Story: Feature film

Page 1. New Zealand and the movies

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Going to the pictures

New Zealanders are enthusiastic filmgoers. By one estimate, in 2011 New Zealand rated second-equal with Australia (and behind the United States) as having the highest rate of cinema attendance. Filmgoing reached a peak of popularity during the Second World War, when the average New Zealander attended almost one movie a fortnight. This rate declined sharply in the 1960s, following the introduction of television, in line with a similar trend worldwide.

What New Zealanders watched

Locally made productions, initially small-scale documentary recordings, formed part of New Zealand cinema-going experience from its earliest years. New Zealand feature films were made, but American- and British-made feature films, especially comedy, adventure, thriller and fantasy movies, have traditionally dominated local screens.

Rise of a local feature industry

From the 1970s on, feature-film production in New Zealand grew from a struggling, if passionately driven, endeavour to a substantial cultural industry that included multi-million-dollar films funded from offshore, modestly budgeted films made with local state funding assistance, and minimal-budget, do-it-yourself films made possible by the arrival of the digital age. In the 2010s, with offshore activity no longer assured, the industry faced financial difficulties.

Themes of New Zealand cinema

New Zealand’s geographical isolation and unique cultural history have given rise to a film culture often described as ‘quirky’ and ‘idiosyncratic’, where film-makers return repeatedly to the search for identity – personal, local, national and cultural. Film historian Roger Horrocks has categorised New Zealand feature films by four key themes:

  • the landscape, used in early films to create exotic, ‘pretty’ images, later taking on the function of symbolism to serve a larger narrative and existential purpose
  • horror or ‘unease’, where anxiety and fear provide thematic resonance
  • adolescence or rites of passage, which provide personal love stories as well as stories about nationhood and cultural maturity
  • Kiwi male culture, reflecting the macho take on New Zealand’s history that continues to pervade the way the country perceives itself.

A favoured tone, which reflects something of a local sense of humour, is tongue-in-cheek parody. This laconic or satirical bent is seen most often in genre films, where forms and styles adopted from elsewhere are strained through a local net.

A collaborative medium

In writing about feature films the convention is to indicate a film’s creative source by naming the director. However, film is a collaborative art and no film (or film industry) happens without the creative input of many others, such as writers, composers, cinematographers, editors, production designers, sound engineers and producers, whose names appear in the credits.

How to cite this page:

Helen Martin, 'Feature film - New Zealand and the movies', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 Oct 2014