Interview with the editor in chief of Celluloid Dreams, Geoffrey Churchman, by Murray Edmonds of Whitirea Polytechnic.
ME: How did this project come about?
GC: Very slowly. It was over seven years from the time it was proposed in 1990 to its publication. At that time we were active in packaging books for the big Auckland publishers and this was one of the concepts which we put to them and they liked. Of course, we next had to write it and that took a long time involving several researchers as well as three editors apart from myself. We finished compilation work in mid-1997 and the editorial cut off was at that time.
Why was it so involved?
Very little had actually been written about either the film exhibition or film production industries in this country, so a lot of primary research had to be done. It was a big subject, and we couldn’t cover everything comprehensively. As it was the amount of text we had before we edited it all down was quite substantial, but there were limits to the size of book that we could put out and expect it to sell. We also had to make it very visual as befits the nature of the subject, with lots of good illustrations. If the budget had been bigger we would have given more space to short films, including industrial films, and more biographies of significant people.
Some reviewers criticised you for having too few critical comments about the feature films that have been made here.
The Listener reviewer did, but I suspect the filmography was the only part of the book he was interested in and which he actually read. In fact we had a lot more critical comments in the original draft, but that wasn’t the purpose of the book. The Martin/Edwards book was all about that, it was only an adjunct to ours.
Did the appearance of the Martin/Edwards book at the same time as your one clash?
No, their book was complementary to ours – we provided an overall history, they analysed the films - so most people would have bought both. Actually there were films they omitted which we included and vice versa, so it was complementary from that aspect also.
Do you think there was a ‘coming of age’ of the production industry in New Zealand?
Yes. Things didn’t take off until the late 1970s with Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs and the advent of the Film Commission. Before that you can count the feature films on your fingers. Even with the Film Commission producers have had to be tenacious, hard working and be able to make a little money go a long way. The problem has always been the small population and the difficulty of making money from films, it’s a high risk, highly entrepreneurial industry, like book publishing I guess. The films made have been a real mixed bag in terms of quality, but that’s true everywhere, including Hollywood.
How do you view the industry or industries now [in 2004]?
The exhibition industry has grown with more screens and more comfortable theatres. Showpiece cinemas like the Civic in Auckland and the Embassy in Wellington have been restored and refurbished. The Imax in central Auckland came and went; I remember [distributor] Royce Moodabe telling me in 1996 that it wasn’t something he would invest in and he was proved right. It’s a shame though.
On the production side of things the major development has obviously been the growth of Peter Jackson’s operations, not just the Lord of the Rings films, but his studios in Wellington and his acquisition of the Film Unit from TVNZ. That you can make movies in Wellington that clean up at the Oscars, not just the creative ones, but the technical ones too, is obviously a major boost to the country’s international profile. The Film Commission’s marketing people would know more about that. Apart from Peter Jackson, you’ve had films like Whale Rider, and In My Father’s Den which have had big success, both critically and financially. It’s a wheelbarrow industry, however: you have to keep making high quality indigenous films, and that will invariably mean having to find investors with ever deeper pockets. Money is becoming ever more important in achieving the sophistication that people nowadays expect.