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Feature film

by Helen Martin

New Zealand’s film industry had a late start, with few films made before the 1970s. Since then everything from large blockbusters to small low-budget digital films has been made in the country, many reflecting a peculiarly Kiwi way of seeing the world.

New Zealand and the movies

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, 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’, with film-makers returning repeatedly to the search for identity – personal, local, national or cultural. Film historian Roger Horrocks has categorised New Zealand feature films into 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 still to some extent pervades 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, including writers, composers, cinematographers, editors, production designers, sound engineers and producers, whose names appear in the credits.

Pioneering days

Earliest films lost

Many early films are irretrievably lost. The highly inflammable material used for prints, the small number of prints made, and a failure to recognise their historic value have all contributed to their disappearance. What remains of the country’s early feature films is preserved by Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, founded as the New Zealand Film Archive in 1981.

Méliès in Maoriland

During his travels through the Pacific and Asia, Gaston Méliès planned to cast local people in his feature films. However, this was only successful in New Zealand, where he was able to work with a Rotorua Māori cultural group formed by the Reverend Frederick Bennett. Bennett co-directed members of the group with Méliès. Later, a US member of Méliès’ team said, ‘The Maoris are born actors. In this respect they knock all the other natives we ever came across endways.’1

First feature films

Walter Brown (later known as W. Franklyn Barrett) is believed to have made the first fictional films in New Zealand. He filmed a staged boxing match in 1901, and in 1902 made A message from Mars. Three years later Joseph Perry filmed a re-enactment of James Cook's 1769 landing in Gisborne.

Short dramatic narratives were made by Gaston Méliès, a French film-maker who brought an American film crew to New Zealand in 1912. The results included three short romance stories (two based on Māori legends), shot in Rotorua using a mostly Māori cast. They screened in the United States but not in New Zealand.

Hinemoa (1914), regarded as New Zealand’s first feature, was shot in eight days in Rotorua by George Tarr. None of these early films have survived. However, they paved the way for other overseas film-makers interested in exploiting the novelty value of New Zealand’s locations and indigenous culture.

Ted Coubray

One early local film-maker was Southland-born Edwin (Ted) Coubray. He began as second camera operator on The motor bandits (1921), directed by Harrington Reynolds, which featured significant moments in New Zealand history. Coubray went on to shoot Dane Gustav Pauli’s Under the Southern Cross (1927) and The romance of Hine-moa (1927). Next, he made Carbine’s heritage (1927), a story about the Melbourne-Cup-winning racehorse, which was advertised as New Zealand’s first sporting picture. His numerous innovative technical inventions included a camera-stabilising tripod and the sound-on-film system.

Jack Welsh

Jack Welsh acquired Ted Coubray's camera equipment and perfected his own sound-on-film system. He used this on New Zealand's first film with sound, Down on the farm (1935). Welsh recorded sound on two more films, The wagon and the star and Phar Lap's son? (both 1936).

Markey malarkey

American director Alexander Markey exploited and offended local people and acquired taonga by dubious means while shooting Under the Southern Cross (not to be confused with Gustav Pauli's 1927 film of the same name) in New Zealand in 1928. He was sacked by his producers midway through the production but returned two years later to make Hei tiki. Markey spent two years shooting around Taupō and created further ill feeling among local Māori. The film, based on a Māori legend, received bad reviews when it was eventually released in New York in 1935.

Rudall Hayward

The most significant early film-maker was Rudall Hayward, sometimes described as ‘the father of New Zealand film’. In his 50-year career, and with considerable input from his first wife, Hilda, and second wife, Ramai, Hayward made a great number of short comedies, educational films and newsreels. His first four feature films were silent. Two were romantic melodramas, while the original version of Rewi’s last stand (1925) and The Te Kooti trail (1927) dramatised incidents from the New Zealand Wars.

In 1936 Hayward shot his first sound film, On the friendly road, with the famous radio broadcaster Colin ‘Uncle Scrim’ Scrimgeour playing himself. Rewi’s last stand (1940) was a remake of Hayward’s 1925 film, while To love a Maori (1972) was the first colour feature made by a New Zealander.

