Films have been shown in New Zealand theatres and halls since the 1890s, but the first purpose-built picture theatre, the Kings, opened in Wellington in 1910. During the 1920s, attendance at film screenings was second only to the United States with thousands flocking to watch silent films from around the world.

Kings Theatre

During the 1940s, 50s and 60s, many New Zealanders would go to the ‘pictures’ once a week. It was the most popular source of entertainment and picture theatres could be found in every city and town. In fact, in the 1950s there were 589 venues screening films across the country and audience numbers climbed throughout the decade. Cinema admissions reached a peak in 1961 with 40.6 million admissions. (By 1969, when the term ‘cinema’ became widely used, only 129 of them survived thanks to the arrival of television.).

Two major chains, Amalgamated Theatres and Kerridge-Odeon operated 95 per cent of the cinemas across the country. Westerns were popular as were thrillers, musicals and suspense films. ‘The Robe’ was the first film to screen in Cinemascope. Big budget musicals included ‘South Pacific’, ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘West Side Story’, ‘The King and I’, ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘The Sound of Music’. These films were screened in 70mm in the four main centres as was ‘Zulu’ and ‘Spartacus’ just two of the historical epics to come out during this period. ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and ‘La Dolce Vita’ sizzled on local screens much to the disgust of those who believed movies were a corrupting force to society. In the 1940s ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ were the two biggest grossing films in New Zealand. In the 1950s, ‘Cinderella’ was the biggest box office earner while ‘The Sound of Music’ was by far the most successful film of the 1960s. It played for months in the four main centres.

Cinemas at this time in New Zealand history were often as important to a town as the local church. Outside the main cities movie theatres were also places where community meetings were held and live shows were presented. Screenings were set at specific times, usually a matinee at 2pm and an evening session at 7.30 or 8pm depending on the length of the film. Morning sessions called ‘Chum’s Clubs’ were held for kids on Saturdays and shopper’s sessions were held at 11am on some weekdays for mothers to chill out with some light entertainment. Comedies and light romance stories were the usual fare at these morning shows.


Some cinemas in Auckland and Wellington installed ‘crying rooms’ at the back of the stalls. These were soundproof booths where mothers with babies and toddlers could sit and watch the film through a plate glass window. The idea was to shield the cries of their offspring from the audience at large. Unbelievable as it seems today, it was also quite common for mothers to leave their babies in their prams in a designated area behind the foyer while they sat in the auditorium watching the film. Usually, a female usher was assigned to keep an eye on the temporarily abandoned babies until the film’s end and the return of the mothers.


Movie going during these decades always included an intermission. After usually a cartoon, travelogue and a series of trailers for upcoming films, the curtain would close across the screen and the house lights would come on indicating a break before the main feature. This 10 to 15-minute interlude involved a mad dash to the ‘nibble nook’ for a watery orange juice, an icecream and a box of jaffas. If you wanted to avoid this madness, you would remain seated and wait for the tray boy or girl to arrive at the end of your seat row. They had a small metal shelf strapped around their waists filled with the same products on sale at the ‘nibble nook’. When a bell sounded, the audience would race back to their seats so they wouldn’t miss the start of the main film.


From the 1920s to the late1950s, mid-sized vans called ‘picture buses’ served the small rural communities with screen entertainment. These mobile projection units would back up to a window in the local hall and project a movie onto a canvas screen which was erected with pullies. When sound arrived, a speaker was set up beside the screen and the appreciative audience would enjoy a movie that had previously screened at city cinemas a few months earlier. It was a popular service and the weekly screenings they provided at their designated circuits were much appreciated by the farming communities in outlying areas.


Believed to be the longest-continuously-running cinema in the world, Roxburgh’s picture theatre is located in the Town Hall. It was opened on 11th of December 1897 and still functions as a cinema today. In 1997, the cinema was up-graded to stadium seating for 400 and Dolby-Stereo added. A new larger CinemaScope screen was installed in 2004.

During the 1990s, a number of large cinemas were converted into bland multiplexes and very few of these grand old picture theatres remain in their original condition. Two striking examples of survival are the Civic in Auckland and the Regent in Dunedin. Both these theatres/cinemas have been restored to their original splendour and continue to provide movies and live performances to audiences who appreciate how lucky they are to enjoy the surroundings and comfort of these beautiful venues.


Small independent boutique cinemas, either privately run or managed by a community, manage to survive in various places all over New Zealand. They tend to show non-mainstream films that appeal to an intelligent audience so for this reason their future seems pretty secure. Let’s hope so. I had a substantial input into the creation of the 60 seat Metro Cinema in Dunedin. It is something for me to look back on with pride knowing the city has its own boutique theatre still going strong 7 days a week to cater to the discerning moviegoer of that city. Thanks to multiplexes, there are currently 411 movie screens across New Zealand. It’s heartening to know that cinemas have survived TV and more recently, streaming. There is nothing like the atmosphere generated by an audience engrossed in the same movie, something that can’t be achieved at home watching on the small screen.

Ceidrik Heward