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Cinema of New Zealand

New Zealand cinema can refer to films made by New Zealand-based production companies in New Zealand. However, it may also refer to films made about New Zealand by filmmakers from other countries. In addition, due to the relatively small size of its film industry, many New Zealand-made films are co-productions with companies based in other nations.

New Zealand Cinema has been hailed by Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro, who will be producing The Hobbit film duology alongside Peter Jackson, as "Hollywood the way God intended it" . Peter Jackson has produced in New Zealand four of the highest grossing movies of all time, with The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) and King Kong (2005).

Defining New Zealand Film

In October, 1978 the New Zealand Film Commission was formalised by Parliament under the National Party. The functions of the Commission under Article 17 New Zealand Film Commission Act (1978) were to;

  • Encourage and assist in the making, promotion, distribution and exhibition of films
  • Encourage and promote cohesion with NZ film industry
  • Encourage and promote maintenance of films in archives

With this Act the New Zealand Film industry became more stabilised. Article 18 “Content of Films” New Zealand Film Commission Act (1978) would serve to define which aspects a film had to have in order for it to be labeled as a New Zealand Film. To qualify as a New Zealand film all the aspects listed below must be of New Zealand in origin;

  • The subject of the film
  • The locations at which the film was made
  • The nationalities or places of residence of: The authors, scriptwriters ,composers producers, directors, actors, technicians, editors, etc.
  • The sources from which the money is derived
  • The ownership and whereabouts of the equipment and technical facilities

These defining aspects have in recent years caused debate on whether films like The Frighteners and the Lord of the Rings qualify as New Zealand Films. The impact of the New Zealand Film Commission on the industry was in getting films made, coming to a definition of NZ Film, and helping establish a Screen Industry in New Zealand.

Most New Zealand films are made by independent filmmakers, often on a low budget and with sponsorship from public funds. Relatively few New Zealand-made films have been specifically commissioned for the international market by international film distributors.

Recently, international film companies have become more aware of the skills of New Zealand filmmakers, and have increasingly used the New Zealand film industry as a base to shoot and also sometimes finish their feature films.

Private funding for New Zealand films has often been in short supply, although for a period in the early eighties tax-breaks resulted in a rush of money and a production boom. Although the trend seems to be changing for the better, some New Zealand directors and actors have been ignored in large part by their own country, despite success overseas, and often had to work in the USA,Australia, and the UK as a result.


Early film

The first public screening of a motion picture was on October 13, 1896 at the Opera House, Auckland and was part of a show presented by Charles Godfrey’s Vaudeville Company.

The first screening of a colour film (colour process, not just a colourised black and white film) was on Christmas Eve in 1911. It was a simutaneous showing at the Globe Picture Theatre, Queen Street and the Kings Theatre, Upper Pitt Street (now Mercury Lane).

The first filmmaker in New Zealand was Alfred Whitehouse, who made ten films between 1898 and mid-1900. The oldest surviving New Zealand film is Whitehouse's The Departure of the Second Contingent for the Boer War (1900).

The first feature film made in New Zealand is arguably Hinemoa. It premiered on August 17, 1914 at the Lyric Theatre, Auckland.

The Classical era

New Zealand film was a small-scale industry during the 1920s-1960s. During the 1920s and 1930s, director Rudall Hayward made a number of feature films on New Zealand themes. Rewi's Last Stand was probably his best, but little of this 1925 film survives. The film was remade with sound in the 1930s. Independent filmmaker John O'Shea was active from 1940 to 1970 making New Zealand cinema; his company Pacific Films produced numerous short films as well as the three New Zealand feature films made in that period: Broken Barrier (1952) with Roger Mirams, Runaway (1964), and Don't Let It Get You (1966).

However, during this period, most New Zealand-made films were documentaries. The National Film Unit was a government-funded producer of short films, documentaries, and publicity material. This is New Zealand, a short film made for the World Expo in 1970 was extremely popular there and subsequently screened in New Zealand cinemas, to much public acclaim. It used three projectors onto a wide screen, and was restored in 2004-05 and later rereleased.