In all his films, Hayward’s inclusion of a Māori perspective and his critical perspective on race, gender and class are of great interest.

Pacific Films and John O’Shea

The Pacific Film Unit was founded in Wellington in 1948 by Roger Mirams and Alun Falconer. In 1952 John O’Shea, who has also been described as ‘the father of New Zealand film’, joined the company. While most of its work was non-fiction, Pacific Films, as it was widely known, was the only local company to produce features between 1952 and 1966.

At the time many non-fiction films were made by the National Film Unit (NFU), which had been established by the Labour government in 1941 to support the war effort. O’Shea was critical of the NFU and aimed to create a viable, independent film industry.

The pioneering Broken barrier (1952), directed and produced by O’Shea and Mirams, reflected the state of race relations in New Zealand in the 1950s and promoted biculturalism as a desired goal. Runaway (1964), directed and produced by O’Shea, was an allegory of New Zealand’s declining trade relations with Britain and received a lukewarm response from local audiences. However, Don’t let it get you (1966), a light-hearted musical featuring local performers, won more positive responses, preparing viewers for the idea that New Zealand could make quality local feature films.

    • Quoted in Mark Derby, ‘Méliès in Maoriland: the making of the first New Zealand feature films.’ In Making film and television histories – Australia and New Zealand, edited by James E. Bennett and Rebecca Beirne. London, New York: I. B. Tauris, 2012, p. 43. Back

The 1970s film renaissance

Rangi’s catch

The arrival of television in New Zealand in 1960 provided additional valuable opportunities to develop professional skills. Former National Film Unit film-maker Michael Forlong made a serial for the Children’s Film Foundation of Great Britain, Rangi’s catch (1973). In a first for New Zealand film, it was recut for theatrical release. The film was well received and marked the beginning of 11-year-old Temuera Morrison’s acting career.

The influence of counter-culture movements began to take effect in the early 1970s. Whereas radio, film and television had traditionally favoured actors with British accents, film-makers now talked about developing a distinctive New Zealand voice.

Test pictures

The first experimental feature was Geoff Steven’s Test pictures: eleven vignettes from a relationship (shot in 1973, released in 1975), about the failure of a rural commune. Steven also co-founded the energetic film cooperative Alternative Cinema. In the spirit of collaboration the Test pictures cast and crew, who were unpaid, lived communally in the rural house that provided the film’s setting.

Geoff Murphy and Blerta

Wellington’s anarchic Blerta (Bruno Lawrence’s Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition) was a performance cooperative that combined music, theatre and film. The film-making arm of the group, the Acme Sausage Company, with key input from director Geoff Murphy, actor Bruno Lawrence and composer and musician John Charles, made a number of short films and a six-part television series (1975). These became the basis for their first feature, Wild man (1977). It was an important precursor to later features made by Geoff Murphy and friends (known fondly as The Murphia).

Expatriate Australian Tony Williams made the second feature of the renaissance, Solo (1977), which explored issues of personal freedom, commitment and environmental protection. Solo had some Australian investment and was New Zealand’s first international co-production.

Women’s work

Local productions made in the 1970s were sometimes criticised as ‘boy films’, since they were almost entirely made by and about Pākehā men. This imbalance changed somewhat in the next decade. In 1987 Helen Bollinger, wife of cinematographer Alun Bollinger, and Pat Robins, wife of director Geoff Murphy, made the short film Instincts, showing the drudgery of women’s lives on the Waimārama commune shared by four film-making families.

Sleeping dogs

In 1976 the rite-of-passage psychodrama The god boy – directed for television by Murray Reece, with a screenplay adapted by Ian Mune from a novel by Ian Cross – was the first feature based on a New Zealand novel. Mune’s next screenplay, co-written with Arthur Baysting, was based on the C. K. Stead novel Smith’s dream. Retitled Sleeping dogs, this 1977 political action thriller marked career breakthroughs for actor Sam Neill and Australian-born director Roger Donaldson.

