New Zealand's new wave of film production can be traced to 1977 with the establishment of the Interim Film Commission (the New Zealand Film Commission was established in 1978), which was developed from the observed model of the Australian film industry and the Australian Film Development Corporation, which began in 1970. The year 1977 is also significant because of the release of the Acme Sausage Company/Blerta feature Wild Man (directed by Murphy), and Roger Donaldson's (b. 1945) political thriller Sleeping Dogs . The impact of Sleeping Dogs in particular emphasized the need for government support for a feature film industry, and amongst the initiatives introduced was a system of tax breaks. A boom in production followed, with filmmakers exploiting what was soon known to be a tax loophole; the high number of international coproductions that ensued is an indication of the financial incentives that could be gained then from filming in New Zealand. The loophole was closed in 1982, but films could still benefit under the old system if they were completed by September 1984, and this led to a rush of film productions and the release of twenty-three features in 1984 and 1985. The new wave effectively came to an end with the release of the last of these tax-break films in 1986. Many argued that the industry had been damaged by an Americanization of product and a stifling of local creativity, and by films that appeared to be led primarily by financial incentives.
During this period, though, New Zealand's cinema received significant international attention for films such as Murphy's Goodbye Pork Pie (1981). Murphy's next film, Utu (1983), a New Zealand "western" set during the nineteenth-century Maori Wars, and Donaldson's follow-up to Sleeping Dogs , Smash Palace (1982), a melodrama which showcased the acting ability of the iconic Bruno Lawrence (possibly New Zealand's most celebrated screen performer), gained critical and theatrical success in the United States. A year later, Vincent Ward's (b. 1946) Vigil (1984), one of New Zealand's few art-house productions, became the first New Zealand film selected to be screened in competition at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival; it perhaps marks the maturing of this national cinema.
New Zealand films of the new wave had been pre-dominantly testosterone-fueled action dramas, dominated by male protagonists, stunts, and car chases. One result was the New Zealand road movie, with Goodbye Pork Pie the prototype; other examples included Carry Me Back (1982) and Shaker Run (1986), films which foregrounded geographical representations of the country while examining male relationships. This is partly a reflection of the male film industry and the influence of countercultural performers such as the Blerta group. It is also the result of an industry that attempted to enter the international mainstream with commercial films that spoke the language of the genre-driven, high-energy narratives of foreign markets. Murphy and Donaldson, who had demonstrated their skill at making this type of film, were attracted to Hollywood in the second half of the 1980s. Others such as Pillsbury, Ward, and David Blyth (b. 1956), followed with a mixture of US-made television episodes, television movies, and theatrical features. For instance, Pillsbury, who had directed the New Zealand features Scarecrow (1982) and Starlight Hotel (1987), made Free Willy 3 (1997) in the United States. Murphy and, in particular, Donaldson, have had the most recognizable successes in the United States, Murphy with Young Guns II (1990) and Under Siege 2 (1995), and Donaldson with Cocktail (1988), Species (1995), and Dante's Peak (1997).
In the latter stages of New Zealand's film renaissance clear challenges to the hegemony of the Pakeha (European) male filmmaker came from a number of directions. The first fiction feature directed solely by a woman was Melanie Read's Trial Run (1984), which just preceded the release of Yvonne Mackay's children's-book adaptation The Silent One (1984) and Gaylene Preston's Mr. Wrong (1985). Read's and Preston's films are both psychological thrillers, and recognizably part of a continuing tradition of the Kiwi Gothic, a cinema of isolation and despair in which personal space is threatened by forces that prevent settlement and in which a powerful landscape is seemingly alive. The first fiction feature made principally by Maori was Ngati (1987), directed by Barry Barclay with a predominantly Maori cast and crew. A year later Merata Mita (b. 1942), who had directed the powerful protest documentaries Bastion Point Day 507 (1980) and Patu! (1983), made the fiction feature Mauri (1988). Barclay's films stress the importance of community, while Mita's work challenges the myth of a racially harmonious New Zealand. Representations of the indigenous culture continued in the award-winning and commercially driven Once Were Warriors (1993), a brutally realistic urban social drama which was then the biggest box-office success at New Zealand cinemas, and Whale Rider (2002), with its picturesque small-town views, which earned an Oscar ® nomination for its lead actress, Keisha Castle-Hughes. But the success of these two films cannot disguise the fact that Maori filmmaking continues to lack production opportunities.
Lee Tamahori's (b. 1950) Once Were Warriors was released around the same time as Jane Campion's (b. 1954) Oscar ® -nominated The Piano (1993) and Peter Jackson's (b. 1961) critically applauded Heavenly Creatures (1994), which marked a departure from Jackson's earlier graphic horror productions Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992). The 1990s was a boom period for the New Zealand film industry, but it seemed to smother the films that followed as they tried to emulate the previous successes. Tamahori soon left for Hollywood, where he has since directed films such as the James Bond installment Die Another Day (2002), and Campion also focused on working overseas. Jackson, seemingly almost alone, remained at home, and instead brought Hollywood to New Zealand with vast foreign investment for epic films requiring CGI effects that could be created at his Wellington-based WETA studios. But New Zealand film is not just hobbits, Kong, and Narnia: directors such as Harry Sinclair ( The Price of Milk , 2000), Brad McGann ( In My Father's Den , 2004), and Glenn Standring ( Perfect Creature , 2005), along with Whale Rider 's Niki Caro (b. 1967) represent a new group of filmmakers capable of making films featuring New Zealand content that appeal to an international audience.
Conrich, Ian, and Stuart Murray, eds. New Zealand Filmmakers . Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2007.
Dennis, Jonathan, and Jan Bieringa, eds. Film in Aotearoa New Zealand . Wellington, NZ: Victoria University Press, 1996.