As far as is known, the first commercial film screening in New Zealand took place on 7 November 1896, when J. F. Macmahon showed moving pictures on “Edison's Cinematographe” in High Street, Christchurch. This was less than a year after the world's first film show given in Paris by the Lumière brothers. The programme included Traffic in Broadway, Wheelwright at Work, and Sandow the Strong Man. The first motion pictures to be taken in New Zealand were made, it is claimed, by A. H. Whitehouse in 1898. In that year he filmed Uhlan winning the Auckland Cup, and also the opening of the Auckland Exhibition. In 1901 the Salvation Army Film Unit of Australia made a film of 3,360 ft of the visit to New Zealand of the Duke and Duchess of York
In the early years of the century films were usually shown as an item in the popular vaudeville shows by organisations such as Rickard's Vaudeville Co. (1904) and Fuller's Vaudeville Co. (1905). In 1905 “West's Pictures and the Brescians” came to Dunedin from Edinburgh with a show that was “above-all refined” in which the singing and playing of the Brescians filled half the programme and short films filled the other half. The 80-minute film programme consisted of 14 short films, including documentaries such as Firemen at Work in London, travel films, Tour Through Italy, and In Barcelona Park (in “stereoscopic kinematography”), an instructional film, Busy Bee – Every Phase of Bee Culture, and a comedy, Burglar and the Girls. It concluded with an outstanding film of the period, Trip to the Sun, an early space thriller and trick film produced by the Frenchman, Herbert Melies. It had been hand coloured by a line of women, each painting one tint. The brothers Henry and Rudall Hayward, senior, were active members of West's pictures and later developed the chain of theatres known as Hayward's Picture Enterprises.
There were a number of itinerant exhibitors in the early years who screened short films at vaudeville shows from projectors set up in the body of the hall. The illumination for these early films was limelight produced by a flame of oxygen and hydrogen played on a revolving disc of limestone which became incandescent. West's pictures were the first to introduce the electric arc lamp. At first their dynamo had to be worked by a traction engine, and in each small town a traction engine had to be hired. Later, portable generators worked by petrol motors or motorcars provided power for carbon arcs. Perry's Biorama exhibited all over New Zealand the films made by the Salvation Army. Lurid posters, such as The Drunkard, advertised the show, and the Salvation Army band marched through the town to the door of the cinema where a chugging red petrol engine provided power and added to the novelty and excitement of the occasion.
By 1911 picture shows were “everywhere, in the city and suburbs and all doing big business”. Continuous pictures were being shown in specially built cinemas. Prints of the early films could be bought by any exhibitor, but by 1911 leading exhibitors, such as Fullers' Pictures and Hayward's Picture Enterprises, had obtained exclusive rights to certain films and screened them in the chains of theatres under their control and rented them to independent exhibitors. The pattern of cinema organisation was established.
Simple and inexpensive cinematograph cameras were available early in the century and many exhibitors made short films of local interest to attract local audiences. Some of them included items of wider interest made by cameramen in other parts of New Zealand and so there developed a number of newsreels such as the Auckland Animated News, and the Empire News, Dunedin. None of them seems to have lasted very long.