New Zealand Film Commission

The new Labour government set up the Working Party on Film in 1973 to explore the establishment of a cinema industry. The critical and popular success of Sleeping dogs resulted in the announcement of an interim film commission. One of the features it funded was David Blyth’s experimental psychodrama Angel mine (1978). Another feature was Geoff Steven’s Skin deep (1978), shot in rural Raetihi by cinematographer Leon Narbey in the documentary observational style favoured by East European film-makers. The New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) was permanently established by act of Parliament in 1978 to provide financial assistance to selected films with significant New Zealand content.

Films from New Zealand literature

Two more films sourced from New Zealand literature received NZFC funding. Middle age spread (1979), directed by John Reid and adapted by Keith Aberdein from Roger Hall’s popular play, delighted audiences with its provocative satire of the white middle class. It became the first New Zealand feature to be screened by the BBC. Sons for the return home (1979), directed and written by Paul Maunder in an adaptation of Albert Wendt’s novel, exposed the racism faced in New Zealand by Pacific Island immigrants.

The 1980s: breaking new ground

An explosion of activity in this decade saw more than 50 films produced, mainly low-budget, dramatic features. New ground was broken as film-makers probed discrimination involving same-sex relationships, sexism and racism.

Melanie Read’s feminist features, thriller Trial run (1984) and comedy Send a gorilla (1988), challenged the patriarchy. In the genre-bending thriller Mr Wrong (1985), directed by Gaylene Preston, women took control both behind and in front of the camera. Barry Barclay’s (Ngāti Apa, Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngāti Hauiti) Ngati (1987) was the first feature made principally by Māori and the world’s first feature made by an indigenous culture living within a white majority culture. Merata Mita’s (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāi Te Rangi) Mauri (1988) was the first feature directed and written by a Māori woman and the first from an entirely Māori perspective.

Ground-breaking genre movies

There were also many stylistic and genre firsts, including:

  • the first horror, David Blyth’s parodic Death warmed up (1984)
  • Yvonne Mackay’s The silent one (1984), a mythical children’s tale set in Rarotonga, and the first New Zealand feature directed by a woman
  • the first science fiction film, Geoff Murphy’s The quiet earth (1985)
  • Peter Jackson’s first feature, the home-made Bad taste (1988)
  • New Zealand’s first (and, by 2023, only) animated feature, Footrot Flats: the dog’s tale (1986), an Australian–New Zealand co-production directed by Murray Ball and based on his much-loved satirical cartoon strip set in an archetypal farming community.

International acclaim

In 1980 Sons for the return home (1979) and Geoff Murphy's second feature Goodbye pork pie (1980) screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France, securing New Zealand feature film’s place on the global film-making map.

The scarecrow (1982), Sam Pillsbury’s adaptation, co-written with Michael Heath, of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s gothic novel, was the first New Zealand film selected to screen in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. Vigil (1984), Vincent Ward’s striking, expressionistic depiction of a young country girl’s coming of age, was the first to screen in competition at Cannes.

School work

One of the more surprising international hits in New Zealand movie history is Lincoln county incident (1980). This comedy western was directed by Tony Brittenden while he was an art teacher at Lincoln High School, near Christchurch. The cast and crew included more than 100 students of the school. One of them, Shane Simms, played the lead, Samson Peabody-Jones, setting out to conquer the untamed American ,west in 1881. The film screened at Cannes and sold to a number of European countries.

Local icons

Formerly sceptical audiences began to warm to the idea of local production after seeing Goodbye pork pie, an anarchic comic road movie made largely by the Blerta team. It became the first New Zealand film to recover its costs from the domestic market alone.

In Utu (1983), Murphy created an exuberant action movie about the 19th-century New Zealand Wars.

Roger Donaldson’s tense relationship drama Smash Palace (1982) was another critical and popular success in the early 1980s. The New York Times selected it as one of the year’s 10 best films.

Tax loophole films

In the early 1980s a loophole in tax law gave tax breaks for film production. British, US and Australian companies quickly invested in New Zealand-based co-productions. Most were action or thriller genre stories that brought little cultural benefit to New Zealand. However, several of the films made using the tax-break scheme provided interesting social and cultural perspectives.

