From the later 1970s New Zealand’s screen industry began to expand. An increasing number of feature films, television series and documentaries were produced and an independent production sector developed.
Growth was, at first, stuttering. In 1974 the first television drama was produced by an independent production house (The games affair from South Pacific Pictures), but most television production would remain in-house. The large time gaps between films being produced hampered the development of a large pool of crew and actors.
Screen industry community
However, a thriving film culture was growing under the banner of Alternative Cinema, a loose co-operative venture. The Auckland group had a home in a ramshackle building in Hobson Street, fitted with two editing suites, an office and a theatrette. It provided a base for several producers and directors including Merata Mita, Geoff Murphy and John Maynard.
A smaller Christchurch equivalent worked without a physical base, and some associated activity (including lobbying of government) took place in Wellington. The result was a skilled screen industry community, without much money but determined to make films and with a willingness to mentor new. The later 1970s also saw the development of freelance contracting for crew, and the setting up of the first equipment-hire business.
Local film production in this period often ran on the smell of an oily rag, with people filling multiple roles and poorly paid compared to their overseas counterparts.
Advertising expanded, especially on television. These included some big-budget commercials with high production values advertising products such as Crunchie bars, Toyota Hiluxes, butter and BASF cassette tapes. Many of them were made by Silverscreen (1974–2007), and the company’s success inspired other businesses.
By the early 1980s several films might be released in any one year. The development of the industry was bolstered by the filming in New Zealand of a British television series (Worzel Gummidge down under, 1986–87), and the first overseas feature to be filmed in New Zealand since the 1950s (Willow, 1988).
In the 1990s industry development was boosted by a string of international productions. Notable were television series such as Xena: warrior princess, which provided long-term employment (and raised cast and crew expectations of employment conditions).
New Zealand Film Commission and NZ On Air
The government’s role in the screen industry was reinforced in 1978 when the New Zealand Film Commission was set up by act of Parliament. The Film Commission provided institutional support for the industry by administering government grants and incentives, marketing New Zealand films and film-makers, and organising participation in major film festivals.
In 1989 the government set up NZ On Air. Funding that had gone to television for production purposes was now distributed by NZ On Air on a project-by-project basis. One result was that private sector production companies such as Communicado and South Pacific Pictures had a much greater chance of securing money. Another was that television channels limited their production. In the 1990s the government’s withdrawal from film production was sealed when the National Film Unit was sold to film-maker Peter Jackson.
From 1982 to 1985 Martin Rumsby was a one-man hitchhiking film distributor, travelling around the country with a backpack full of films (and a change of clothes). He was supplying ‘invisible films … they are not innocuous enough for TV, they are not European enough for the film societies, and they are not commercial enough for the big cinemas’.1
Distribution and exhibition
In this period the distribution sector included the mainstream overseas companies and some local alternatives, all small. Alternative Cinema had a distribution arm, and some film-makers did their own distribution. Footstep Pictures, run by producer John Maynard in the 1990s, distributed small independent films – Once were warriors (1994) was its greatest success.
Cinema attendance was at its lowest point in the late 1980s, when barely 6 million seats were filled in cinemas that were often run-down. Numbers, first driven down by the arrival of television, were further depressed by the availability of video players, which allowed people to watch movies at home. With the arrival in the 1990s of new multiplexes (cinemas with several screens) numbers going out to the movies began to climb, doubling before the end of the decade.