by Lindsay Shelton
Bill Gosden, who died in Wellington this week at the age of 66, expanded the Wellington Film Festival to become the New Zealand International Film Festival, a national celebration of cinema which is one of the country’s biggest annual cultural events.
He had a forty-year career in which he became the influential and unchallenged leader of New Zealand film festivals, with taste and judgement that was trusted by audiences whose numbers grew every year because of his astute and well-judged programme selection.
He joined the NZ Federation of Film Societies in 1979, as its first fulltime programmer. The job included an annual secondment as administrator of the Wellington Film Festival, which was then in its eighth year. In 1981 he became the festival’s director, and when he stepped down from his job in 2019 because of ill health, he had grown the film festival to become a national event, screening in 14 centres and selling more than 260,000 tickets.
Bill Gosden was born in Dunedin. As a schoolboy he wrote film reviews for the newspaper of the Kaikourai Valley High School. At the University of Otago, where he graduated with an honours degree in English literature, he broadened his influence and became a film critic on the university newspaper.
In 1978 he moved to Wellington to work with New Zealand Film Services, one of the country’s few independent film distributors. Then at the age of 25 – with a ten-year record of encouraging Otago filmgoers to expand their interests beyond conventional Hollywood fare – he joined the Federation of Film Societies (whose offices were on the same floor of the same building as Film Services) and began his forty year commitment to film festivals.
The first Wellington Film Festival which he directed showed 47 films over 16 days, all at the Paramount Theatre, with an audience of about 22,000. Within ten years he had doubled the size of the Wellington programme and doubled the size of the audience, screening in three venues instead of one – the Embassy, the Paramount and the National Library. Under his direction, the numbers continued to grow – in his last year as director, attendances in Wellington were over 84,000, with screenings in eight cinemas.
In 1984 the Wellington festival took over the Auckland Film Festival (which till then had been controlled by the Auckland Festival Society), with Bill Gosden becoming director of both. His curatorial control soon extended to film festivals in Christchurch and Dunedin. It was the start of the creation of the national event which in 2009 merged 14 individual festivals (he was running all of them) to become known as the New Zealand International Film Festival. A New Zealand Film Festival Trust was formed in Wellington, to take over from the Federation of Film Societies as the governing body.
The annual programmes for Wellington and Auckland selected by Bill Gosden and his colleagues screened more than 150 New Zealand premieres of the best new international productions – in recent years they were often the first in the world to show award-winning films from the Cannes Film Festival held only two months earlier. The programmes in other centres showed a smaller selection.
Bill Gosden became a champion of the emerging New Zealand film industry, with his film festivals featuring world premieres which launched many careers – including Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and Heavenly Creatures, Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, Gaylene Preston’s Mr Wrong and Ruby and Rata, as well as first features by Taika Waititi, Niki Caro, Christine Jeffs, Barry Barclay, and many more. The film festival premieres not only helped establish the new films and filmmakers. Bill was often invited by directors to critique their films during post-production, and he was known for encouraging them to exceed their own expectations. He recommended many of the new NZ films to fellow programmers around the world – his taste and judgement commanding international respect.
He told the DomPost’s Sarah Catherall that his goal was always to expand and grow the audience, and make a chink in the dominance of Hollywood cinema. “It was really about trying to make the environment more receptive to a wider variety of voices. I always felt strongly about that. I do find the Hollywood industrial model quite aggressive at times. I hoped to make people’s cinema diets a little more varied. I also hoped that people would question what they saw, and the film festival was a good environment for that.”
His attention to the quality of the film experience went beyond the individual screenings: with great venues including the Civic Theatre and ASB Waterfront Theatre in Auckland, the Embassy and the Soundings Theatre at Te Papa in Wellington, the Regent in Dunedin and the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch all equipped in partnership with the film festivals and to their exacting international standards. The film festival’s commitment to the Embassy Theatre in Wellington encouraged the restoration and refurbishment of the grand 1920s venue, which had been abandoned.
And there were many anniversaries during his tenure as film festival director – including the 80th anniversary of the Civic, the 50th anniversary of the Auckland Film Festival, and the 40th anniversary of the Wellington Film Festival.
Dame Gaylene Preston told the DomPost: “I go to a lot of film festivals and I know how they are being forced to change because they are losing sponsorship and they are losing audiences, but I have to say that the film festival that Bill has built is one of the best in the world.”
In his retirement speech, Bill Gosden said:
“I have known the pleasures of working with … a profusion of filmmakers, exhibitors, distributors, sales agents, talent agents, sponsors, public servants, politicians, ticketers, journalists, musicians, programmers, publicists, writers, designers, printer, house managers, floor staff, festival directors, film societies, funders, technical wizards, volunteers, reviewers, critics and censors… In a constantly shifting mediascape there have been few dull stretches. Regular iterations of the impending demise of cinema always denied us the luxury of reclining into ‘business as usual.’ Filmmaking is generally a collaborative process. So, for sure, is making a film festival. Marshalling the myriad interests at play may require concentration, discernment and event a little imagination, but the will to keep NZIFF thriving is widely shared.
“I had the good luck to arrive where I did when I did. In 1979 the battle was well underway to rescue our screenings from total colonisation. The opportunities were too good not to seize, the old guard so complacent and condescending that disruption was both prerogative and pleasure…I will leave with few regrets, proud of what NZIFF has been able to pull off.
“I look back with pride on the astounding array of national and international filmmaking that has found its first New Zealand audience at NZIFF.”
Bill Gosden’s other interests included swimming, theatre, music, and travel. He had been a Governor of the New Zealand Arts Foundation since 2011, helping to select the Foundation’s Icon Awards. He was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001 and an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit this year, for his services to the film industry.
He stepped down from his position in 2019 because of cancer.
Dan Slevin remembers Bill Gosden