Smash Palace: From NZ to Hollywood

The start of an international career

By Lindsay Shelton

Roger Donaldson’s second feature Smash Palace was the first New Zealand feature film ever sold for theatrical release in the United States.

When I became marketing director of the newly-established NZ Film Commission in 1979, I chose the Cannes Film Festival as the main annual event to promote New Zealand movies to the world. Our first Cannes was in 1980. We screened Geoff Murphy’s Goodbye Pork Pie in the market and it sold to 16 countries, but it didn’t appeal to the Americans, probably because they were unfamiliar with the territory being traversed by the little yellow Mini.

Smash Palace was one of three NZ films which we screened in our second Cannes market in May of 1981. Roger’s film (made with finance from the newly-established Film Commission) received four offers from American distributors, impressed by the bravura performance of Bruno Lawrence as a man who kidnaps his daughter after the breakup of his marriage. Two months later I flew to the United States with Roger and his associate producer Larry Parr to spend a week negotiating with the four interested companies.

On the flight from LA to New York, Roger and Larry were sitting at the front of the plane, in first class, where they found themselves next to the veteran American producer Samuel Z Arkoff, who spent the flight telling them about his lucrative 40-year film-making career. I was in the cheap seats at the back of the plane, wondering what I was missing. As the NZFC’s first marketing director, I was trying to run a frugal budget, but after this experience the NZFC board decided that I should fly business class, where there would be better contacts as well as better comfort.

Also frugal was the generic campaign which I had launched at Cannes promoting New Zealand films as a new (and by implication) exciting source of entertainment – the total cost of travel and accommodation and advertising was $31,000.

The US trip was a great time for all of us. For Roger, it was the start of his international career. For me, it was my first chance to negotiate an American deal. Three years earlier, campaigners had succeeded in attracting government support (via the Film Commission) to give local audiences a chance to see their own big screen stories in place of nothing but Hollywood movies. Now things would be reversed and American audiences would be seeing their first movies from New Zealand. (My film marketing campaigns also turned out to be a promotion for New Zealand – many film people who came to see us at international markets would ask “Where is New Zealand?”)

After meeting the four potential distributors, we finalised a deal with Atlantic Releasing, a new company which had just released two hit Australian features – Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Getting of Wisdom. But Smash Palace didn’t become the first NZ movie to be released in the United States. That honour went to Roger’s first film Sleeping Dogs, which was my second American sale – to a smaller distribution company who released it early in February 1982, two months before Smash Palace.

The second release created much more attention. It premiered in Lincoln Centre’s New Directors festival, and then opened in a leading New York arthouse cinema on 58th Street. The influential critic Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that Smash Palace was one of the ten best films of the year and Roger was a director of potentially worldwide importance, “a man of original visions and the technical facility to realise them”. In the New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote that the film was “amazingly accomplished … a remarkable piece of work.”  We particularly liked a review in the Village Voice by Carrie Rickey. She wrote that Smash Palace was better than two Hollywood productions with similar stories of marriage breakups  – Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon with Diane Keaton and Albert Finney and Robert Benton’s Kramer versus Kramer with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.

Within a few years, Roger had a home and a career in Los Angeles, the first of the new breed of New Zealand directors to establish a Hollywood reputation. It wasn’t till the arrival of Peter Jackson that we learnt a New Zealand filmmaker could have an international career without needing to leave home.

– Lindsay Shelton was president of the Wellington Film Society from 1970 to 1978, and director of the Wellington Film Festival from its inception in 1972 till he became the first marketing director of the NZ Film Commission in 1980. He handled international sales of Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace. and more than 60 other feature films, including Goodbye Pork Pie, An Angel at My Table and Once Were Warriors.