From the 1890s to the 1940s New Zealand’s screen industry was primarily concerned with distribution and exhibition. Production activity was intermittent until the 1920s, and even after that the film-making community was tiny.
Exhibition and distribution
The first film was shown in New Zealand at Bartlett’s Studios in Queen Street in Auckland in 1895, with the first public screening the following year. Cinema chains were set up from the 1900s, the first film distribution and exhibition business established in 1908, and the first purpose-built cinema opened in 1910.
In the 1920s going to the pictures was a favourite activity of many New Zealanders. Kaponga, a small town in Taranaki, had no cinema, but town clerk George Cook saw no reason why the locals should miss out. He ordered in films, organised the local hall, and acquired and ran the projector. He was critic, distributor and exhibitor rolled into one.
By the 1920s there were several large cinema chains and a host of smaller independents. The Motion Picture Distributors Association (representing the large Hollywood studios) got going in 1925.
In the mid-1940s two of the big cinema firms, Kerridge (later Kerridge Odeon) and Amalgamated, became the dominant exhibitors of films and screen advertising. Movie-going was booming, with 38 million admissions a year – approximately 23 visits per person. (Admissions would peak in 1960/61 at 41 million – approximately 17 visits per person.)
Each of the chains was linked with the production companies whose films they exhibited. Kerridge Odeon’s links included Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Amalgamated’s included Twentieth Century-Fox. Although both Kerridge Odeon and Amalgamated were founded by New Zealanders, both companies were 50% owned by an overseas production company.
A handful of determined New Zealanders were making films. The first film, only a few minutes long, was shot in 1898. In 1910 Charles Newham began 24 years of film-making.
The first film-production businesses were started in the 1910s. In the 1920s there were a handful of local directors, including Rudall Hayward, George Tarr, Cyril Morton and Ted Coubray.
It was an international business from the early 20th century. In 1912 an American film crew made three short romances, in 1914 an Australian director made a feature film (Hinemoa), and in the 1920s several features were made, all with some local crew, and in some cases a local director.
1940s to 1960s
Three features made by Pacific Films, set up in 1948, were the only ones made by New Zealanders until the later 1960s. The company survived on a meagre diet of short road-safety films, sponsored documentaries and advertisements.
The seekers, a British production based on a New Zealand novel, was made in 1954. It was an instance of an exhibitor, Kerridge Odeon, and its part-owner, English cinema firm J. Arthur Rank Organisation, venturing into film-making – a rarity in New Zealand.
Government and the screen industry
From the 1920s the government provided what continuity of production there was. The Government Publicity Office (1923–1930) made over 200 silent films. After a break, prompted by the arrival of the talkies and the depression, the National Film Unit (NFU) was started in 1941. Television began in 1960 and, like the NFU, television was wholly government-owned.
These two organisations developed a pool of skilled people and did most of the screen production work in New Zealand. (The exceptions were advertisements, feature films, and some public-interest short films.)
Television versus film
Television shrank the cinema audience, with admissions dropping to 6 million per year in the 1980s. The number of cinemas fell from over 500 in 1960 to 154 in 1980.
At the same time, television provided an avenue of growth for the local screen industry. Although most of what was screened was brought in from overseas, there remained a significant portion of locally produced programming. This included the news, current affairs, sport, variety shows, competitions and a trickle of drama programmes. Through this an increasing number of people were learning film-making.
Advertisements were always shown before a film in the cinema. At first the advertisements were little more than projected photographs, but in the 1960s filmed commercials became common. The market for television advertising drove this development. Cinema and television advertising became a source of work, experience and money for New Zealand’s small, still slow-growing screen industry.