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Screen industry

by Megan Cook

New Zealand’s screen industry dates from the 1890s, when the first films were exhibited. It grew from small beginnings, with little money but a lot of enthusiasm. By the 2000s the industry worked on many overseas productions as well as local film and television.

New Zealand’s screen industry in the 2010s

What is the screen industry?

The screen industry produces, distributes and exhibits feature films, documentaries, television programmes and commercials.

Production is the largest and most varied part of the sector. It employs producers, writers, directors, art directors, location managers, costume designers, cinematographers, production and sound designers, artists, set builders and painters, costume and prop makers, make-up artists, caterers and actors.

During post-production films are edited, sound is refined and sound effects added. Computer-generated imagery (CGI), from the 2000s a standard element in many screen industry products, is worked on at this stage.

Distributors provide screen content to exhibitors, who show it on television, through cinemas, and for home use via DVD sales and rentals. Internet distribution and exhibition, both legal and illegal, became increasingly common in the 2000s.

Bums on seats?

Does New Zealand’s screen industry put bums on seats in aeroplanes as well as in cinemas and living rooms? Although feature films in particular are touted as a way of bringing tourists to New Zealand, the evidence suggests that the effect is small. Even the Lord of the rings trilogy, a particularly effective showcase for New Zealand’s scenery, increased the number of visitors by less than 1%.

Perception of the industry

In the 2000s public and government perception of the screen industry was strongly positive. It was acknowledged as a source of tangible economic and intangible reputational benefits to New Zealand.

Screen industry businesses

In 2012 Wellington was the base for over half of the country’s screen production businesses, with Auckland (where the film industry was growing) home to nearly a third. Queenstown and Otago also had a significant number of businesses. Wellington was seen as the feature-film hub, while Auckland was the centre of television production.

Although many screen industry businesses are set up to produce a particular film or television series, there is a core of substantial enterprises, many of which were decades old in the 2010s. Notable amongst them was the Wellington-based group of businesses owned by or associated with director Peter Jackson: Wingnut Films, Park Road Post Production, Weta Workshop, Weta Digital, Stone Street Studios, Portsmouth Rentals and Weta Limited.

Others include South Pacific Pictures, Gaylene Preston Productions, Gibson Group, Screentime and Topshelf. International production companies with New Zealand bases in the 2000s included NHNZ (formerly Natural History New Zealand) and Cloud 9 Screen Entertainment Group.

Size of the industry

In 2012 the screen industry generated $3,290 million in revenue. Production levels are another way of looking at the size of the sector. In 2012, 40 feature films were made in New Zealand, earning more than $1 billion for the first time. More than 500 television programmes were also made. Levels plummeted in 2013, when international productions were attracted to countries offering higher incentives than New Zealand.

Government support

International productions filmed in New Zealand brought revenue to the country. In order to encourage these the government introduced a large-budget screen production grant in 2003, followed by a post-production, digital and visual effects grant. Although sometimes referred to as ‘tax breaks’, these grants were a rebate: the government gave production companies a percentage of the money they spent within New Zealand.

In late 2013 the government increased the rebate for large-budget film productions from 15% to 20–25%. Lower-budget films (those costing up to $15 million) could get a rebate of their costs of up to 40%. The rebate for local television productions increased from 20% to up to 40%. The government also planned to invest in local productions to increase their chance of commercial success.

Going digital

By 2014 cinemas screening 35-millimetre film were few and far between – most had gone digital. The new format allowed simultaneous release of movies around the world, ending a century of New Zealanders having to wait to see films released overseas weeks or months earlier.

Internet and digital technology

The effects of digital technology and the internet on the screen industry were still unfolding in 2014. However, film and television businesses were already expanding into interactive entertainment, and there was extensive use of digital effects in screen production. This use of digital effects particularly strengthened Wellington’s screen industry, as Weta Digital attracted large projects from around the world.

Another effect was the diminishing importance of television, as more people began to use the internet to access content. The lowering of budgets and production standards in television advertising may have been a consequence of this.


In 2012 the screen industry employed 15,700 people. Production and post-production employed just over half of all screen-industry workers, about a quarter worked in broadcasting and almost a fifth worked in exhibition. Collectively, the industry’s 15,700 workers earned $787 million, just under a quarter of the $3,390 million generated by the industry.

Screen industry workers carried out 28,900 jobs. The difference between the number of those working and the number of jobs resulted from the employment structure of the industry. Many people were employed on short-term contracts, with some doing several jobs each year.

‘Hobbit Act’

In 2010 a dispute between actors and Wingnut Films over conditions of work on The hobbit became national news. Warner Brothers (the United States-based studio which owned the rights to The hobbit) and Wingnut Films pushed the government to legislate. The resulting legislation became known as the ‘Hobbit Act’, and included altering employment law to prevent those employed on contracts being recognised as employees.

Distribution and exhibition

Film exhibition in the 2000s was dominated by Reading Cinema (United States owned), Hoyts and Amalgamated (both Australian owned). There were also many independent cinemas. Distributors for cinema and home exhibition included the major Hollywood film studios, Village Roadshow Films and Hopscotch Films. The Home Entertainment Association of New Zealand represented the large Hollywood studios and Village Roadshow.

The early years, 1895 to 1970s

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.

Civic responsibility

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.

Making films

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.

Screen industry growth, 1970s to 1990s

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.

Industry expansion

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.

Hitchhiking distribution

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.

    • Quoted in Roger Horrocks, ‘Alternatives: experimental film-making in New Zealand.’ In Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992, p. 68. Back

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Screen industry', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Megan Cook, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014