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40 years back: the start of the NZFC

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Founding NZFC chair Bill Sheat is farewelled in 1985 by his successor David Gascoigne, who would head the organisation for the next eight years.

by Bill Sheat
I want to pay tribute to those who paid a key role in the establishment of the New Zealand Film Commission forty years ago.

I saw my first films at a tiny cinema in Opunake in coastal Taranaki.It was called “Everybody’s.” When my father entered Parliament in 1943 he got a complimentary subscription to “The Listener.” When it arrived I grabbed it and turned to the film reviews of Gordon Mirams (the older brother of Roger Mirams, co-founder of Pacific Films with John O’Shea.) The Mirams reviews made realise the motion picture was a genre to be taken seriously.

But it took me 20 years to wake up to the possibility that we could make films in New Zealand.

In 1964 I became involved with founding Downstage Theatre and its enterprising manager, Harry Seresin. I had heard that a film was being shot in Wellington. Harry took me out to Kilbirmie to meet John O’Shea who was the director of the film. It was called “Runaway” .

While principal photography was completed, there was no money for post-production. John asked if I would help. I became the de facto Executive Producer. I performed the same function on “Don’t Let It Get You” but we couldn’t do it again.

John and I increasingly discussed the need for some form of Government funding.

By the end of the 60s I had become Chairman of the Arts Council. There were plans for a large conference to be called “Arts Conference 70”. I seized the opportunity to put film on the agenda. John O’Shea put forward two resolutions outlining a concept for a government agency to support the making of feature films, including an archive. Those resolutions were adopted with acclamation.

We were on the way.

The then National Government had set up a vast advisory structure called the National Development Council. With numerous specialist advisory sector councils. We able to get the Arts Council accepted as the sector advisory council for the arts. So we set up the Film Industry Working Party with myself as Chairman. Others on the working party included Professor John Roberts and, of course John O’Shea.

As a first move I arranged for John Reid to prepare a background paper so that the working party had a solid basis of information to build on. The Tourist and Publicity Department who ran the National Film Unit refused to participate.

By 1973 the Labour Government had appointed W.B.Sutch as Arts Council Chairman. Sutch did not have the same commitment to film as I did. The Film Industry Working Party ground to a halt. Malcolm Rickard, a recently retired Deputy Director of Broadcasting, was brought in as acting Director of the Council. He approached me and said we have got to do something, about getting a report done to complete the work of the Working Party. He suggested that Mike Nicolaidi be asked to draft a final report. I readily agreed. So the report got written and sent off to the Government.

By the end of 1975 the National Party was back in office and Allan Highet became New Zealand’s first ever Minister for the Arts. He was a strong supporter of our cause. Perhaps even more influential was his wife Shona MacFarlane.

The stars were starting to line up. Then suddenly several New Zealand features were released. Roger Donaldson’s “Sleeping Dogs” Tony Williams’ ”Solo’, Michael Firth’s “Off The Edge” and Geoff Murphy’s “Wild Man”.

In the course of processing the recommendations of the Film Industry Working Party, the Government sent Jim Booth to Australia to have a look at what they were doing there. We were not unhappy about that as we knew Jim was an ally. He was to become the second chief executive of Commission, leaving to join Peter Jackson as producer.

After he submitted his report, the Government set up an Interim Film Commission in 1977. One of our tasks was to draft our own Legislation. That was something special and indicated the strong degree of trust between us and the
Minister. The members of the interim Commission were myself, David Gascoigne, John O’Shea, Mervyn Corner and Royce Moodabe. Royce had been brought up in the Film business (he called it “Fillim’) His father Michael Moodabe had built the cinema chain called Amalgamated Theatres. Mervyn Corner was an ex All Black half back from the 1930s who had been manager of the Auckland Savings Bank. He was Allan Highet’s personal choice. He proved to be a valuable
contributor to our discussions. He would quietly bring us back to earth when some of us got a bit
starry eyed.

The bulk of the work on the legislation was done by David Gascoigne and the fact that the act has stood the test of time is a tribute to his skill.

We had slight difficulty with the censorship laws. We were of the opinion that as we would be bound by them anyway there was no need for any censorship provisions in our Act. In the end we gave way as it was not going to make any difference.

With the Act passed in 1978 we were formally constituted. There was a vacancy to be filled. I suggested to the minister that he appoint the actress Davina Whitehouse and a very valuable member she proved to be. I credit her staunch advocacy as carrying the day when we decided to go ahead with funding “Goodbye Pork Pie.”

When we started out on this journey 40 years ago we had great hopes, but we had no idea that the industry would grow as quickly and as extensively as it has done.

Bill Sheat was the founding chairman of the New Zealand Film Commission from 1978 to 1985. He gave a version of this speech at a function at Government House last night to mark the Film Commission’s fortieth anniversary.

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