next to Wanaka Airport in 1994 now contains at least 16 aircraft, more than 600 classic vehicles and the largest public display of toys in New Zealand.

The tourism attraction is the legacy of their late father Gerald Rhodes, who owned a car and truck wrecking business in Christchurch.

The Rhodes say despite the tourism downturn due to Covid, there is no danger they will close and move away.

In fact, they are keen to add to it.

Mr Rhodes admitted he had asked to display three New Zealand Royal Airforce-owned aircraft from the late Robert Duncan’s Warbirds & Wheels Visitor Attraction, which closed in September due to the visitor downturn, but these were being returned to Wigram in Christchurch.

‘‘The Covid thing has thrown a curve ball. It is mind-bending. The last two years has been a worry. What is the long term outcome? Not just locally, but globally? We’ve got planes sitting in places we can’t get to,’’ he said.

The Transport and Toy Museum supports broadcaster Paul Brennan’s Bring Our Birds Home project to repatriate six significant New Zealand airliners from Brazil, the United States, Bangladesh, Spain, Cuba and Canada.

‘‘We can’t get to these places, we can’t finish the deals on them and everything is on hold,’’ Mr Rhodes said.

There are other frustrations. For example, a wait for cabinetry materials for the museum’s long-awaited, expanded lego display.

Mr Rhodes is also keen to get a lego display built by a lego master, once Covid restrictions on movements permit.

Meanwhile, a seeming straightforward car restoration was put to bed because a United States supplier found it too hard to send car parts to New Zealand.

And the Rhodes are struggling to find enough Kiwis with the skills to make bespoke bits and pieces.

Covid also killed off a good chunk of school holiday traffic in Wanaka in October.

Mr Rhodes described the visitor numbers as ‘‘soft’’, perhaps half the usual daily school holiday visitor numbers.

He was reluctant to share what that number was, but said it would have been normal to get between 200 and 300 daily school holiday visitors before 2020.

‘‘All we can say, it’s not a normal school holiday. It is going to be interesting through to Christmas. We always say after Labour Weekend it gets reasonably soft. That’s the part we have to endure now, the next nine weeks. One would hope we get a Christmas."

The Silverlight development could be the shot in the arm the town needs, he said.

‘‘I’m optimistic. It’s been a fight I have been fighting for over 15 years. Everyone said it would never work but the reality is, we are smack bang in the middle of a national park and open spaces, the things they want for filming.

‘‘If we can get a little infrastructure here for filming, the industry would grow so much better and with consistency... without having to start from scratch every time,’’ he said.

In 2009, Mr Rhodes began digging a massive hole at the back of the property for an ambitious five-level construction he dubbed ‘‘Studio South’’.

By 2014, he’d had confidential talks with various film industry people about his project, which included two studios, a wet tank and more space for museum displays, trade shows and events.

Various district development and landscaping projects benefitted from the hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of earth, but finding a studio funding partner proved difficult.

Mr Rhodes confirmed the hole still needs some work.

‘‘The building, that’s not been done. The building foundation work is nearing completion. It will still be for a multi-use building, even with Silverlight,’’ he said.

The National Transport and Toy Museum is now celebrating 26 years of public interaction and if Silverlight gets the green light, Mr Rhodes predicts the collection will keep growing.

Filmmakers’ demand for detail is just as important as demand for the classic car or cockpit of a plane. Everything you see in a film, from handbags to wall hangings, have to come from somewhere, he said.

But there is still a lot of stuff the film industry uses that the museum doesn’t have, he said.

Like what?

‘‘Viking stuff. Imaginary stuff, sci-fi stuff."

- By Marjorie Cook

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