The 1998 removal of parallel importation restrictions and the failure of the DVD zoning system are being substantially blamed for a box office battering in New Zealand. If the decline matches that experienced in Singapore, the only other OECD country where the theatrical window has effectively disappeared with the removal of the laws, provincial cinema closures are likely.

That's what NZ Motion Picture Exhibitors Association president Mark Christensen told over 700 delegates gathered at the Australian Movie Convention in Queensland this month. He said NZ takings declined 11% from 1999 to 2000, compared to a 4% drop in Australia, and a 2% rise in the US and the UK. Singapore's national per capita attendance dropped 28% from six cinema visits per year in 1996 to 4.3 in 1999.

The decline in NZ's provincial cinemas is double the national average. Distributors are being forced to release films as close as possible to the US, allowing little dating flexibility and necessitating new prints at ten times the cost, elbowing country cinemas out of the narrowing release patterns. Christensen describes the increase in DVD parallel imports as "alarming". Over 35,000 arrived in the first six months of this year, or about 3,000 more than in the 12 months to January 1, and 7,000 units arrived in July alone.

"In most cases where NZ does not release close to the US, DVDs are available in hire outlets at the same time as the movies open in cinemas," he said. "In most major video hire stores over 70% of the DVDs on the shelves are Zone 1 parallel imports and most of them (the stores) advertise that they can have your DVD player converted to play Zone 1 for a small charge."

New Zealand is lobbying for the reintroduction of prohibitions to protect films for nine to 12 months after they are first released worldwide. The industry is "cautiously optimistic" but it is now seven weeks since the Government was expected to accede. While Australia's Arts Minister Peter McGauran drew applause for what he called a "clear and unequivocal" confirmation that Australia would not follow NZ's example, Shadow Arts Minister Bob McMullan said the issue was at "serious risk" of being revisited because the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) was "obsessed" about it. Indeed, Commissioner Ross Jones told delegates 24 hours earlier that the ACCC wanted restrictions lifted.