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.
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.
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 fiancial difficulties.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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 British explorer James Cook's 1769 Gisborne landing.
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.
One early local film-maker was Southland-born Edwin (Ted) Coubray. He began as second cameraman 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 successful 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 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).
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. He 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 released in New York in 1935.
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 re-make of Hayward’s 1925 film, and 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.
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 company to produce features in the period from 1952 to 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, mirrored 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.
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 re-cut 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.
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 co-operative 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.
Wellington’s anarchic Blerta (Bruno Lawrence’s Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition) was a performance co-operative 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.
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.
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. Re-titled Sleeping dogs, this 1977 political action thriller marked a career breakthrough for actor Sam Neill and Australian-born director Roger Donaldson.
The 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.
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.
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 take control behind and in front of the camera. Barry Barclay’s 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 Mauri (1988) was the first feature directed and written by a Māori woman and the first from an entirely Māori perspective.
There were also many stylistic and genre firsts, including:
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-makers’ 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.
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 in 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 west in 1881. The film screened at Cannes and sold to a number of European countries.
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 version of the 19th-century New Zealand wars.
Roger Donaldson’s tense relationship drama Smash palace (1981) was another early 1980s critical and popular success. The New York Times selected it as one of the year’s 10 best 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 re-told 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:
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 the South Island’s Chinese prospectors in the waning days of the 1860s gold rush.
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 at its Cannes screening.
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 2013, only) New Zealand film to win the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or. It also won New Zealand’s first Academy Awards, for best original screenplay for the script and best supporting actress for 11-year-old Anna Paquin.
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.
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 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.
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 storie: our mothers never told us.
Television drama production company South Pacific Pictures (SPP) produced its first films aimed at screening in the television and theatrical markets. While Once were warriors used a romanticised 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 (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.
Other films made in the 1990s included:
Peter Jackson and his collaborator Costa Botes convinced many 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 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 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.
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.
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).
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.
Film-makers continued to offer fresh takes on stories rooted firmly in local culture and place, including:
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.
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.
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 (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.
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, however, 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 fantasy blockbuster Avatar. Local extras and technicians were also employed on the production. With offshore activity no longer assured, difficulties in obtaining finance to make films meant that in the 2010s the industry was struggling.
The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (2012) was Peter Jackson’s blockbuster adventure fantasy produced by Warner Bros, a prequel to The lord of the rings and the first of a three-part series. It is connected with New Zealand through its production base, its locations (mostly 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 from global finance for a global audience, The Hobbit: an unexpected journey made nearly US$700 million worldwide in the first three weeks it screened. In New Zealand it had the biggest theatrical release the country has seen – 203 screens in 98 different locations nationally.
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, required to assume his father’s chiefly status.
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 the Māori broadcasting agency Te Māngai Pāho. It is an intensely local story about a Pukekohe potato picker choosing 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, the Australian-domiciled Māori who plays the lead) as 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 New Zealand drama set on the Kapiti Coast, shopping won one of the world’s most prestigious awards, the Berlin Film Festival’s Grand Prix, in February 2013.
Churchman, Geoffrey B., Stephen Cain and Patrick Hudson, eds. Celluloid dreams: a century of film in New Zealand. Wellington: IPL Books, 1997.
Martin, Helen, and Sam Edwards. New Zealand film, 1912–1996. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Mune, Ian. Mune: an autobiography. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010.
Petrie, Duncan, and Duncan Stuart. Coming of age: thirty years of New Zealand film. Auckland: Random House, 2008.
Pivac, Diane, Frank Stark, and Lawrence McDonald, eds. New Zealand film: an illustrated history. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2011.
Tonkin, Keith. New Zealand film-makers. Petone: Gilt Edge, 2004.