New Zealand film industry today

Nora Gerwig is a down under lover and film fan. She takes us on a personal guest blog into the 'Jackson effect' of New Zealand Films.

When looking back at my personal encounter with New Zealand film I see the journey of a young teenager cultivating her cinematic taste throughout the years – from The Lord Of The Rings to the latest internationally successful films as What we do in the Shadows and Mahana, both screened at the Berlinale (2014 and 2015). But as a peek on recent New Zealand film history indicates, my own coming-of-age story somehow reflects the last 15 years of development in New Zealand film industry, from big offshore productions to a major rise in feature film production.

When Frank Stark claims in his book, New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History, that “In the 115-year history of film in this country, more than half of all our feature films were made in just the past 10 years“, it is necessary to go back one step further and look at the complex developments which initiated the process of growth in the late 1990s to 2005. It was also that time, when I myself experienced the period that Frank Stark calls the time of sudden success of big film productions in New Zealand: the ‘Jackson Effect’.

Blaming my young age of 15, Peter Jackson´s The Lord Of The Rings (LOTR) was my first contact with New Zealand as a country and to its film industry. Due to my enthusiasm for the film and instant love for that apparently spectacular country on the other side of the world, I managed to participate in a homestay in New Zealand and spent five enriching weeks with a wonderful Kiwi family.

Besides discovering the South Island on extended excursions, I spent evenings watching New Zealand films with my host-sister and two guys from the neighborhood. With them being around 15 too, they had a very specific taste in film. Still, they made a point of introducing some New Zealand culture to me. From Bad Taste, The Frighteners to Braindead I got the impression, that Peter Jackson was not only the only New Zealand film maker, but that a general New Zealand approach to film would be rather superficial, not quite serious and extremely low budget.

Still stoked by New Zealand and its warmhearted people I came back only three years later as an exchange student. This time I enriched my horizon on the North Island, experienced Maori culture and had also the chance to elaborate on my cinematic enlightenment. I found many Kiwis to be very proud of New Zealand films, which would rather focus on the question of New Zealand identity, than on fictional stories such as LOTR or the The Chronicles of Narnia. Gladly I followed their recommendations and watched films like Once were Warriors, The Piano and Whalerider. Films, that left me impressed, but also confused: Why would Peter Jackson, after making such a film as Heavenly Creatures turn to universal Hollywood-like themes and a global audience?

This is the sad point, where it all comes down to one important matter, money. Throughout the 90’s a weak economy and the lack of governmental commitment to support the local film industry, didn’t allow a creative and independent film industry to establish itself. Therefore directors as Peter Jackson, who wanted to continue creating feature-length films looked for funding from abroad. Doing so and ending up with great success, Jackson´s actions led to an increased international and national interest in New Zealand´s film industry. Between 2000 and 2005 the already mentioned ‘Jackson Effect’ encouraged the development of a New Zealand based infra-structure which would attract offshore productions as well as serve local film-making.

But how did the ‘Jackson Effect’ finally become the foundation for a recent rise in national feature film production? In the book New Zealand Film and Television: Institution, Industry and Cultural Change,authors Trisha Dunleavy and Hester Joyce give a further insight in the complex developments. As they suggest, the rise of NZ feature film production is also the result of political and economic changes that took place between 2000 and 2005. They especially emphasize on the role of the new Prime Minister Helen Clark, who, a great supporter of the arts herself, provided as Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage an increased financial support for local film projects. In this context Trisha Dunleavy and Hester Joyce are in particular outlining the role of the LOTR films and claim that “due to its sufficiently large scale and perfect timing the trilogy turned out as vehicle that initially would drive that process.”

Although when thinking of New Zealand film, the picture of LOTR has started to fade away, Peter Jackson´s trilogy nevertheless was my first conscious and personal encounter with New Zealand´s film industry and initiated a personal journey through New Zealand cinema. Now, 15 years later and not yet 30 years old I finally feel like I am well or at least better prepared to face life and unfold myself, just like I feel New Zealand has just begun to get started on feature films.


Nora Gerwig completed her Master of Arts in literature, arts and media at the University of Konstanz. She first moved to Berlin in 2015 to work for the Berlinale. Having lived and worked in Melbourne as well as in Christchurch she is a huge lover of Down Under, its people and of course its films.