Ant Timpson is known for encouraging the type of movies that will cross almost any line to entertain: horror flicks, genrebenders, films that push buttons and fall foul of the censors. His parents are partly to blame — "at a tender age" they took him to experience incendiary 1970s classics Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now.
When Ant was a child, Timpson's family spent time living in Beverly Hills, where some of his schoolmates had famous actors for parents. Getting this peep behind the curtain "both normalised showbiz and amplified it". Drawn to the fantastic from an early age, Ant made horror shorts with his brother. Later he got more serious about directing, but "then I got sort of derailed. I got hooked into film festivals".
At Otago University, Timpson’s brain had been permanently twisted by exploitation fare like Shogun Assassin. Kiwi splatterfest Death Warmed Up persuaded him and the rest of "Aotearoa’s collective horror heads that we too could make gleefully gory genre films". Timpson began creating fanzines which explored his enthusiasm for celluloid's outer limits. He helped out on short films, worked on the special effects effects for classic short Kitchen Sink, and completed his own — the "pretty bad" Crab Boy.
Before abandoning law studies in the mid 1980s, he'd begun organising marathon filmwatching and keg sessions for students. After approaching Auckland cinema legend Charley Gray, he got the go-ahead to organise a festival of bad taste films. Despite launching with some "pretty cruddy titles" like Blood Diner and Surf Nazis Must Die, the no-budget fest proved a hit, spurring further cult screenings at Charley Gray’s.
By 1992 Timpson had taken over management of the single-screen venue. After losing the battle with multiplexes, he set up specialist film distribution company 2Brothers. In this period he also ran a film bookshop with his brother. The Incredibly Strange Film Festival began in 1994. Following various changes of title and venue (including a year at Auckland's 2300-seat Civic Theatre) Incredibly Strange won an ongoing home within New Zealand’s yearly round of film festivals.
Timpson sees an upside in "material that's somehow on the edge". Humans, he argues, try to keep the "more primal side of ourselves safely under lock and key, but there's a vicarious thrill in seeing these aspects of ourselves exposed via things like cinema, music and the visual arts. The more you repress these things, the more likely they are to pop out in disturbing new ways, and cinema can be a great release valve for some of that stuff."
In 2008 Timpson presented a season of Incredibly Strange double features for Sky TV’s MGM Channel (which later became Sky Movie Classics). By now he'd amassed an impressive collection of 35 millimetre film prints. Some screen in his yearly 24-hour movie marathons, and some head overseas. He'd also begun renting out portable movie screens for outdoor screenings.
A keen follower of the idea that good films can be made cheaply and fast, Timpson has encouraged thousands of Kiwis to stop procrastinating and pick up a camera. His 48Hours filmmaking contest attracts amateurs and professionals across New Zealand. Timpson's contest was born from the international 48 Hour Film Project, which by its third year in 2003, had spread to Auckland from Washington. After managing the Auckland arm of contest, Timpson launched his Aotearoa-only event the following year. Timpson writes about the contest's history here.
Contestants in the "cinematic bootcamp" are assigned their own genre, plus a small number of script elements to include in their film; they have just two days to write, complete, and deliver the result. Among the many emerging talents to have honed their skills and triumphed at 48Hours are Taika Waititi (Heinous Crime), Housebound's Gerard Johnstone (Special Crimes Unit) and the downlowconcept (Only Son).
Since 2005 Peter Jackson has often picked three 'wildcard' films to go into the final. When Auckland's Arts Regional Trust honoured Timpson with a Creative Entrepreneur award in 2012, co-judge Jennifer Ward-Lealand argued that the 48Hours contest had made filmmaking achievable "for anyone and everyone".
In 2005 the Film Commission funded company Headstrong to provide funding for digital filmmakers. Run by Timpson and fellow producers Leanne Saunders and Paul Swadel, Headstrong set out to develop the kind of features which Timpson argued "actually wouldn’t benefit from four to five years of development, there’s a chance they’d be tinkered to mediocrity".
