New Zealand producers Rachel Gardner and Philip Smith of Great Southern Film and Television have been crowned New Zealand's Independent Producers of the Year.

The duo are developing a slate of eight features with the most advanced being Scott Reynolds' Falling Angels and writer/director Anthony McCarten's Death Of A Superhero, which will be made as a German co-production with Bavaria Film Productions.

Superhero is McCarten's third feature and is based on his own novel of the same name about a 14 year-old who wants to have sex before he dies from cancer.

Great Southern has been successful in television since it was founded by Smith in 2003 with backing from retailer David Levene. The company moved into features this year with the purchase of Maxim Films, run by Gardner and Angela Littlejohn. Gardner has worked with Smith since the formation of Great Southern and both are former journalists on London's Financial Times newspaper.

Great Southern's first production, Sima Urale's multi-cultural family drama Apron Strings, premiered this year in Toronto.The company'ssecond feature, writer/director Anthony McCarten's Show Of Hands, which was produced by Littlejohn, went into cinemas last week.

'We are passionate about telling New Zealand stories and stories with heart,' said Gardner. 'We are talent driven and are all about writers and directors and the stories they want to tell.'

Yvonne Donohoe, former development executive with Element Pictures, recently joined Great Southern from Ireland.

The awards were presented on the first day of the annual conference of the Screen Production and Development Association of New Zealand (SPADA). Caterina De Nave was honoured as industry champion, principally for her contribution to New Zealand television over the last three decades, and Sam Kelly was crowned new filmmaker of the year.

Kelly has made several celebrated shorts and recently completed a Masters in Screenwriting. He plans to make his thesis script, a thriller titled Snapshot, into a feature film. He will spend six weeks working in Italy late next year as a result of winning the 2008 Italian Film Festival scholarship.