Chapter Three – Non-Fiction Films: Between the Wars

By Clive Sowry. Summary by Jakki Galloway

Publicity for New Zealand at Work and Play (1927).

A 1934 committee of enquiry into the Motion Picture Industry came about in part as an attempt to stop block booking – where cinemas were forced to take unpopular films along with the popular ones. One result was the introduction of a standard film-hire contract. 

The Government Publicity Office (GPO) was set up in 1921 to promote New Zealand internationally. In 1923, Cyril Morton joined and within a year he was the senior cinematographer. In 1924, AH Messenger joined as publicity officer. 

After a fire at the GPO central Wellington filmmaking offices in 1928, AAP Mackenzie set up Filmcraft Ltd in Miramar (at what later became named Miramar Film Studios) to process GPO films. Independent filmmakers were also producing films during this time. 

The most popular subjects were news, screen tests, beauty contests, travel and industrial films. Many helped sell an idea of "beautiful New Zealand".  

In 1923, 16 mm film was introduced by the Eastman Kodak Company. This made filmmaking more accessible to amateurs. 

Following the expenses associated with the development of film with sound, and the financial crisis of the early 1930s, the Government could not keep up with the costs of maintaining the filmmaking component of the GPO. Filmcraft Ltd, faced with losing its main source of income, imported a sound-on-film camera and tried to support itself by making its own films. 

In 1933, a Dunedin-based company, Sound Films Productions Ltd, acquired the rights to the Welsh Sound System and began to produce a weekly newsreel called New Zealand Soundscenes. It ultimately proved unviable. 

During these years a number of filmmakers survived by selling short news items to overseas newsreels. 

In 1936, the Filmcraft Ltd studios were leased by the Government (GPO had merged with the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts) who entered into a contract with Universal Films to produce New Zealand Review. Filmcraft Ltd staff were retained. 

In 1940, John Grierson, who is often described as the 'grandfather of the documentary film' in the United Kingdom and Canada, was invited by the New Zealand Government to report on filmmaking in New Zealand. At that time he was the Film Commissioner for the Canadian Government and his ideas on documentary “as a vehicle for democracy” would have a strong influence on New Zealand filmmaking.


Activity 9: Selling New Zealand through films – Close read stills.

Activity 10: Margaret Thomson on John Grierson – Close read a paper.


FORWARD to Chapter Four – Political and Alternative Filmmaking: 1940 to 1950

BACK to Chapter Two – The Rise of Fiction: Between the Wars

BACK to Our Film History

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