13. July 2000
Written by DANIEL RIORDAN
The world’s next Disney will be based in Wellington and called Cloud 9 if Raymond Thompson has his way.
Cloud 9, which founder and chief executive Mr Thompson values at $400 million, produces children’s television shows from its studios in the old National Film Unit premises at Lower Hutt.
Among its products, which screen in 130 countries, is the post-apocalyptic The Tribe, an earlier series based on William Tell, Enid Blyton’s adventure books and the Swiss Family Robinson…
An average of 150 cast and crew - all of them New Zealanders - work on each production.
Mr Thompson estimates the company has pumped over $100 million in cash into the local economy in the past seven years, with its net impact much greater.
A former head of drama development at the BBC, Mr Thompson, aged 51, has become a New Zealand resident under the Government’s new entrepreneur migration scheme, after running Cloud 9 from various places around the world.
While at the BBC, Mr Thompson wrote the Thatcherite boating soap Howard’s Way and oversaw the development of the fashion drama House of Elliott, the hospital show Casualty and police series Between the Lines.
Also on his resume: Hollywood and New York “script-doctoring” for several blockbusters.
The BBC was a great “university” - providing exposure to the political climate, the advent of Sky, cable, the early stages of deregulation across Europe and multi-channel television - but Mr Thompson says its stifling bureaucracy and changes to its creative direction were the stimulus for Cloud 9.
“I was doing lots of research, writing lots of reports. I was the man who could say no, but I couldn’t say yes. I couldn’t impose strategy, couldn’t make a decision. I felt I’d become entangled in bureaucratic weeds.”
At the same time, the company was leaning increasingly to lowest common denominator shows like Noel’s House Party and reality television. Mr Thompson felt it was in danger of losing its high-quality brand.
In a turn of phrase befitting a former BBC drama head: “I wanted to remain in fresh soil and do things with a passion rather than a process. I wanted to tell good-quality stories.”
He left the BBC in the early 90s, working on a couple of projects before forming Cloud 9 in 1994.
“I’d always been inspired by Disney. They’d kept their brand intact, making product for the family with positive and aspirational elements. Love it or hate it, you know what it is. I could see a market for that kind of product.”
In went some of his money, banking credit, a joint-venture deal with Sanctuary Multimedia, an output deal with European conglomerate CLT-UFA and Cloud 9 was launched.
Sanctuary, listed on the London Stock Exchange, remains a minority shareholder, with Mr Thompson owning the rest of the company.
The name Cloud 9 was a family inspiration.
“When I went home [as my own boss] my daughter said, ‘Dad, you must be on cloud nine.’ I thought, ‘That’s the name’.”
Six years later, Cloud 9’s New Zealand-made shows are seen by a billion viewers worldwide.
Disney’s distribution arm, Buena Vista, is a customer, but Cloud 9 retains ownership of its shows and intellectual property, despite several offers to buy the firm.
"We make the product, we provide the petrol for the car. A lot of television companies think the car is all-important, but that’s not the case."
While the production base in New Zealand is the core asset, the Cloud 9 empire includes its own distribution company Cumulus, music publishing and merchandising arms and an internet-based corporate training video subsidiary, Little White Cloud, also based in Wellington.
The company has offices in London and New York with one to open in Beijing.
Other plans include a Cloud 9 digital channel, similar to Disney’s, to be offered to world broadcasters.
Cloud 9’s relocation to New Zealand in 1995 came after Mr Thompson spent six months here scouting locations for his first show, based on Enid Blyton’s books, and fell in love with the country and its ethos.
"I saw New Zealand as the Hollywood of the 1920s.
"A young country, talented, photogenic with a world of locations in one place.
“You also have a tremendous enthusiasm and no cynicism . Everything is half-full rather than half-empty.”
For four years he lived in hotels while visiting Wellington from his home in the Channel Islands.
He says money played no part in the decision to set up in New Zealand.
Crew rates were about the same as in other countries, there were no tax incentives and no Government investment.
His wife, three children and two grandchildren - the youngest New Zealand-born - also live here.
The only downside for Mr Thompson is having to spend most of his time on planes, keeping in touch with markets on the other side of the world.
He describes Wellington as “a village of skyscrapers with a real sense of community, a diverse culture and … good weather.” Such capital views would have gone down well in any acceptance speech following Cloud 9 winning this year’s Wellington Region Gold Award for business enterprise and excellence.
The bulk of Cloud 9’s earnings are in foreign exchange.
Locally, TV3 will screen the third series of The Tribe when production finishes after two earlier series screened on TV4.
Wellington community station Channel 7 has started screening Cloud 9 shows, beginning with its back catalogue. But that has been it in terms of local exposure.
Mr Thompson says he has had ongoing dialogue with TVNZ about screening Cloud 9 products, without success.
However, he sees a vibrant future for the local industry, provided it backs itself.
“Broadcasters need to nourish the talent that’s here rather than bring in people from Hollywood and overseas,” he says.
“That’s almost a defeatist attitude, and will only work in the short term.”
He has no regrets about following his heart from the BBC to Wellington.
"The analogy I like about programmers and writers is bacon and eggs.
"The chicken made a contribution but the pig made a commitment. If you have chicken television, made by process, it’s bland, boring and predictable.
“The best television is made with passion, integrity and conviction. It’s about bringing a story to screen you’re desperate for a consumer to embrace … making dreams rather than widgets.”