As a child, Wellington-raised Samantha Blackley fell for Han Solo in Star Wars, and decided to chase a screen career. Her dream was that a film job might increase the chances of meeting Harrison Ford "from infinitesimal, to slightly less so".
Later, after missing out on a position as a producer's assistant at Avalon Studios, she studied English Literature and Psychology at Victoria University, and graduated with an Honours Degree. She followed it with a Postgraduate Diploma in Broadcast Communication at Auckland University. The programme admitted only six students a year; at that point it was the country's only course teaching practical screen production skills.
Her TV break came in 1989, when Neil Roberts offered her a job at his production company Communicado. Says Blackley: "He had a contagious belief in great New Zealand television with a strong colloquial voice — which may seem like a given now, but wasn't at the time." Communicado was a "cauldron of collaboration and creativity". Blackley directed an award-winning series of commercials for the police about domestic violence. She also went on to run the company's Asia bureau in Singapore for two and a half years, where she produced shows for new cable network Astro.
In the late 90s Blackley returned to New Zealand to direct a run of factual and lifestyle programmes, from dating series Revell with a Cause to magazine show Five O’Clock with Jude.
She then joined fledgling production outfit Satellite Media, where as Head of Production she supervised the company’s music and entertainment slate. Subjects ranged from Robbie Williams live, to producing (with Jill Graham) this definitive documentary on record label Flying Nun. Blackley also produced or executive produced a run of early 2000s youth shows (Space, Squeeze, TV2 music platform M2), and coverage of the NZ Music Awards and Big Day Out festival. "Live TV is real 'buckle up and hold your nerve stuff," she says. "But when it all comes off it's great fun!"
"The challenge was keeping plenty of anarchic energy flowing while still having to be the one to front up to TVNZ on Monday morning, and explain why things may have gone awry (I am looking at you, Back of the Y)."
In 2004 Blackley joined Richard Driver at Visionary Film and TV, to oversee the company's documentary, entertainment and lifestyle programming. She executive produced New Zealand’s Top 100 History Makers for Prime TV, and three seasons of Māori Television live music show Coast.
In 2006 she began a three year stint as Channel Manager for Sky TV’s Documentary Channel, with responsibilities ranging from branding to budgeting. In 2010 she filled in for a year as Head of Factual Programming at South Pacific Pictures. A highlight from this period is executive producing acclaimed documentary series Rivers with Craig Potton.
Blackley then returned to the freelance world — producing community theatre series Showtime, Highway Cops, and its acclaimed spin-off Five Days in the Red Zone, which followed a rural drink-drive squad from Alexandra helping out after the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake.
"Back in 1986 I was asked why I wanted to work in television. I remember saying that if I could make just one thing that was in any way a small force for good in the world, that made one person think a little differently, I would be happy." Blackley rates long-running series Neighbourhood as one of those things.
She began producing the Satellite Media series in late 2012, in time for the second season. Neighbourhood celebrates Kiwi communities, with local presenters playing guide to their hometown. Blackley managed over 150 shoot days per year, producing nearly 200 half-hour episodes across five seasons on schedule. "It was made with immense care and craft by everyone involved," says Blackley. "I'm really proud of it." Inspired by some of the interviewees she met on the show, she is now a trustee of the Auckland Refugee Family Trust.
After a stint at company Ruckus Media, Blackley joined Megan Jones and Jill Soper for Six Angry Women. The documentary explores the background to the 1984 abduction of university lecturer Mervyn Thompson, by a group of Auckland feminists. Six Angry Women was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2021 NZ Television Awards. Blackley, Soper and director Megan Jones went on to share the Best Producer award at the Sydney International Film Festival.
Blackley then worked on two seasons of Moving Houses, presented by Clarke Gayford, and the Kiwi version of The Restaurant that Makes Mistakes. The later show follows eight New Zealanders living with dementia, who run a restaurant while trying to prove they still have a role to play at work and in society.
Reflecting on the challenges of a three decade screen career —making a living bouncing between freelance gigs — Blackley said: "Nothing I could make on my own would be as good as the result of many heads working together. As a producer I feel it is my job to provide structure and support, and to inspire collaboration and the desire to make something the whole team is proud of. If that works, it's magic!"
Profile updated on 3 June 2023
'Samantha Blackley' Freelance Directory website (broken link). Accessed 16 March 2018
'Neighbourhood' TVNZ website. Accessed 16 March 2018