Born in Hawera in 1930, Bill Sheat grew up on a Taranaki farm. Watching movie serial Buck Rogers was a formative experience. He was a boarder at New Plymouth Boys' High School, where moviegoing was not encouraged.
At Victoria University Sheat did a combined arts/law degree, and began a long involvement in the uni's capping reviews, which often filled Wellington's Opera House. After graduating he continued to act and direct in Wellington's university, theatre and opera scene into the 1960s.
Sheat joined a Lower Hut law firm in 1957, which later became Gibson Sheat (where he would become an authority in transport law). Juggling his burgeoning day job with the arts helped inform Sheat’s passion for professionalising the latter. Over the years he offered free legal advice to many artists and organisations. In a 2015 New Zealand Law Society profile, he talked of getting up at four in the morning to write lyrics for capping reviews, before starting a day's work as a lawyer.
"This was when I realised that it was vital for people in the arts to be able to work full-time at their work. We have hugely talented people in this country – I thought that we had to make it possible for them to live and work here to make it an exciting place to live. That involves them being paid to do these things. If I had an underlying philosophy about the arts over the years it was this.”
When The Queen Elizabeth ll Arts Council was formed in 1963, Sheat was appointed to the drama panel. From 1969 to 1973 he was chair of the funding body, until a new government elbowed him aside (Sheat continued on the board until 1975). In the 60s he led the management committee of Wellington's Downstage Theatre, and ensured that the organisation's new theatre was owned by a separate trust, in case Downstage folded (which it did in 2013). He also spent six years on the Film Censorship Appeal Board.
The local feature film industry in the 60s was limited to filmmaker John O’Shea and his company Pacific Films. Sheat's theatre colleague Harry Seresin introduced him to O’Shea. The meeting "changed my life". The pair became friends, and Sheat helped out on financing the completion of O'Shea's 1964 road movie Runaway.
Sheat had a bigger involvement in O'Shea's follow-up Don’t Let It Get You. "It was always very hard to get money for movies. It was a matter of shoulder-tapping friends, associates and relatives, and I had a couple of clients who put some money in". A mop was an early example of Kiwi product placement, after one character fell over it in a cowshed.
Sheat, O’Shea and others spent hours discussing schemes to kick-start local filmmaking. From 1973 to 1975, inspired by Australian examples, Sheat chaired a working party looking into creating a local film body. In 1977 he was chair of the newly created Interim Film Commission — and the NZ Film Commission, when it was established the following year. The launch was announced at the Auckland premiere of Roger Donaldson's hit film Sleeping Dogs. Sheat had earlier given Donaldson and Ian Mune the idea that they might fund some local dramas, by getting bodies like the Ministry of Education and Arts Council involved. The result was successful TV series Winners & Losers.
Sheat helped David Gascoigne draft the legislation for the Film Commission. Sheat reflected with pride that it was still standing over 30 years later, untouched in the 2010 review of the Commission by Peter Jackson and David Court.
Sheat was Chair of the Film Commission until 1985. Around 40 features on investment from the commission during his chairmanship. Along the way he witnessed Bruno Lawrence win Best Actor at the Manila Film Festival for Smash Palace. Sheat was disappointed never to have got a full producing credit on a film, and nominated as a high point his part in greenlighting Geoff Murphy’s Goodbye Pork Pie (he remembered board member Davina Whitehouse as another passionate supporter of the film).
Local audiences embraced Pork Pie: as Sheat said, the film was "disrespectful of authority and I like that". Sheat cameos a policeman in the Wellington chase sequence (see this photo). In the same period he was interviewed for the opening section of this 1981 documentary about the recently reborn Kiwi film industry.
He led successful efforts to save and restore Wellington's Embassy Theatre and the State Opera House; fellow campaigner Lindsay Shelton credits him with realising that the Embassy was in danger of being lost. Alongside his roles with the Film Commission, the Arts Council, and Downstage, Sheat’s organisational and legal skills (spanning entertainment law, intellectual property and charitable trust structuring) helped shape many local arts bodies. He was founding chair of the NZ Film Festival Trust, did 17 years as chair of the Royal NZ Ballet, and was also involved with the boards behind both the Shakespeare Globe Centre and Victoria University's Summer Shakespeare seasons.
In 2015, looking back over a 60+ year career, Sheat expressed pride that he’d played a part in enabling people to make a living from the arts. He credited providence and teamwork for the success of projects he’d been involved with. “It has always seemed to happen — when I have been working on these projects somehow people have appeared and we have gathered a group of really amazing people, who have come together to achieve the outcome.”
Sheat was awarded an OBE (in 1973) and made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (2011), both for services to the arts.
Bill Sheat passed away on 20 January 2021. He was 90.
Profile updated on 21 January 2021
Nicholas Boyack, 'Bill Sheat: The man who saved Wellington's Opera House' Stuff website. Loaded 20 January 2021. Accessed 21 January 2021
Chris Ryan, ‘Bill Sheat looks back’ (Interview) - Council Brief, February 2015
Lindsay Shelton, 'Saving, and creating, theatres' Scoop website. Loaded 21 January 2021. Accessed 21 January 2021
Lindsay Shelton, 'Death of Bill Sheat, a major influence on our cultural life' Scoop website. Loaded 21 January 2021. Accessed 21 January 2021