The 1970s revival

During the 1970s, the New Zealand Film Commission was established to fund the production of New Zealand cinema films. A number of film projects were funded and this led to a revitalisation of the New Zealand film industry.

One of the first New Zealand films to attract largescale audiences at home - and also see release in the United States - was Sleeping Dogs, directed by Roger Donaldson in 1977. A dark political action thriller that portrays the reaction of one man to the formation of a totalitarian government, and subsequent guerrilla war in New Zealand, it introduced Sam Neill as a leading actor. While its local images of large scale civil conflict and government repression were unfamiliar to most viewers, they became a reference point after the 1981 Springbok Tour protests and police response, just a few years later.

1981 saw the release of the road movie Goodbye Pork Pie, which made NZ$1.5 million (a figure comparable with major Hollywood blockbusters of the time like Star Wars or Jaws). Director Geoff Murphy accepted movie offers from Hollywood.

The release of Goodbye Pork Pie is considered to be the coming-of-age of New Zealand cinema, as it showed that New Zealanders could make successful films about New Zealand. Before Murphy was lured away by Hollywood, he made two other key New Zealand films, Utu, (1983), about the land wars of the 1860s, and The Quiet Earth (1985) a science fiction film. Both films featured Bruno Lawrence, who became a local movie star. In 1987 Barry Barclay's film Ngati was released to critical acclaim and some box-office success. 'Ngati' is recognised as the first feature film to be written and directed by a member of a minority indigenous population (in this case Maori) anywhere in the world.

The Coming of Age of The New Zealand Short Film

During the late 1980s a trend developed that saw the reinvention of the New Zealand short film form. Alison McLean's landmark short Kitchen Sink came to typify the trend. Instead of trying be short features focused on dialogue and character the new shorts tried instead to push the envelope in terms of visual design and cinematic language. The result saw an explosion of visually rich and compelling works that seemed to aspire more to the best of European cinema than the mainstay of Hollywood fare.

Key examples of these are: The Lounge Bar (1989) (Directed by Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair as The Front Lawn), 12 Min, 35 mm, colour; Kitchen Sink (1989) (Alison McLean), 14 minutes, 35 mm, b/w; A Little Death: A Modern Day Fairytale (1994) (Simon Perkins and Paul Swadel), 11 minutes, 16 mm, colour & b/w; Stroke (1994) (Christine Jeffs) 8 Min, 35 mm, colour; La Vie En Rose (1994) (Anna Reeves), 7 Min, colour; A Game With No Rules (1994) (Scott Reynolds), 16.30 Min, colour; Eau de la vie (1993) (Simon Baré), 13 Min, colour.

International success

The early 1990s saw New Zealand film gain international recognition, most obviously with Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), which won four Academy Awards. Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors also gained international critical acclaim and high grosses in a number of countries. The first two examples showed an increasing tendency for New Zealand films to be partially or completely overseas-funded, and also star non-New Zealand actors (Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel in The Piano and Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures). This did not stop the migration of New Zealand talent to the United States: Tamahori, Melanie Lynskey of Heavenly Creatures and Canadian-born Piano star Anna Paquin are now all primarily based in America, and some of the Warriors cast also found work there.

A notable exception to the migration tendency is Peter Jackson, who has continued to make films in New Zealand. Jackson's career began with low-budget horror movies, such as Bad Taste (1987). He gradually became noticed by Hollywood, and directed the phenomenally successful Lord of the Rings films. Although made with mainly American money (and some from the New Zealand government) and a primarily international cast, Jackson filmed the movies in New Zealand, using a largely Kiwi production crew, helping create an enormous skill base in the New Zealand film industry.

