Nelson-born Ruth Harley is fifth generation Pākehā on both sides. After attending Nelson College for Girls, she got a BA at Canterbury, then a PhD in NZ literature at Auckland University. Supervised by CK Stead and Bill Pearson, her thesis examined Kiwi authors from the 1930s to the 50s who'd decided "very consciously to create a New Zealand literature".
Next Harley was an advisory officer at the QEII Arts Council, in charge of theatre funding, where she was "a go-between for the council and the artists, so the needs and philosophy of each are known to each other."
In 1986 Harley was appointed Commissioning Editor at TVNZ, where she again performed an intermediary role. At the time TVNZ monopolised television production and many independent producers saw it as a closed shop. With deregulation on the political agenda, and competition from a new channel lurking on the horizon, Harley’s task was to "make a relationship between TVNZ and the independents work".
In a 1988 Listener interview, Harley argued that New Zealand needed to foster demand for indigenous programmes, and touted a quota as a tool to do that. "We’ve got to have a commitment to making images for ourselves, about ourselves."
Programmes commissioned under Harley's tenure included comedy series Public Eye and fascinating facts show That’s Fairly Interesting. She fondly remembers Raglan by the Sea and two classic dramas: Gaylene Preston’s Sonja Davies biopic Bread and Roses, and Jane Campion’s Janet Frame bio An Angel at My Table. Harley was script consultant on the groundbreaking About Face series, which left her with "an abiding commitment to the one-off authored drama".
Harley had gained praise from independent producers like Dave Gibson during her time at TVNZ. In 1989 she was made the inaugural CEO of new television funding agency New Zealand on Air. Set up at the same time as state medicine buyer Pharmac, the new model radically restructured the TV and radio industries, separating funder and programme maker (with NZ On Air now distributing funding to makers of content, instead of the broadcaster).
The regime's first products included soap Shortland Street, and national hoodwinker Forgotten Silver. In 1996 Harley got firsthand appreciation for advertisers' expectations, with a two year stint as Media Director for Saatchi & Saatchi.
In 1997 Harley shifted from small to big screen manager when she began a decade-long run as CEO of the NZ Film Commission. That year, as the Commission turned 20, the NZFC was facing strong criticism as well as congratulations, with director Peter Jackson describing it as being peopled by timid "career diplomats". Harley was the change merchant enlisted to deliver what she called "post-Roger Douglas thinking" to another state organisation.
In a July 1998 Onfilm interview Harley argued that the Commission’s primary job wasn’t to support the film industry, but to attract audiences. Political reforms of the day saw the involvement of Government being examined in all sectors. Harley identified the best way of justifying state investment in the film industry was by delivering audiences – "New Zealanders going to New Zealand films".
She also set out to internationalise the industry, drawing on the "hugely generous" experience of salesman Lindsay Shelton, and exhibitor Barrie Everard who was on the board. Harley compelled makers to define the market for their particular film, and to include sales and distribution as part of the filmmaking process. Veteran filmmaker Ian Mune fretted that NZ content would be drowned by "the roar of foreign sales agents", but writer Peter Calder described Harley as a breath of fresh air in Variety magazine in late 1998. She can be seen talking up two of the most expensive locally-set productions of the 2000s in this 2004 news item.
In a 2007 interview for NZ On Screen she described film as a "hard business". Her pragmatic view was that film (or any "cultural products") might rarely be profitable, but they needed to be "business disciplined". Harley repeated her belief that films with a strong cultural voice could produce the best returns, with Once Were Warriors the exemplar.
Her decade at the helm of the Commission coincided with the Helen Clark-led Labour Government, where arts and culture were affirmatively backed by state-funded schemes like the Film Fund. Films produced included international hit Whale Rider, the acclaimed Out of the Blue and In My Father’s Den, and Taika Waititi’s debut, Eagle vs Shark. Other films Harley remembers as "luminous" on her watch included Rain, War Stories and The World's Fastest Indian.
Harley was also caught in the bunfight during the 2002 collapse of Larry Parr's Kahukura Productions, where NZFC faced criticism for its handling of a fall-out that left feature films, a TV series and various contractors in limbo.
In 2008 Harley crossed the Tasman to head up Screen Australia. Once more she was enlisted as an agent of major industry change. Her job was to bring together the then separate film and television funding agencies (plus location broker Film Australia).
Five years later her stint ended. In The Australian she wrote that her time at Screen Australia was "the most significant success of my career", but memorably signed off with a few comments on the "upstream" work experience: "I must admit I had no idea the journey would be quite so peppered with shifting shoals and shallows, not to mention the smattering of shiny-shoed pirates and silver-tongued parrots ... who knows where my personal ship will sail to and what seas we will navigate. What I do know is that I love the ocean of stories and journeys that is the screen industry." Her era produced movies that won acclaim and/or audiences: eg Red Dog, Samson & Delilah, Sapphires, Animal Kingdom, and aptly, the New Zealand-shot Top of the Lake (which began as an Australian co-production).
Back home in Aotearoa, Harley gave the John O’Shea keynote address at SPADA's 2014 conference. Drawing on three decades in the game, she made a case that despite 20 years of reforms the Kiwi screen industry had failed to produce genuine competition or sufficient cultural returns, and it needed to "hit the re-set button". Using TV drama ("the pinnacle of the medium") as a measure, she compared Aotearoa's dearth of drama production with Australia’s run of local and international successes, and again argued for the value of a local content quota. Harley bemoaned a lack of drive to export locally-made and set stories, and affirmed her passionate belief in the commercial value of such stories.
Harley’s career has included public policy formation and various board positions. Her contribution to the Kiwi screen industry was recognised with a 1996 OBE and a 2006 Companion of the NZ Order of Merit. In her post-executive life, Harley is a business coach and continues to consult on screen projects. She is a carer for a grandson and elderly parents, and plays the ukulele.
Ruth Harley, 'Leaving industry's guiding vessel sleek and seaworthy' - The Australian, 17 June 2013
'Ruth Harley: On her days as Film Commission CEO...' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Clare O’Leary. Loaded 21 September 2008. Accessed 20 June 2017
Peter Calder, 'Commish turns org around' - Variety, 19 October 1998, page 66
David Gapes, 'An interview with Ruth Harley' (in two parts) - Onfilm Magazine, July 1998, page 11, and August 1998, page 8 (Volume 15, numbers 8 and 9)
Nick Grant, ' On the couch with Dr Ruth - the exit interview' - Onfilm, November 2008, page 14 (Volume 25, no 11)
Douglas Jenkin, 'The Go-Between'(Interview) - The Listener, 21 May 1988, page 38
Nick Smith. 'Ex-Film Commission CEO demands Harley’s scalp' - National Business Review, 13 December 2002