New Zealand's relative geographical isolation did not prevent New Zealanders from experiencing film at the same time as countries in the Western world. In 1896 an Edison Kinetograph brought the first moving pictures, and in 1898 A. H. Whitehouse began filming events such as The Departure of the Second Contingent for the Boer War (1900), the earliest surviving New Zealand film. By 1910 New Zealand's first purpose-built cinema, King's Theatre in Wellington, had been constructed. New Zealand's first feature film was Hinemoa (1914), produced and directed by George Tarr (1881–1968) at a cost of just 50 New Zealand pounds. Over the next twenty years another nineteen features were produced or filmed in New Zealand, though less than half of these titles exist today as complete or surviving prints. Moreover, seven of these films—for instance, Raymond Longford's The Mutiny of the Bounty (1916) and Gustav Pauli's The Romance of Hine-Moa (1926)—were foreign productions, romantic or dramatic stories often involving the Maori in key roles and developed against a backdrop of New Zealand's unique scenery. The history of early New Zealand film is entwined with Australia's, with filmmakers such as Raymond Longford (1878–1959), Beaumont Smith (1881–1950), Harrington Reynolds (1852–1919), and Stella Southern involved in film production in both countries.
Any consideration of New Zealand's prewar film pioneers would begin with the work of Edwin Coubray (1900–1997), Rudall Hayward (1900–1974), and Jack Welsh. Down on the Farm (1935), generally regarded as New Zealand's first talkie feature, employed Welsh's sound system, which he had developed successfully in 1930. Welsh's system is a development of the Coubray-tone system of sound-on-film recording, which was first presented at a private film screening of Coubray-tone News in 1929. Coubray, like Hayward, had made short films throughout the silent period, with community comedies often proving popular. These comedy shorts were made in the late 1920s when times were hard, and they employed local sides and members of the community cast in stories that were then shown in neighborhood cinemas. Hayward had worked in Australia under Longford, and in New Zealand he made community comedies such as Winifred of Wanganui (1928), A Takapuna Scandal (1928), and Daughter of Invercargill (1928). Throughout his long career he made seven feature films: My Lady of the Cave (1922), Rewi's Last Stand (remade in 1940, 1925), The Te Kooti Trail (1927), The Bush Cinderella (1928), On the Friendly Road (1936), and To Love a Maori (1972).
Hayward and director and producer John O'Shea (1920–2001) are the central feature filmmakers between the 1930s and the 1970s. Just four New Zealand feature films were made between 1941 and 1972, and three of these were directed by O'Shea: Broken Barrier (1952, co-directed with Roger Mirams), Runaway (1964), and Don't Let It Get You (1966). These movies are further examples of innovative New Zealand filmmakers producing screen fictions with limited budgets and resources. They reflected O'Shea's deep commitment to the development of a strong identity for New Zealand, and were all made by Pacific Films, which Mirams and Alun Falconer had established in 1948. Prior to this, the only film production house in New Zealand was the National Film Unit (NFU), which was established in 1941 following a recommendation from documentary filmmaker John Grierson (1898–1972) during his visit to the country in 1940. The NFU produced documentaries, newsreels, and government promotional films. Its output continued a strong tradition of nonfiction film in New Zealand, where scenics (filmed natural views) and actualities, or event films (the recording of a significant occurrence, such as a disaster, festivity, or royal visit) had dominated.
The NFU, like Pacific Films, became a training ground for the next generation of New Zealand filmmakers. Making their feature debuts in the 1970s and 1980s were directors such as John Laing, John Reid, Paul Maunder, Gaylene Preston, Barry Barclay (b. 1944), and Sam Pillsbury, as well as the actor Sam Neill (b. 1947), all of whom spent their formative years at these two Wellington-based production houses. In addition, there was the Auckland-based Alternative Cinema group of filmmakers, such as Geoff Steven and Leon Narbey, who were notably artistic and experimental in their work. There was also the Acme Sausage Company/Blerta group of filmmakers, such as Geoff Murphy (b. 1946) and Bruno Lawrence (1941–1995), who were initially a traveling commune of performers and entertainers and later became associated with mainstream movies and action and comedy genre productions depicting countercultural behavior. These four groups were behind the new wave of New Zealand filmmaking that emerged in the mid- to late 1970s.