Vale Judith McCann, trailblazing executive

Judith McCann with Peter Jackson and the 'Braindead' team at Cannes in 1992. (Photo: Robin Laing)

Judith McCann, former head of the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) and the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC), died unexpectedly in Canada on October 4, age 75.

Born in New Zealand and raised in Canada, McCann began her career as a public servant working on arts and culture policy, before moving Telefilm Canada where she would become deputy director. 

Having been integral to the negotiation of the Canadian-New Zealand co-production treaty, she then returned to her native Aotearoa New Zealand in 1989 to become the executive director of the NZFC.

During her five years tenure, she backed seminal Kiwi films including Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors.

In 1994, McCann then headed across the ditch to take up position as CEO of the SAFC, a role she held until 2000. While in SA, she helped to usher in films such as Scott Hicks’ Oscar-winning Shine.

McCann returned to Canada in 1999, co-founding international screen consulting firm MPICS. In 2004, she headed back to NZ to take an appointment as the CEO of Film New Zealand, overseeing the screen attraction organisation through its formative years. She retired to Ottawa in 2010.

In a statement, acting CEO of the NZFC Mladen Ivancic said McCann was fundamental in shaping the scope and strategy of the organisation.

“She was passionate about New Zealand storytelling, a highly capable and at times formidable leader and her legacy in the film sector is admired and respected enormously. We are very sad to hear about her passing and send our condolences to her friends and family,” he said.

Mark Woods, then CEO of Ausfilm, and Judith McCann when she was head of FilmNZ in Cannes in 2007. (Photo via: Mark Woods)

Melbourne International Film Festival industry director Mark Woods tells IF he has fond memories of McCann, going back to the mid-90s when he worked as a journalist for Variety and he spent time with her in Adelaide while writing a special section on the 30th anniversary of the SAFC. Later, she became his “fearsome and fun competitor” when she ran Film New Zealand and he was CEO of Ausfilm.

“Film was never far from Judith’s mind and she loved passionate policy discussions over some bevvies. Debonnaire, generous and with razor-sharp intelligence and dry wit, she was one of a kind,” he tells IF.

Bridget Ikin produced Campion’s An Angel At My Table, which McCann backed at the NZFC. She tells IF she and fellow Felix Media producer John Maynard remember her as a “kind, vigorous and enthusiastic champion of a number of our films, both in Aotearoa/New Zealand and later in South Australia.”

McCann is survived by her brother Patrick and sister Maureen.