The NZFC at 40: Lindsay Shelton reflects on major milestones

Cannes 1988 (L-R) John Maynard, whose feature The Navigator was in competition, NZFC chief executive Jim Booth, Lindsay Shelton and distributor/producer Barrie Everard.

Many of our earliest highlights were at the Cannes Film Festival.

In 1980 we took New Zealand films to the market at Cannes for the first time. We persuaded Geoff Murphy to rush completion of Goodbye Pork Pie and it became New Zealand’s first commercial hit in terms of sales: Six contracts for distribution in 20 countries.

John Laing’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt and Roger Donaldson’s Smash Palace earned success in the market in our second year – with Roger’s film getting one of our first deals for theatrical release in the USA.

In 1982 New Zealand earned official selection at Cannes for the first time with Sam Pillsbury’s The Scarecrow in Directors’ Fortnight.

That was followed in 1983 by Geoff Murphy’s Utu in official selection out of competition; it screened in the same huge auditorium where E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial had been seen the previous night.

In 1984 Vincent Ward became the first New Zealand director selected for the Cannes competition with his first feature Vigil. The Times called him a “rare visionary” but it took four more years before we could get back into the competition with his second feature, The Navigator.

There were many other festivals where we introduced New Zealand films to the world – including Manila, where Bruno Lawrence danced with Imelda Marcos after he’d won best actor award for Smash Palace. I tried the market at the Berlin Film Festival, but February snow did not make for a pleasant experience. And for Venice we would have to wait till 1990.

In the meantime we were setting records for domestic releases. Most successful of all was Goodbye Pork Pie which was seen by 600,000 people. Twenty years later it was still on our top ten list.

Feature films by Maori directors became an important part of the new industry. First was Merata Mita’s 1983 documentary Patu, about civil unrest during a Springbok tour. Then came Barry Barclay’s Ngati, which earned selection in the Critics’ Week at Cannes in 1987.

Cinema releases in London and New York gave us quotes from reviewers which we were proud to use back home in New Zealand. My favourite was from Ken Wlaschin, writing in the American Film Institute’s program: “The New Zealand film industry is one of the wonders of the world … an unparalleled success story with directors and stars of international reputation.”

And TV sales to networks in Britain and Germany earned huge international audiences and helped build our reputation.

Two of the most successful films that I handled at the NZFC were directed by Jane Campion and Lee Tamahori.

Jane’s Angel at my Table was selected for the Venice Film Festival in 1990 and won seven awards. I sold it to every country in the world. The NZFC had at first been nervous about investing but they went ahead because of the talent of the director and the importance of the Janet Frame books on which it was based. Its Australian release ran for seven months; in the UK, it ran for eight months.

Lee’s Once Were Warriors also made the NZFC nervous but again they decided to invest because of the director and because the book on which the film was based was a local best-seller. The film failed to earn selection at Cannes (which we had been expecting) but its launch in the festival’s market in 1994 was an enormous hit – with some of the highest advances and, again, worldwide sales and distribution.

Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison earned international praise for their roles. At home it became a national obsession, seen by more than one million New Zealanders in its 12-month theatrical release it outgrossed Jurassic Park and Lion King. And it won almost all the NZ film awards for its year.

By this time Peter Jackson had emerged with the NZFC investing in his first four features, starting with the splatter comedy Bad Taste in 1987. My BBC friends said they loved the film but could never buy it. But buy it, eventually, they did (for a late-night screening.).

Peter’s fourth feature was Heavenly Creatures, which was acquired for worldwide release by Miramax Films, with success and acclaim which led on to the mega hits which followed.

Linsday Shelton was the NZFC’s marketing director from 1979-2001. The commission is celebrating its 40th anniversary at a function at Government House on Thursday, hosted by the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, and her partner Sir David Gascoigne – both former chairs of the NZFC.