Bill Gosden's love for cinema was of the most enduring kind. During a three decade plus run as director of the NZ International Film Festival, he navigated his way each year through an ocean of new films, hunting down titles that might work for Kiwi audiences. In that time New Zealand's annual festival expanded across multiple towns and cinemas — and the programme grew to more than 170 titles.
Gosden led the Wellington Film Festival from 1981, and later took command of a rolling series of festivals across New Zealand. His goal was "to make people's cinema diets a little more varied", and offer worthwhile alternatives to the dominance of Hollywood. Gosden did both in spades.
While his own film tastes were wide, Gosden was able to appreciate qualities in films that weren't his bag. His ability to satisfy the varied audiences for the latest Latino melodrama, Chinese epic or hard-hitting documentary saw the festival growing in popularity, even in the face of tidal change (the arrival of streaming).
A man of formidable intelligence and networking ability, Gosden spent much of the year at festivals around the globe, seeking out "the best and latest". Once he saw seven films in a single day. Fellow festival programmer Richard King remembers him as "an amazing negotiator" — an especially important skill "when you come from a tiny country on the other side of the world". Gosden managed to win NZ festival spots for many landmark films, just weeks after their debut screenings overseas. An astute judge of Kiwi films, he programmed premiere screenings of everything from An Angel at My Table to Ngāti and Heavenly Creatures. Overseas, he helped spread the word on noteworthy local films to other festival programmers. In the 1980s, the Melbourne Film Festival looked into inviting him on-board.
The NZ festival's longevity is partly due to the way it mixes crowd-pleasers with more challenging titles. Whatever was on offer, Gosden was adept at defining what might make a particular film appealing: both in the descriptions he wrote in festival programmes, or when dealing with journalists asking for his favourite film (see the second clip from The Edge). Radio New Zealand movie reviewer Simon Morris has recalled how during interviews, Gosden was able to talk about any title Morris mentioned — "no notes, no hesitation".
Gosden's long love affair with films may owe something to trains. His father was a train driver, and his mother often took the children to the cinema so dad could get some sleep. Gosden wrote film reviews both at high school in Dunedin, and while completing an English Literature degree (with Honours) at Otago University. He also had a part-time job as a cinema usher.
In 1978 Gosden left for Wellington to work at indie film distributor NZ Film Services, under Richard Weatherly. At age 25 he joined the NZ Federation of Film Societies. The job saw him helping out on the annual Wellington Film Festival, which Lindsay Shelton had run with growing success since 1972. In 1981 Gosden took over as the festival's director. In his first year 47 films screened, most of them a number of years old.
The range offered on Kiwi cinema screens was narrow. Gosden felt a shake-up was in order. "Distribution was controlled by a lot of old white guys. They used to call me boy." The festival would grow both in Wellington (to as many as six venues), and elsewhere. In 1984 Gosden began programming a near identical festival for Auckland, which had formerly competed with Wellilngton for films. "It was a ridiculous situation," said Gosden. "It took a lot of negotiating". Christchurch and Dunedin soon joined the list, followed later by Hamilton and Palmerston North. So began a roving festival with few equivalents in the world: 14 festivals across Aotearoa, each drawing their content from the original one held in Auckland. These days they're known under the umbrella title Whānau Mārama: the NZ International Film Festival.
Gosden's arrival on the scene timed in with New Zealand cinema's biggest growth spurt. As local movies grew in quantity, he showed a remarkable eye for sorting the wheat from the chaff. Success at a local festival can help persuade local distributors and overseas festivals that a film deserves an audience. Gosden packed Wellington's Embassy Theatre with Peter Jackson's first feature Bad Taste, which the NZ Film Commission had recently buried at the back of its Cannes Film Festival catalogue. Among many other titles, he mined enthusiastic audiences for Gaylene Preston's first feature Mr Wrong, which local distributors had rejected.
Former Ngā Taonga curator Diane Pivac has recalled how Gosden programmed Taika Waititi's early short Two Cars, One Night in 2003, saying "this is going places" (it was later Oscar nominated). Gosden ranked as a personal highlight the time Kaikohe Demolition and In My Father's Den debuted at the Auckland Film Festival on the same day. "They're films that people will continue to watch long after I'm gone".
While many overseas festivals have benefited from substantial grants, the NZ International Film Festival has long relied mainly on ticket sales (although sponsorship has definitely helped). By 2013, 87 per cent of the festival's income came from ticket sales, "which is pretty unusual for an arts organisation in any country".
The arrival of digital projection allowed films to screen more widely. Before then, a new arrival from Cannes might initially have only "two or three subtitled prints in the whole world", which might mean competing with festivals in Munich and Jerusalem. Digital files allowed a film to be duplicated and played in more locations.
Although Gosden was the public face of the film festival for decades, the waka has long held many (especially during the frenzied final lead-up to festival time). As the Auckland and Wellington festivals expanded, programmer Ant Timpson (who took over choosing the wilder offerings) and Paris-based Sandra Reid proved especially valuable. In 2007 Gosden had a rare sabbatical, and Richard King took on the challenge.
Gosden retired in 2019, having learned in mid 2017 that he had bowel cancer. In a parting interview on Radio New Zealand, he spoke of having spent his life doing what he loved. Bill Gosden, MNZM, ONZM, died in Wellington on 6 November 2020. He was 66.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 12 May 2021
Rosie Howells, 'Interview: Bill Gosden - International Film Festival Director' - Critic issue 16, July 2014
Simon Morris, 'Long time Film Festival director Bill Gosden dies' Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 8 November 2020. Accessed 10 November 2020
Ruth Nichol, 'Giving the punters what they want' (Interview) The Dominion, 10 July 1993, page 15
Ian Pryor, 'How do you pick them?' (Interview) - The Dominion Sunday Times, 3 July 1988
Joseph Romanos, 'Wellingtonian interview: Bill Gosden' - The Wellingtonian, 5 November 2009
Lindsay Shelton, 'Forty years of film festivals - death of Bill Gosden' Scoop website. Loaded 7 November 2020. Accessed 10 November 2020
Lindsay Shelton, 'Film Festival in the Capital' Whānau Mārama NZ International Film Festival website. Accessed 10 November 2020
Unknown writer, 'Thanks and best wishes, Bill Gosden' Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision website. Loaded 28 March 2019. Accessed 10 November 2020
Unknown writer, 'Bill Gosden farewells the NZ Film Festival after 20 years' (Interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 24 March 2019. Accessed 10 November 2020