Story: Feature film

Page 6. The 2000s: the digital wave

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The lord of the rings

The lord of the rings trilogy – The fellowship of the ring (2001), The two towers (2002) and The return of the king (2003) – was funded from offshore. However, the trilogy was made in New Zealand and its effect on the New Zealand film industry was profound. Peter Jackson’s success radically altered the film investment and production environment in New Zealand, leading to a local production infrastructure and contributing to the creation of stable jobs in the industry. On the negative side, issues arising from overseas companies having control of budgets and payment of actors have sparked well-publicised industrial disputes.

The trilogy won a total of 17 Academy Awards, with the final film, The return of the king, winning all 11 categories for which it was nominated. By 2013 only two earlier films had equalled that total, and none had surpassed it.

Surreal fairytale

Woodenhead, made in 2003 by Florian Habicht for around $30,000, has been described as the most off-the-wall feature to come out of New Zealand. This surreal, black-and-white rural fairytale was made by first recording the soundtrack, then shooting the story of a rubbish dump worker ordered to take a beautiful woman to meet her future husband. At the Melbourne Film Festival it was described as ‘a truly unsettling, visually inventive, stylistically thrilling and quite marvellous diamond in the rough’1.

Digital film-making

The digital revolution, which began in earnest for film-makers in the 1990s, meant feature film projects were no longer the sole preserve of established film-makers able to score funding. Film is very expensive to buy and process, and recording on digital cameras is cheaper.

Larry Parr, who had produced many iconic films in the 1970s and 1980s, produced several digitally filmed movies as part of his ‘no-budget’ film scheme. The first of these were Magik and Rose (1999), directed by Vanessa Alexander, and Hopeless (2000), directed by Steve Hickey – the only New Zealand film to have a spin-off television series (Love bites, 2002).

A bad week

Campbell Walker said of his films: ‘Most people … make movies about the kind of events that change people's lives. My films are about events that can spoil your week.’2

A number of film-makers have turned away from mainstream styles and practices, valuing story and performance over high-budget technological wizardry and special effects. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the Wellington suburb of Aro Valley became the centre for a group of digital film-makers, most notably Campbell Walker, who made intense realist films with little or no funding.

The successful 48HOURS film-making competition, which began in Auckland in 2003, was a driver behind Ant Timpson’s Make My Movie competition. The first film produced through this was Dean Hewison’s comedy How to meet girls from a distance (2012). The New Zealand Film Commission’s ‘Escalator’ initiative similarly supported low-budget feature films.

Local stories

Film-makers continued to offer fresh takes on stories rooted firmly in local culture and place, including:

  • Christine Jeffs’s coming-of-age drama Rain (2001), adapted from Kirsty Gunn’s novel of the same name
  • Vincent Ward’s River queen (2005), a historic drama of Māori resistance to British occupation in the 1860s
  • Out of the blue (2006), Robert Sarkies’s re-enactment of a mass murder that took place in the tiny seaside settlement of Aramoana in 1990
  • Taika Waititi’s quirky misfit comedy Eagle vs shark (2007)
  • Alyx Duncan’s The red house (2012), a highly distinctive romantic drama in which the director’s parents play the lead characters.
  • The dark horse (2014), James Napier Robertson's powerful film which tackled issues of mental illness and gang culture.

Whale rider

A number of the features produced between 2000 and 2012 garnered outstanding success. Whale rider (2002), a German–New Zealand co-production directed by Niki Caro, adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s novel, is the journey of a young Māori girl challenging the old ways to lead her tribe into the future. It won a number of national and international awards, and young actor Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress.

First Māori-language feature

The 2002 film Te tangata whai rawa o Weneti (The Maori merchant of Venice), directed by Don Selwyn and based on a Māori-language translation of Shakespeare's play, was the first feature film made entirely in the Māori language. It won the Audience Choice award at the Hawaii Film Festival.

The world’s fastest Indian

Back from 20 years in Hollywood, Sleeping dogs director Roger Donaldson wrote, directed and produced The world’s fastest Indian (2005), telling the story of Invercargill motorbike enthusiast Burt Munro who broke the land speed world record at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. With British actor Anthony Hopkins in the lead role, it became New Zealand’s highest grossing film to date.

Sione’s wedding

Sione’s wedding (2005) was the first Pacific Island-themed film to do extremely well at the local box office. It was followed by the sequel Sione’s 2: unfinished business in 2012.


Boy (2010), written and directed by Taika Waititi, who also played a major character, received enthusiastic reviews both at home and overseas. This whimsical story of growing up in coastal Bay of Plenty in the 1980s won the Deutsche Kinderhilfswerk Grand Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and quickly became New Zealand’s most successful comedy.

  1. Melbourne International Film Festival, (last accessed 20 September 2013) Back
  2. Quoted in Gordon Campbell, ‘Gordon Campbell talks to Campbell Walker.’ New Zealand Listener, 9 August 2003, p. 10. Back
How to cite this page:

Helen Martin, 'Feature film - The 2000s: the digital wave', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 May 2024)

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 Oct 2014, reviewed & revised 21 May 2024 with assistance from Emma-Jean Kelly