This has led to a number of prominent Hollywood films being made in New Zealand, with major international productions not only filming there but also using the various post-production facilities and special effects companies on offer. The resulting films include The Last Samurai and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. While the funding for these movies is largely American, it has helped New Zealand film studios and filmmakers develop their skills and improve their facilities.

However, some industry figures claim that having large international productions employ New Zealanders has its downside. One New Zealand filmmaker recently highlighted how difficult it was to employ cameramen when working on a low-budget New Zealand film, as cameramen are now used to receiving large wages Other film makers find that the opposite is true, and argue that the greater number of local professionals may actually have driven wages down from the relative heights of the 1980s. Another alleged downside is that the big-budget internal productions swallow up any funding New Zealand has available, making it far more difficult for local productions to find money.

Despite this, local content has also significantly increased with notable films including In My Father's Den (directed by Brad McGann - 2004) and The World's Fastest Indian (directed by Roger Donaldson - 2005). Both films have done very well at the New Zealand box-office, most notably The World's Fastest Indian, which beat the record held by Once Were Warriors to become the highest grossing New Zealand film at the domestic box-office, taking in over $6.5 million.

The latter part of this decade saw the expansion of Peter Jackson's filmmaking empire with Jackson optioning the rights to The Lovely Bones, Halo, Dambusters and the fantasy dragon series Temeraire. Major productions such as James Cameron's Avatar and the 2007 summer blockbuster The Waterhorse are also utilizing Jackson's Wellington studios and enlisting special effects giant Weta Digital.

An important and accessible retrospective of New Zealand film, Sam Neill's Cinema of Unease was made in 1995. The film presented the history of New Zealand film from the personal perspective of Sam Neil.

New Zealand Film Archive

The New Zealand Film Archive was founded and incorporated on March 9, 1981. Film enthusiast, critic and historian Jonathan Dennis (1953 – 2002) was a primary driving force behind the archive and became its first director. The archive was set up to preserve and restore significant New Zealand film and television images. It now holds a collection of much of early New Zealand cinema film and holds public screenings of its collection.

Much of the early cinema film made in New Zealand has been lost, as it was printed on unstable nitrate film base. In 1992, when film enthusiasts and the New Zealand Film Archive realised how much of New Zealand's film heritage was being lost, they mounted the Last Film Search and found 7,000 significant films, both in New Zealand and around the world.

Recently Released New Zealand Movies

For films in prior years, see: List of New Zealand feature films


Name Director Starring Other
The Last Samurai Edward Zwick Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe Co-production with the USA
The Locals Greg Page Kate Elliot, Dwayne Cameron
Perfect Strangers Gaylene Preston Sam Neill, Rachael Blake
The Return of the King Peter Jackson Viggo Mortensen, Karl Urban Academy Award winner for Best Picture And Best Director 2003


Name Director Starring Other
Fracture Larry Parr Kate Elliot, John Noble
In My Father's Den Brad McGann Emily Barclay, Matthew Macfadyen Released internationally
Spooked Geoff Murphy Ian Mune, Cliff Curtis
Without a Paddle Steven Brill Seth Green, Burt Reynolds New Zealand locations


Name Director Starring Other
50 Ways of Saying Fabulous Stewart Main Andrew Patterson, Jay Collins
Boogeyman Stephen Kay Barry Watson, Lucy Lawless Co-production with the USA
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Andrew Adamson Liam Neeson, Tilda Swinton Made with American funding
King Kong Peter Jackson Naomi Watts, Jack Black Academy Award winner For Best Acheivement In Visual Effects 2005
Memories of Tomorrow (NZ Film) Amit Tripuraneni Richard Thompson, Rachel Gilchrist, Ray Trickitt Independent Film
River Queen Vincent Ward Samantha Morton, Kiefer Sutherland
The World's Fastest Indian Roger Donaldson Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Cauffiel Highest grossing NZ film


