Robin Scholes was a founding partner and managing director at high profile company Communicado. It was there that she began working alongside a number of Kiwi filmmakers, early in their careers: from Lee Tamahori on local blockbuster Once Were Warriors to Gregor Nicholas (Broken English) and Christine Jeffs (Rain).
Scholes grew up among extended family in the Auckland suburb of Orākei. Her father died of tuberculosis around the time she began primary school; her first job out of school was selling wedding clothes, as part of a business her mother had inherited from him. Later she graduated from Auckland and Edinburgh universities, and lectured in Auckland and Essex on Art History and Film Studies. She also attended the New York Film School as a Fulbright Scholar.
She went on to work for state television; writing, directing and producing documentaries (including this four-part 1987 special on local landscape art, for Kaleidoscope), and various studio and magazine shows.
In 1983 Scholes joined producer Neil Roberts as one of four founding partners in Communicado. It quickly grew to become one of New Zealand's most successful independent production companies. Communicado was probably best known for its fact-based shows for television, but also did corporate work and a number of feature films. At one point it employed more than 100 people (not all full-timers).
Scholes argues that the early 1990s were a perfect time to be making television independently: new channel TV3 and the state broadcaster were eager to commission content, and Scholes and Roberts often successfully pitched shows in person during meetings with programmers.
Once Were Warriors (1994) marked the first feature film for Scholes and Communicado. Scholes has paid credit to Lee Tamahori for directing it "with very little money and very little time", and little film stock. She recalls that after repeated turndowns, the project finally won NZ Film Commission funding thanks to an impassioned speech by then Gisborne police commander Rana Waitai. Distributors at the premiere screening took bets on how little money it would make. Scholes says the belief then was that "Māori stories would not succeed" commercially.
Once Were Warriors provoked blockbuster box office and state of the nation debate in Aotearoa, won rave reviews from international heavyweights like Roger Ebert and Richard Corliss, and brought director Tamahori to Hollywood attention. Scholes followed it by producing interracial romance Broken English, for director Gregor Nicholas. Like Warriors, it was a rare Kiwi feature in which the country's dominant Pākehā culture hardly features; once again it screened widely overseas, and won raves from a number of American critics.
Scholes' interest in stories with a Polynesian or Māori theme would be further evidenced in modern-day land rights Western Crooked Earth (2001) — starring Warriors discovery Temuera Morrison — and Samoan-themed horror The Tattooist (2007).
On television, Scholes has devised a wide range of factual programmes, including Magic Kiwis, Heroes, Business World, Success, Animals and Us, Money, Farmer and another 80s era show, New Zealand 2000. Her drama producing includes thriller/romance mini-series The Chosen, starring Cliff Curtis. Meanwhile ambitious Brit-Kiwi co-production Greenstone (1999) saw her working once more with her "great mentor and educator" Don Selwyn.
A series of management changes and the death of Neil Roberts saw Scholes appointed managing director of Communicado in 2001. She oversaw its merger with Australian company Screentime, and continued to work on a wide range of television including The Big Art Trip, Life Goes On, and Grass Roots Business.
In 2004 Scholes joined Touchdown (which later became Eyeworks New Zealand, and ultimately part of Warner Brothers). She helped Touchdown boss Julie Christie set up the company's film and drama division. Together they produced TV series Burying Brian. Scholes credits writer Gavin Strawhan for the show's unusual pairing of black comedy with "great warmth and love of character". On the big screen, the relationship produced family drama The Hopes and Dreams of Gazza Snell, starring Robyn Malcolm.
Having been often inspired by "the unique voice and vision" shown by Kiwi directors in short films like Stroke and Turangawaewae, in 2011 Scholes took up the reins on one of the executive producer 'pods', which oversaw short films funded by the NZ Film Commission.
Movie Mr Pip was released in 2013. Scholes had been chasing the rights to the original Lloyd Jones novel when she learnt that director Andrew Adamson (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) was doing the same; the two joined forces. Shot partly on Bougainville Island, in Papua New Guinea, the film stars House’s Hugh Laurie and Kiwi Kerry Fox.
In the same period she produced two What Really Happened docudramas for television, which explored key events in Aotearoa history, and executive produced light-hearted South Auckland web series The Factory.
Mahana, her next project, saw Scholes reuniting with Warriors director Lee Tamahori. Featuring "horses and shearing gangs and families at war with one another", the 60s era drama was adapted from Witi Ihimaera novel Bulibasha. Starring Temuera Morrison and Nancy Brunning, Mahana debuted at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival. Alongside money from the NZ Film Commission, Scholes utilised crowdfunding of roughly $500,000.
Scholes approached author Charlotte Grimshaw about adapting two of her books for television. The result was high profile thriller The Bad Seed, which debuted on TVNZ1 over five consecutive nights in April 2019. Scholes followed it with another high profile project: miniseries Black Hands, based on events leading up to the 1994 murders of the Bain family.
Scholes is a past member of the trust which runs NZ On Screen.
Profile updated on 2 December 2021
'Robin Scholes - producing the goods' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Jame Coleman. Uploaded 9 June 2010. Accessed 2 May 2019
Sarah Stuart, 'Twelve Questions: Robin Scholes' - The NZ Herald, 14 August 2014
'Robin Scholes'. Touchdown website (broken link). Accessed 28 March 2010
Interview with Paul Swadel, Onfilm, June 2004
'New Lee Tamahori Film Shoot Complete' (press release). Scoop website. Loaded 27 May 2015. Accessed 7 May 2017
Unknown writer, 'Q and A with Robin Scholes' WIFT NZ website. Loaded 15 March 2016. Accessed 2 May 2019
Once Were Warriors press kit