In Beyond reasonable doubt (1980), director John Laing dramatised the controversial investigation of murder suspect Pukekawa farmer Arthur Allan Thomas. Michael Black’s Pictures (1981) revisited 19th-century issues of race and representation in a fictionalised biography of photographers the Burton brothers. The British–New Zealand co-production Bad blood (1982), directed by Mike Newell, stylishly retold the true story of a bloody manhunt on the South Island’s rugged West Coast. In Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1984), made mainly in New Zealand by Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, David Bowie stars as an inmate in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

Other films made in the 1980s included:

  • John Reid’s comedy Carry me back (1982), involving a drunken ferry crossing and a smuggled body
  • John Laing’s Other halves (1984), based on Sue McCauley’s autobiographical novel
  • Michael Firth’s incest-themed Heart of the stag (1984)
  • Geoff Steven’s Strata (1983), an existential drama filmed on the North Island’s atmospheric central plateau and volcanic Whakaari White Island.

Came a hot Friday (1984), directed by Ian Mune and adapted from the Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel, was memorable for the stand-out performance of comedian Billy T. James. Illustrious energy (1988), an art-house film directed by Leon Narbey, dramatised the hopes, fears and deprivations of Chinese prospectors in Central Otago as the 1860s gold rushes waned.

The navigator

The most ambitious 1980s film was the Australian–New Zealand co-production The navigator: a medieval odyssey (1988). Its director and co-writer, Vincent Ward, was given a five-minute standing ovation after its Cannes screening.

The 1990s: deregulation, accolades and a maturing industry

Jane Campion

An angel at my table (1990), an adaptation of Janet Frame‘s autobiographies directed by Jane Campion, was made as a three-part television series but was first released as a feature film. A New Zealand–Australian co-production, with some funding from Britain’s Channel 4, it richly evokes the life and work of one of New Zealand’s most treasured writers and won several international awards. Jane Campion then directed The piano (1993), another New Zealand–Australian co-production, funded largely by France. It was the first (and, by 2023, only) New Zealand film to win the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or. Campion was also the first female director to win the Palme d’Or. The piano also won New Zealand’s first Academy Awards, for best original screenplay for the script and best supporting actress (11-year-old Anna Paquin).

Desperate remedies

Arguably New Zealand’s most stylish feature, the colonial queer-themed Desperate remedies (1993), co-directed and co-written by Peter Wells and Stewart Main, won several awards and screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival.

Māori- and Pacific-themed films

Once were warriors (1994), directed by Lee Tamahori from a script by Riwia Brown based on Alan Duff’s novel, was also the recipient of many accolades. It is a harrowing story of family dysfunction and alcohol-fuelled violence plaguing an urban Māori community.

Martyn Sanderson’s Flying fox in a freedom tree (1990), an adaptation of a short story and novel by Albert Wendt, was shot in Western Samoa using a largely inexperienced local crew.

Te rua (1991), a German–New Zealand co-production directed by Barry Barclay, centres on a quest for the return of Māori carvings stolen and taken to Germany a century before.

Television turns to features

Bread and roses (1993), a four-part television series that also screened theatrically, was based on the autobiography of activist Labour politician Sonja Davies and directed by Gaylene Preston. In 1995 Preston and producer Robin Laing released the acclaimed feature documentary War stories our mothers never told us.

Television drama production company South Pacific Pictures produced its first films aimed at screening in the television and theatrical markets. While Once were warriors used a hyper-real style, its sequel, What becomes of the broken hearted? (1999), directed by Ian Mune, opted for a down-to-earth, scruffy realism.

The end of the golden weather

The end of the golden weather (1991), directed by Ian Mune and adapted by Mune from Bruce Mason’s much-loved play about a 1930s New Zealand childhood, won several international awards and was also a big hit with audiences at home.

