Bringing This is New Zealand home

Three projectors set up for screening This is New Zealand in the Embassy Theatre in Wellington.


Expo 70 ended in November, with well over a million Japanese having seen the film – and hardly any New Zealanders. One of those who saw it at Expo in April 1970 was Jack Marshall, and he initiated talks with the NFU about getting it shown in New Zealand.


In September 1970 he was able to announce in Parliament that arrangements had been made to ship the 15 tons (other reports say 19 tons) of projection equipment back from Japan, and have cinemas in the four main centres especially modified to hold it, so that the film could be seen in its homeland. The Christchurch Star of 29 September 1970 reported "Mr Marshall said New Zealanders should have an opportunity to see the film, as it was the 'finest film' shown at Expo '70 and the best film he had seen on New Zealand."


Appreciation back home


Queues for This is New Zealand screenings in Wellington stretched a block-and-a-half down Kent Terrace.


Wellington journalist Dai Hayward expressed gratitude to Mr Marshall (and to Minister of Tourism Bert Walker and NFU manager Geoffrey Scott) for their efforts in getting the film back to New Zealand and on public view. Writing in The Dominion on 17 March 1971, after seeing a preview, he  said that after this screening to the specially-invited V.I.P. audience, “...there was not , as might be expected, polite applause. There was instead spontaneous, prolonged, enthusiastic and genuine applause – a tribute to the film and the team that made it.” He went on to say “ is not only a film of breathtaking beauty. It is also an educational film in the pleasantest and easiest of ways. Every school child would learn more about their own country in the 20 minutes of This is New Zealand than they would from a week of lessons... Every aspect of the film is first class, but a special tribute is due to script writer and director Hugh Macdonald...”


Hayward then commented on what value for money This is New Zealand represented:


“The achievement of the National Film Unit is even more remarkable because by international standards the film was made on a shoestring. At Expo it over-shadowed and outrated films from other bigger countries that cost up to $1 million to present. The bill for New Zealand's film, including the cost of a considerable amount of technical equipment, electronic gear and special projectors was just $150,000. Its value to New Zealand will be many times that.”


School children were bussed from as far north as Hawkes Bay to see This is New Zealand in Wellington


"This film reaches right inside people"


This is New Zealand had its first public New Zealand screening on Friday 19 March 1971, at the Embassy theatre in Wellington. Preceded by This is Expo, a 20 minute documentary on Expo 70 and the New Zealand presence there (also directed by Hugh Macdonald) the film was initially set down for a one week run to gauge interest. It was screened six times a day Monday to Friday, and three times a day on Saturday. Interest was huge – within the first week 10,000 people had seen it.


A month later the total was up to 75,000. The 75,000th person to see it, Mrs D. Jason of Thorndon, (back to see it for a second time) was given free admission and a book on New Zealand.


In the end the season was extended twice, to the end of May. By that time the 100,000th person to buy a ticket, Mrs M. David of Eastbourne, had been given three illustrated books on New Zealand by the Minister of Tourism.


Courtenay Place was not to experience so much fuss about a film until the Lord of the Rings premiere 32 years later. It has never seen so much attention given to a film not only made in New Zealand, but also about New Zealand.  A month after This is New Zealand first started screening, people were still flocking to see it in droves.


Warwick Roger wrote about it the Weekly News of 3 May 1971: “What made 2000 Wellingtonians mill around on the roadway in mid-city Courtenay Place at midday on Easter Monday, [April 12] causing the manager of a nearby cinema to summon the police and traffic officers to clear the throng away? An accident? Civil unrest? Free beer at the pub on the corner? None of these things. The crowd was trying to get into the cinema where a little-advertised, locally made film, This is New Zealand, which runs for only 19 minutes, was showing.”


He noted that the film had been a top attraction in Osaka, and then asked "But what makes the film so wildly popular with New Zealanders? … it doesn't have one word of commentary, and shows sights that are familiar to most of the audience.”


Les Solon, manager of the Embassy theatre, with 40 years of cinema experience, told Roger

“This film reaches right inside people ... It's the only film in all my experience where the audience has applauded after every screening, and people have come up to me with tears streaming down their faces, and said “Aren't you proud you live in New Zealand?' ”


A special screening


Hugh photographs Dudley Moore as he sprays air freshener in the commercial shot in Hugh's home in 1971.A celebrity visitor to New Zealand, the pianist, actor and comedian Dudley Moore, had his own special screening of This is New Zealand.


Hugh's home in Melrose, Wellington was being used as the location for a commercial featuring Moore and New Zealand actor Ginette ('Lyn of Tawa') McDonald.


The only time Moore had free to see the film was Sunday night, when the Embassy theatre was closed.


NFU manager Geoffrey Scott arranged a special screening with the Embassy's manager. Afterwards he asked if Moore would do a film for the NFU, to which Moore riposted "Only on three screens!"


The most successful film ever


After 10 weeks in Wellington a Dunedin season opened at the St James on June 25, closing 8 weeks later. The Christchurch season at the Odeon opened on August 6. By September 17 another 99,999 people had seen it, and Mrs W. Sheat of Dunsandel was the one who drew the lucky 100,000 number, and was given two books about New Zealand.


The manager of the Odeon said that as far as admittances were concerned it was the most successful film the cinema had ever screened. In November 1971 the Auckland season opened at the Embassy, where it ran for 12 weeks.


By the time the film closed over 400,000 people had seen it, making This is New Zealand one of the most popular films to screen in New Zealand to that date, as well as the most popular New Zealand film.


It was also the first NFU film that audiences paid to see separately, rather than watching it as one of the shorts before a feature film. On The Dominion's 'Films' page of 29 March 1971, Nevil Gibson said he thought this was a good thing: “At 40 cents, with a film on Expo thrown in, it's a good hour's value.” He hoped that the NFU would be thereby encouraged to put more money into making films that people would pay to see.



What happened next


This was not to be, as television took over the role of documenting New Zealand news and life on screen, a role that had once been the sole preserve of the NFU, and there were no more champions in government for funding innovative film making about New Zealand. Director Hugh Macdonald was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council grant for travel and study abroad in 1972, and went to the UK and Canada to learn about other types of film-making (features, television documentaries, animation) in 1973.


He then went on to do other innovative work for the NFU (see About Hugh Macdonald).


A 16 mm version of This is New Zealand was made and toured the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany during 1974 and 1975. It had to have its own 'tour guide' to take care of all the equipment required to screen it, and do the screenings. Finally it came back to New Zealand, and both the 35mm and 16mm versions remained locked away in their film cans for the next 30 years.