When Lindsay Shelton retired as marketing director of the NZ Film Commission in 2001, directors, festival programmers and movie executives all lined up to pay tribute. Australian producer Antony Ginnane described "the caring, charming and intelligent way" Shelton had introduced new Kiwi talents to the world at the Cannes Film Festival. Director Harry Sinclair told Onfilm that Shelton was "a hugely respected person in international film". Roger Donaldson argued that people loved dealing with him. "It's a tough, brutal market and it isn't easy selling films. But he has forged alliances and kept up personal relationships".
Shelton spent 23 years as a journalist. In his spare time he launched and ran the Wellington Film Festival for nine years. Both were valuable stops en route to promoting and selling New Zealand movies, a job that kept him periodically circling the globe for 22 years. In that time Shelton visited dozens of festivals and markets, negotiating matters logistical and linguistic, while promoting and selling the work of so many emerging filmmakers. He introduced Geoff Murphy, Roger Donaldson, Vincent Ward, and Gaylene Preston to a world audience, oversaw the successful premiere of Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors, and played a key role in Jane Campion's early career.
Shelton's mantra was always to promote New Zealand films by country, not genre, reflecting his belief that when local films were sold as part of international catalogues (eg. Illustrious Energy), they almost inevitably got less attention, and less sales.
Shelton first fell for movies on Broadway, the street where he watched many a movie musical in hometown Marton (near Palmerston North). His movie tastes would expand as his career took him further afield — first to Wellington, as a university student then journalist for The Dominion, then at 21 as a sub-editor for The Sydney Morning Herald, then to Fleet Street.
By 1962 New Zealand television was in a state of rapid expansion. Visiting family in NZ while on his way back to Sydney, Shelton was persuaded to join the local news team, and after time working in state radio he joined Doug Eckhoff editing the prime time seven pm television news. Shelton's Fleet Street contacts helped him source wire photographs to help enliven the radio style newsreading, one of many changes witnessed during a decade of rapid technological change. With radio talent having a near monopoly on providing on-screen talent — and despite having a notably dulcet-toned voice — Shelton was given only limited exposure: introducing yearly review style shows. Shelton recalls the period of TV newsmaking in documentary Here is the News.
The week on/week off roster allowed timely gaps for film to take over his life. A year after joining the Wellington Film Society, Shelton was elected president, and soon began programming for 50 film societies across the country. His efforts would appreciably widen the diet of films available downunder. Having contacted distributors in England, Shelton managed to secure local rights to many new and cutting edge films that had bypassed NZ. Shelton's programming helped spur a massive rise in film society membership. At its peak of 2700 members, he argues, Wellington's film society was "one of the biggest in the world".
Unfortunately film societies couldn't screen films in 35mm. So Shelton persuaded the society committee he should launch a film festival in Wellington (Auckland's festival had begun three years before). Local distributors, exhibitors and cinema managers shook their heads, smug their own film menus were all that was needed. The festival began in 1972 with just seven films. In 1981, Shelton's final year, the programme had grown to 57. Over coming years it would double in size again.
Film societies and the yearly festivals played a part in liberalising censorship laws. Shelton argues the festival also contributed to the campaign to get state support for a local film industry. The festival screened its first New Zealand films in 1974, including Sam Pillsbury's Ralph Hotere documentary. The following year MPs were invited to the world premiere of Geoff Steven's feature-length Test Pictures.
With the birth of the New Zealand Film Commission imminent, Shelton felt his experiences of finding and promoting foriegn films could be applied elsewhere. He began a campaign "such as I've never done before or since, to get the job of selling New Zealand movies", and in 1979 became the new Commission's 'director of marketing and information'.
The following year, the Commission's first at the Cannes Film Festival in France, Shelton borrowed sales contracts, and with producer Nigel Hutchinson, sold Goodbye Pork Pie to 20 countries (in 1981 he fronted up for this documentary about the New Zealand film industry).
Throughout the 1980s Shelton built up a new network of independent distributors, country by country, who were keen to promote new film talents from lesser known territories. Shelton remembers it as a golden period where New Zealand won a reputation for producing "young and extraordinary talent". Critical acclaim certainly helped. Rave American reviews for Smash Palace and Utu helped spread the word, while 1984's Vigil was the film that first wowed European critics.
Shelton's own golden moment arguably came in 1990, with Jane Campion's adaptation of An Angel at My Table. It had been made specifically for television, with the proviso it could screen in cinemas only in New Zealand. Shelton took videotapes of the miniseries to festivals and markets, "showing them surreptitiously and subversively to distributors" most of whom were impressed enough to want to buy the rights for theatrical screenings.
For six months Campion and producer Bridget Ikin remained unpersuaded. But Shelton wore them down, ultimately changing Campion's mind after an impassioned fax sent late one night from Cannes. An Angel at My Table went on to win awards, acclaim and standing ovations at the Venice and New York Film Festivals. At Shelton's farewell event in 2001, Campion would recall that "many people have helped me and been kind to me in my career, but no one has helped me so much under so much protest."
Disappointed to learn that Once Were Warriors had failed to win official selection for Cannes in 1994, Shelton risked an invitation-only premiere amidst the competitive festival market (see this Frontline report). Viewers "came out shaking or weeping, or speechless, but everybody was very visibly affected by what they had seen. The sales started to come really fast from then on". Warriors sold throughout the world. In 1996 he sat down for this interview, arguing that New Zealand movies were seen as exotic and appealing overseas, rather than as dark and dysfunctional.
In 2001 Shelton finally stepped down from full-time work with the commission (see this footage of his farewell function). He joined his film festival successor Bill Gosden and former Film Commssion boss Bill Sheat in the trust dedicated to saving and restoring Wellington's iconic Embassy Theatre (Shelton makes a cameo appearance inside the beloved cinema, in 1996's Forgotten Silver).
2005 saw the publication of his book The Selling of New Zealand Movies, an insider's account of 22 years selling Kiwi movies globally. A decade later he updated the book, under the title Dancing with Hollywood. Shelton continues to write about Wellington matters for website Scoop.
Profile updated on 10 November 2020
'Lindsay Shelton: Film seller supreme' NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Loaded 22 January 2013. Accessed 22 January 2013
Lindsay Shelton, The Selling of New Zealand Movies (Wellington: Awa Press, 2005)
Lindsay Shelton, 'Film Festival in the Capital' Whānau Mārama NZ International Film Festival website. Accessed 10 November 2020
For Art's Sake - a Century of Cinema Director Daniel Salmon (TV One, 1996)
Sian Clement, 'Lindsay Shelton farewell' – Onfilm, May 2001