Directors in the 1990s

Other films made in the 1990s included:

  • John Day’s thriller The returning (1990)
  • Leon Narbey’s art-house drama The footstep man (1992)
  • Harry Sinclair’s improvised and ultra-realist Topless women talk about their lives (1997)
  • Athina Tsoulis’s comedy I’ll make you happy (1998)
  • Robert Sarkies’ dark comedy Scarfies (1999)

Faking history

Peter Jackson and his collaborator Costa Botes convinced some viewers that their 1995 ‘mockumentary’ Forgotten silver was genuine. The film pretended to describe the achievements of a pioneering New Zealand film-maker named Colin McKenzie. Jackson and Botes told their story using fake archival footage and staged interviews with internationally known figures such as producer Harvey Weinstein and film critic Leonard Maltin. McKenzie and other invented characters were played by actors with long experience of radio drama, so they sounded believable but looked unfamiliar.

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson delivered more cult comedy splatter. Meet the feebles (1990) was recognised as the first creature film for an adult audience and won many international awards, as did the parodic zombie movie Braindead (1992).

In 1993 Jackson, editor and producer Jamie Selkirk and effects specialists Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger established effects company Weta, which later split into Weta Digital (specialising in computer-generated effects) and Weta Workshop (focusing on physical effects). CGI (computer-generated imagery) was important in Jackson’s next feature, Heavenly creatures (1994), a fictionalised portrayal of Christchurch schoolgirls Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, who murdered Parker’s mother in 1954. Weta was also the base for the big-budget The frighteners (1996), which had some 500 complex special effects. This film gave Jackson his start in Hollywood. In 1998 he signed with New Line Cinema to make the US$320-million fantasy adventure trilogy The lord of the rings.

The 2000s: the digital wave

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 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 2024 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’ coming-of-age drama Rain (2001), adapted from Kirsty Gunn’s novel
  • Vincent Ward’s River queen (2005), a historical drama about Māori resistance to British occupation in the 1860s
  • Out of the blue (2006), Robert Sarkies’ re-enactment of a 1990 mass murder in the seaside Otago 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 iwi 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 (Ngāti Kūri, Te Aupōuri) 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 motorcycle enthusiast Burt Munro, who broke a land speed world record on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. With British actor Anthony Hopkins in the lead role, it became New Zealand’s highest grossing film.

Sione’s wedding

Sione’s wedding (2005), directed by Chris Graham, 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 (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui), 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.


The 2010s: the age of streaming

Working on overseas productions

Just as with the first narrative films made in this country in 1912, foreign film-makers continued to arrive in New Zealand in search of inspiring locations. By 2009, film-makers such as Hollywood director James Cameron could also call on the services of world-leading special effects company Weta Digital, which employed up to 900 people on the fantasy blockbuster Avatar. Local extras and technicians were also employed on this production. But with offshore activity no longer assured, difficulties in obtaining finance to make films meant that the industry struggled in the 2010s.

The Hobbit

The hobbit: an unexpected journey (2012), a blockbuster adventure fantasy directed by Peter Jackson and produced by Warner Bros, was a prequel to The lord of the rings and the first of a three-part series. It was connected with New Zealand through its production base, its locations (most altered in appearance by digital effects), some of its key creators, a few of its actors and some of its crew of more than 1,200. Made with global finance for a global audience, The hobbit: an unexpected journey grossed nearly US$700 million worldwide in the first three weeks it screened. In New Zealand it had the biggest theatrical release the country had seen, shown on 203 screens in 98 different locations.

Taika Waititi

Taika Waititi continued to write, direct, produce and act in both local and international productions. New Zealand-based vampire feature What we do in the shadows (2014) spawned a television series. Hunt for the wilderpeople (2016) paid tribute to the surrealist and anti-authoritarian traditions of New Zealand film-making. Jojo rabbit (2019), adapted from Christine Leunens’ 2004 novel Caging skies, was a Second World War comedy-drama which received mixed reviews for Waititi’s controversial portrayal of Adolf Hitler.

The status of contract workers on this production sparked a long-running industrial dispute with NZ Actors Equity (now Equity New Zealand), which the National government attempted to resolve with the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act in late 2010.

