Wellington Scoop

Bill’s 38th film festival

by Lindsay Shelton
The film festival which begins in Wellington next week will be the 38th annual event that director Bill Gosden has curated – it’s a record of extraordinary growth and success.

Bill took over as director in 1980, when the event (then known as the Wellington Film Festival) was held in the Paramount, where it had been started in 1972. He has expanded it beyond what anyone could have imagined. It now screens 160 films in eight Wellington cinemas, and last year it sold a record number of more than 78,000 tickets, making its per-capita attendance the best in the world.

The festival doesn’t have substantial sponsorship. Ninety per cent of its income comes from the box office, making it very much an audience-driven event. Which is a challenge met impressively every year by Bill Gosden, who has to balance the expectations and interests of his audience with his ability to identify and obtain the year’s most important and newest productions. And then to persuade us that we need to see them at the festival.

As anyone in Wellington knows, long-running events are not guaranteed continuing success. (Yes, I’m thinking of the Sevens, which failed in spite of substantial financial support from the city council, much much more than the film festival has ever received.) Yet Bill Gosden has ensured that his event – now renamed as the New Zealand International Film Festival – holds its position as the most popular event in the city’s mid-winter cultural calendar.

That success is due to his unequalled talent for finding and selecting new films, as well as his international influence in persuading producers to allow their brand-new titles to screen here before they’ve been seen anywhere in the world. It’s a great achievement for Wellington’s programme to include so many new films that were premiered less than two months ago at the Cannes Film Festival. There’ll be 25 of them this year.

The city council hasn’t always shown an awareness of the importance of the film festival. During Celia Wade-Brown’s mayoralty, the council announced a plan to establish … a Wellington film festival. Bill and I hastened to remind her that the event already existed and that she was always invited to opening night. In the last election, then-councillor Jo Coughlan announced as one of the promises for her mayoral campaign that she would establish … a Wellington film festival. She seemed reluctant to accept the fact that such an event had been happening every year for more than four decades.

However last year the council gave a formal and overdue acknowledgement of Bill’s continuing success when it presented him with an Absolutely Positively Wellington award.

The council is, of course, the owner of the film festival’s principal venue – the magnificent Embassy Theatre. Its restoration was being carried out by a charitable trust when Peter Jackson announced that it would be the venue for the world premiere of the third film in his record-breaking trilogy. This prospect got the council excited. It offered to pay to complete the restoration, on one condition: the trust had to hand over ownership of the building.

The film festival’s offices are now on the top floor of the Embassy, with the council as landlord. And every year the film festival’s principal screenings are scheduled in the Embassy’s mighty auditorium, with its giant screen and state of the art sound.

Kudos to Bill Gosden – and to his colleagues – for impressive and sustained consistency in assembling and presenting annual programmes that are always surprising and rewarding.

Lindsay Shelton was founding director of the Wellington Film Festival.


  1. A J Corlett, 18. July 2017, 8:19

    Kudos indeed to Bill Gosden, he is to the WIFF what Bernie Ecclestone was to Formula 1.
    However, on the subject of festivals, Cannes is no longer the only game in town. 25 films from there seems a bit excessive.
    On the subject of film, is opening night feature “The Love Witch” the only 35mm film in the festival this year? Ticketing response has been very strong, yet it is not being screened at The Embassy, the premiere venue. [The Embassy is no longer equipped for 35mm screenings. The Film Festival paid for a matching 35mm projector at the Paramount to enable reel-to-reel screenings.]

  2. Neil Douglas, 22. July 2017, 16:44

    A lot of films at the film festival have the same timing – eg all afternoon / morning slots – which makes them difficult for me, and I suspect many others, to see. Why not have at least one evening slot for every film?

    Take ‘The Farthest’ for example which is about the Voyager space mission and a film I wanted to see. That’s until I checked the times. Its showing four times: Three Sundays at 12.15pm, 2.45pm and 3.30pm and one Fri at 10.20am. So I won’t be seeing it. Hopefully it will come back later in the year or get shown on TV.

  3. Traveller, 24. July 2017, 8:19

    Great that Gaylene’s film on Helen Clark has sold out for its Wellington premiere on Sunday. Great that it sold out the Civic in Auckland, too.