The two movies that emerged were anarchic stuntman comedy The Devil Dared Me To (from Back of the Y perpetrators Chris Stapp and Matt Heath), and edgy Gregory King drama A Song of Good. This drama about a man trying to redeem himself from his criminal past won headlines for breaking traditional distribution models, after it was briefly released free online for 24 hours.
In 2011 Timpson and NZ Herald entertainment editor Hugh Sundae won funding to create the Make My Movie contest. Entrants marketed their movie ideas through a special website, and the public helped whittle down 750 entries to 12, before a final winner was chosen. The winning team of 48Hours veterans (Traces of Nut) were given $100,000 and two and a half months to complete romantic comedy How to Meet Girls from a Distance. It was selected for the 2012 round of NZ Film Festivals. A horror variation of the contest later resulted in heavy metal horror romp Deathgasm, which won enthusiastic reviews.
The same period saw the release of anthology movie The ABCS of Death, in which 26 directors from around the globe were assigned a letter as a springboard for their own short horror tale. The film was inspired by his son’s ABC books. Timpson produced with another film exhibition veteran: American Tim League, co-founder of legendary Texas cinema The Alamo Drafthouse.
The duo reconvened for an ABC sequel, followed in 2016 by Los Angeles-shot comedy horror The Greasy Strangler. Website Ain't It Cool News described the latter as "a mind-f***, face-melt, primal scream". In 2018, Timpson and League produced partly crowd-funded horror The Field Guide To Evil. Unveiled at Texas festival South by Southwest, it brought together folk tales by eight directors from around the globe.
B movie homage Turbo Kid was released in 2015. Initially proposed as letter T of The ABC of Death by a trio of Canadian filmmakers, the post-apocalyptic tale was filmed in Canada and completed in New Zealand. Timpson was one of the four producers, as was Kiwi lawyer Tim Riley.
In 2019 Timpson directed feature Come to Daddy, thinking it was well time he made something of his own rather than encouraging others. Featuring sometime 48Hours judge Elijah Wood, cult actor Stephen McHattie and Kiwi Madeleine Sami, the twist-filled tale won strong reviews at New York's Tribeca Film Festival. Timpson described the Irish-Canadian-Kiwi co-production as a "dark thriller with comedic moments". Although the film shows Timpson's love of keeping viewers on edge, it also has a very personal angle: the story was born after the death of his father. Timpson's hope was that the result would echo the thrillers the two used to watch together.
In the same year, he was appointed to the board of the NZ Film Commission.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 3 November 2022
Filmhead website. Accessed 5 September 2022
Ant Timpson, ‘An Extremely Brief History ... of the Festival that could not be killed’. Incredibly Strange website. Accessed 18 November 2015
Ant Timpson, ‘**The strange history of DEATH WARMED UP’ Filmhead website. Accessed 18 November 2015
Ant Timpson, 'Pigging Out At The Digital Trough' Birth.Movies.Death. website. Loaded 21 March 2012. Accessed 12 June 2020
'Filmhead wins inaugural Creative Entrepreneur' (Press Release) The Big Idea website. Loaded 29 February 2012. Accessed 14 March 2019
Ant Timpson, 'The Very Long, Dark and Strange Journey to Directing My First Feature' Talkhouse website. Loaded 23 April 2019. Accessed 5 September 2022
Ant Timpson, 'Hobo with a Shotgun'. New Zealand International 2011 Film Festival programme
Steve Propoky, 'SUNDANCE 2016: Capone looks at the midnighters Kevin Smith's YOGA HOSERS, Rob Zombie's 31, and THE GREASY STRANGLER!!!' (Review) Ain't It Cool News website. Loaded 28 January 2016. Accessed 14 March 2019
Grant Smithies, 'Ant Timpson: Cult connoisseur' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times, 12 October 2014
tHugh Sundae, 'Hobbit star's 48 hour quest' - The NZ Herald, 18 November 2015
‘Movie stalks its way to the top’ The Big Idea website. Loaded 26 January 2012. Accessed 14 March 2019
'Digital filmmaking: so long Headstrong' (Interview with Timpson, Leanne Saunders and Paul Swadel) - Onfilm, December 2007
Unknown writer, 'Ant Timpson's dark thriller going to Tribeca Film Festival' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 14 March 2019