New Zealand and Pacific stories

The orator

The first-ever Samoan-language feature film, The orator (2011), was a Samoan-New Zealand production shot in Samoa with a local cast. Written and directed by Tusi Tamasese, it stars a diminutive but determined taro farmer who is required to assume his father’s chiefly status.

Mt Zion

Mt Zion (2013), directed by Tearapa Kahi and produced by Small Axe Films, was funded by the New Zealand Film Commission, the government broadcasting agency NZ On Air, Māori Television and Te Māngai Pāho, the Māori broadcasting agency. It is an intensely local story about a Pukekohe potato picker who must choose between duty to his whānau and his passion to become a reggae artist. The production and lead creative teams were local people, with the exception of Stan Walker (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Porou), the Australian-domiciled singer who plays the lead). So were the crew.


Shopping (2013) was the debut feature of writer-directors Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland, whose short film The six dollar fifty man won awards at the Berlin, Sundance and Cannes film festivals. A small-town drama set on the Kāpiti Coast, Shopping won one of the world’s most prestigious awards, the Berlin Film Festival’s Grand Prix, in 2013.

Urban turban

Devesh Singh’s romantic comedy Urban turban (2014) was the first Bollywood-style film to be made in Auckland.

The great maiden's blush

Written and directed by Andrea Bosshard and Shane Loader, with cinematography by Warrick Attewell and Alun Bollinger, The great maiden’s blush (2015) depicts the drama of two very different women facing the need to make decisions about the future of their young babies.


Dubbed as a science fiction romance comedy, Chronesthesia (2016) was released to critical acclaim. Written and edited by and starring Hayden J. Weal, it has been described as ‘utterly unique’. It features Wellington city in a ‘dreamy and charmingly off-kilter tangle of multiple love stories’, according to Marc Savlov of the Austin Film Festival Review.

Government incentives for film production

In 2014 the New Zealand Film Commission introduced the Screen Production Grant, later known as the New Zealand Screen Production Rebate, to incentivise the domestic film industry while also encouraging international productions to film in New Zealand.

Streaming services

The introduction of Netflix and other streaming platforms in 2015 affected the production and distribution of New Zealand films. For example, The breaker upperers was released in New Zealand in 2018 and internationally on Netflix (excluding New Zealand and Australia) in 2019. The development of local web-distributed productions such as Rūrangi (2020), a five-part web series developed into a full feature film, also challenged traditional production and distribution processes.

Looking to the future

Both international productions and local film-making continued during the COVID-19 pandemic of the early 2020s, although this affected many productions. Weta Workshops and Weta Digital continued to attract international productions, with legislation on the employment status of film industry workers continuing to cause some tension in the industry. 

During this period several feature films were produced in Aotearoa New Zealand. There was increased activity by Māori film-makers, who created place-based stories while often also connecting with indigenous communities overseas, as well as a push for more diverse representation of other New Zealanders.

Collectives and international connections

Writer/producer/directors such as Ainsley Gardiner (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Awa) and Chelsea Winstanley (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) have been involved in a number of successful productions, including Canadian-New Zealand co-production Night raiders (2022). They both participated in an anthology of Māori stories, Waru (2017), developed by a group of women film-makers. This was followed by Vai (2019), featuring Pacific women’s storytelling. Kāinga (2022), with its pan-Asian stories, completed the trilogy, depicting those communities living in Aotearoa through five decades. These films have screened overseas as well as in local cinemas and online, attracting awards and critical praise.

Film and literature

Since Sleeping dogs (1976), New Zealand feature film-makers have continued to draw on literary works for their storytelling, developing narratives and characters inspired by novels, stories and poems. Director James Ashcroft (Ngāti Kahu, Ngāpuhi) used two of New Zealand writer Owen Marshall’s darker short stories as the inspiration for his feature film debut, Coming home in the dark (2021), and The rule of Jenny Pen (upcoming). The critical reception and publicity generated by these film projects shone a spotlight on Marshall's stories, introducing them to a new generation of readers.