Name Director Starring Other
Sione's Wedding Chris Graham Robbie Magasiva, Nathaniel Lees (or Samoan Wedding)
No. 2 Toa Fraser Ruby Dee, Nathaniel Lees Audience Award winner at Sundance
Out of the Blue Robert Sarkies Karl Urban, Paul Glover Based on a true story
Meet Me in Miami Iren Koster Carlos Ponce, Tara Leniston Independent film


Name Director Starring Other
Black Sheep Jonathan King Oliver Driver, Peter Feeney Best Reviewed New Zealand Horror Film
Bridge to Terabithia Gabor Csupo Robert Patrick, Zooey Deschanel Filmed in Auckland
Eagle vs Shark Taika Waititi Jemaine Clement, Craig Hall
Perfect Creature Glenn Standring Saffron Burrows, Dougray Scott
The Tattooist Peter Burger Jason Behr, Michael Hurst
The Devil Dared Me To Chris Stapp Chris Stapp, Matt Heath


Name Director Starring Other
The Ferryman Chris Graham Amber Sainsbury, John Rhys-Davies, Kerry Fox

To Be Released

Name Director Starring Release date
Dambusters Christian Rivers 2008
Men Shouldn't Sing Michael Bell 2007
Halo Neill Blomkamp 2008
The Lovely Bones Peter Jackson Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg 2009
Temeraire 2009
Tintin Peter Jackson Andy Serkis 2009
Untitled Charles Upham biopic 2008
Untitled Bruce McLaren biopic 2009

Titles filmed or to be filmed in New Zealand

Name Director Starring Filming location
10,000 BC Roland Emmerich Steven Strait, Camilla Belle Queenstown
Avatar James Cameron Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña Wellington
The Waterhorse Jay Russell Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin Wellington
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans Patrick Tatopoulos Rhona Mitra Auckland
Wolverine Gavin Hood Hugh Jackman
Silvaticus 3015 Wellington

Notable feature directors

Name Notable For Other
Andrew Adamson Shrek 1 and 2, The Narnia film series Academy Award-winner
Martin Campbell Casino Royale, The Mask of Zorro, GoldenEye BAFTA-winner
Jane Campion The Piano Academy Award-winner, Golden Palm-nominee
Niki Caro Whale Rider, North Country BAFTA- winner
Roger Donaldson Dante's Peak, Cocktail, The Recruit Golden Palm-nominee
Ellory Elkayem Eight Legged Freaks
Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong Three-time Academy Award-winner
Geoff Murphy Goodbye Pork Pie, Young Guns II
Andrew Niccol Lord of War, Gattaca, The Truman Show (writer) BAFTA-winner, Academy Award-nominee
Lee Tamahori Die Another Day, Along Came a Spider, Once Were Warriors
Taika Waititi Eagle vs. Shark, Two Cars, One Night Academy Award-nominee
Vincent Ward River Queen, What Dreams May Come Two-time time Golden Palm nominee

Notable actors

Name Notable For Other
Keisha Castle-Hughes Whale Rider, The Nativity Story Academy Award nominee
Russell Crowe Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind Academy Award winner
Marton Csokas The Lord of the Rings, Kingdom of Heaven
Cliff Curtis Runaway Jury, Collateral Damage
Alan Dale Ugly Betty, The OC SAG nominee
Daniel Gillies Spider-Man 2 and 3
Martin Henderson The Ring, Flyboys, Torque
Lucy Lawless Xena Warrior Princess, Battlestar Galactica
Melanie Lynskey Flags of Our Fathers, Two and a Half Men, Heavenly Creatures
Temuera Morrison Once Were Warriors, Speed 2, Star Wars Episode II
Sam Neill Jurassic Park 1 and 3, The Piano Emmy, Golden Globe nominee
Anna Paquin X-Men film series, The Piano Academy Award winner
Jessica Rose I Know Who Killed Me, Lonelygirl15 Gained fame on YouTube
Karl Urban Doom, The Bourne Supremacy, The Lord of the Rings

See also


External links

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