Kōrero: Feature film

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.

He kōrero nā Helen Martin
Te āhua nui: Actors Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee with The lord of the rings director Peter Jackson

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New Zealanders are among the world’s keenest filmgoers. While most films watched by Kiwis have been made overseas, but the local film industry has grown since the 1970s.

Themes in New Zealand cinema

New Zealand films have been described as dark and troubled, and frequently about a search for identity. Other themes that have been identified are:

  • the landscape, which is symbolic of a psychological state
  • horror or ‘unease’ (anxiety)
  • adolescence and rites of passage
  • Kiwi male culture.


The earliest feature films made in New Zealand have been lost due to the fragile nature of film. The first were made in the 1910s by overseas crews. Early films often used Māori culture as a drawcard. One New Zealander to work on them was the innovative camera operator Ted Coubray.

Rudall Hayward had a 50-year career in film, beginning with black and white silent films. His To love a Maori (1972) was the first colour feature film made by a New Zealander. His films included a Māori perspective. His first wife Hilda and second wife Ramai were important collaborators.

John O’Shea was called ‘the father of New Zealand film’. He too was interested in looking at race relations in films such as Broken barrier (1952).

1970s renaissance

The arrival of television in 1960 led to opportunities to develop professional skills, and the local film industry grew. The counter-culture movement influenced film-makers such as Geoff Steven and Geoff Murphy.

In 1977 Roger Donaldson made a political thriller, Sleeping dogs. Like many New Zealand films, it was adapted from a novel. Films like this led the government to set up the New Zealand Film Commission to fund and support local films.

The 1980s

There was an explosion of film-making in the 1980s. Women directors, including Melanie Read and Gaylene Preston, challenged male domination of the industry. Merata Mita’s Mauri (1988) was the first feature written and directed by a Māori woman, and the first from an entirely Māori perspective. Barry Barclay was another notable Māori film-maker.

Iconic New Zealand films produced during the 1980s included Geoff Murphy’s Goodbye pork pie and Utu, Vincent Ward’s Vigil and Roger Donaldson’s Smash Palace.

In the early 1980s, overseas companies invested in New Zealand-based co-productions to get tax breaks. Only some told New Zealand stories. Beyond reasonable doubt dramatised a controversial murder case.

1990s: a maturing industry

Jane Campion’s An angel at my table (1990), based on the autobiography of writer Janet Frame, was initially a television miniseries, as was Gaylene Preston’s Bread and roses (1993), based on the life of politician Sonja Davies. Campion went on to direct The piano (1993), which won New Zealand’s first Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or and two Academy Awards.

Films with Māori and Pacific themes included Once were warriors.

Peter Jackson had begun making low-budget splatter movies such as Bad taste in the 1980s. His 1994 film Heavenly creatures gained international attention and by the end of the decade he was making The lord of the rings trilogy with Hollywood studios and US money.

2000s: the digital wave

Making films with digital cameras is generally cheaper than using film. Several development schemes and competitions were started for digital films.

Significant films in the 2000s included:

  • Whale rider (2002), directed by Niki Caro, based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera
  • Te tangata whai rawa o Weneti (The Maori merchant of Venice) (2002), directed by Don Selwyn, the first feature entirely in the Māori language.
  • The world’s fastest Indian (2005), directed by Roger Donaldson
  • Boy (2010), written and directed by Taika Waititi.


New Zealand became a popular place to make international films, with Peter Jackson directing big-budget Hollywood films such as The lord of the rings and The hobbit trilogies, and the establishment of digital effects companies Weta Digital and Weta Workshop.

Films telling local stories included The orator (2011), the first Samoan-language film; Mt Zion and Shopping (2013), both about young Polynesian men; Bollywood-style Urban turban (2015); and science fiction romance comedy Chronesthesia (2016).

Looking to the future

Notable trends in the early 2020s included international co-productions, film-making by collectives, and an upsurge in films by women, Māori and minority ethnic and other diverse communities that was encouraged by the Sundance (Utah) and Māoriland (Ōtaki) film festivals.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Helen Martin, 'Feature film', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/feature-film (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Helen Martin, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014, i tātarihia i te 21 o Mei 2024 me te āwhina o Emma-Jean Kelly