The annual Māoriland Film Festival at Ōtaki celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2024, showing 168 works including street sculpture. Started in a caravan and founded by Tainui Stephens (Te Rarawa) and Libby Hakaraia (Ngāti Kapumanawawhiti, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Te Āti Awa), it has become an international indigenous film-making hub and creative networking space. The name is an ironic nod to the early-twentieth-century New Zealand Moving Picture Company (Maoriland Films), established in Ōtaki in 1920. Māoriland is the largest indigenous film festival in the southern hemisphere and aims to be the ‘native’ Sundance Film Festival. 

Sundance, founded in 1981 in the United States, employed New Zealand film-maker Merata Mita (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāi Te Rangi) as its artistic director for the Native Filmmakers Lab between 2000 and 2009 (she died in 2010). In 2016, the Sundance Institute created the annual Merata Mita Fellowships to help indigenous film-makers access resources and networks. New Zealanders Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith were the 2019 recipients. In 2021 they released Cousins, their co-directed film based on Patricia Grace’s 1992 novel. In 2024, Māoriland founder Libby Hakaraia was a co-recipient of the Merata Mita Fellowship.

Te reo Māori on the world stage

Matewā Media, led by Chelsea Winstanley, ‘reversioned’ international hit movies Moana (2017), Lion king and Frozen (2022), Coco (2023) and Encanto (2024) by providing te reo Māori translations for these animated films, and employing Māori voice actors and singers to perform new te reo Māori soundtracks.

Tauiwi (non-Māori) communities previously under-represented on-screen utilised digital technologies to make local stories. 

  • In 2020, director/writer Roseanne Liang released Shadow in the cloud, a US/New Zealand co-production action horror film set during the Second World War. This followed a successful local feature film release in 2011, My wedding and other secrets, the story of a young Chinese woman concealing her cross-cultural romance. That film in turn drew on Banana in a nutshell, Liang’s semi-autobiographical video diary from 2005 about life as a Chinese New Zealander.
  • Rūrangi (2020). A queer- and trans-positive drama featuring trans actors, the project was originally a five-part web series. This won Best Short Form Series at the International Emmys and Emmy World Television Festival in 2022. 
  • Millie lies low (2021). Michelle Savill wrote and directed this film depicting the anxiety of a young woman struggling with self-doubt at the beginning of her career. The titular character uses social media to trick her friends and family into believing she is achieving success. Filmed in Wellington during COVID-19 lockdowns, the film reflects the difficulties of that time without referring directly to the pandemic.
  • Muru (2022). This action-drama was a creative response by Ngāi Tuhoe to the 2007 police raids on their community at Rūātoki. It was co-produced by Tame Iti, who plays himself in the film.
  • Punch (2022). Starring English actor Tim Roth, Punch is a sport-based drama about the difficulties of growing up queer in small-town New Zealand. It was the feature-film directorial debut of writer/director/designer and activist Welby Ings. 
  • Red, white & brass (2023). This Tongan-New Zealand film is based on the true story of a young rugby fan who formed a brass band to get into a rugby World Cup match. A comedy directed by Damon Fepulea’i, it premiered in Wellington and screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival and Sydney Film Festival, as well as other festivals at which it picked up awards.
  • Uproar (2023) tells the story of fictional teenager Josh Waaka as he comes to terms with his mixed Māori and European heritage during the protests which accompanied the tour of New Zealand by the South African Springbok rugby team in 1981. 
  • The convert (2024). Lee Tamahori’s historical drama depicts the clash between Māori and European, racism and inter-tribal warfare in 1830s Aotearoa, and plays out through the story of a preacher in the fictional community of Epworth who is played by Guy Pearce. The film plays liberally with time-frames for narrative effect. The convert premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in late 2023.

Although there was an upsurge in comedy and other light-hearted feature film-making in the early 2020s, Sam Neill’s recent claim that Aotearoa comedy still carries a ‘stream of sadness’ rings true for many films, including those of Taika Waititi.1

  1. Sam Neill. Did I Ever Tell You This? A Memoir. Melbourne, 2023: 319. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Helen Martin, 'Feature film', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 October 2014, reviewed & revised 21 May 2024