Actors from 'For the term of his natural life', 1927 (AOT, PH30/1/4148)

Films or moving pictures gradually displaced live theatre as the predominant form of mass entertainment in the early twentieth century. Tasmania played a role in the burgeoning Australian film industry, with the landscape featured in two early films. The Savage River was the location for outdoor scenes in Jewelled Nights (1925), a film produced by the silent-movie actress Louise Lovely and based on a 'mining romance' by Tasmanian author Marie Bjelke Petersen. For the Term of his Natural Life (1927) was the third adaptation of Marcus Clarke's novel, and tells the story of a young English aristocrat transported to Van Diemen's Land for a crime he did not commit. Much of it was filmed at Port Arthur – to the accompaniment of appropriate music, so the actors were not distracted by up to a thousand staring locals. Two nearby timber mills suspended operations to provide the production with its sixty 'convicts'.

The Higgins brothers, who grew up in Hobart, made an important contribution as cinematographers. Ernest (1871–1945) operated a bioscope at a Hobart theatre, before moving to Sydney where he formed a partnership with showman Cozens Spenders, filming the famous Burns–Johnson fight. Arthur (1891–1963) joined him in 1908 and was closely associated with Raymond Longford, working on The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and On Our Selection (1920) among many others. After the 1940s decline of the Australian feature film industry, Arthur continued making documentaries until 1959. Tasman (1899–1953) joined his brothers in 1913. He filmed Jewelled Nights (1925) and worked on Chauvel's In the Wake of the Bounty (1933) – which saw the debut of Tasmanian actor Errol Flynn.

The powerful influence of film was recognised by Tasmanian educational authorities. The Visual Aid Scheme was established in 1937 so that schools with projectors could regularly borrow nature study films and teaching guides. In 1956, Tasmania was the first state to introduce film appreciation into the secondary school curriculum as part of the English course. It was also the first to establish a Film Unit (within the Lands Department) in 1946.

This popular mass media flourished in the prosperous post-war years, with 54 permanent 35 mm venues throughout the state in 1945. Plentiful employment meant full houses at Saturday matinees and at night. Film societies were established in Hobart (1945) and Launceston and are still active. Many small country towns and Hydro villages had their own film societies, and joined together to hold festivals in Beaconsfield. Films were plentiful, transport fairly cheap and increasing European immigration meant a growing market for foreign films. However, the introduction of television in 1960 saw the disappearance of many film societies and cinemas.

The first Australian children's film in colour was produced in 1962. They Found a Cave, from the Nan Chauncy book of the same name, became a recognised success. Significantly, it was a Tasmanian production, utilising local cast and crew (including composer Peter Sculthorpe who wrote the musical score) as well as locations.

With the 1970s revitalisation of the Australian film industry, the state government, along with other states, established the Tasmanian Film Corporation in 1977 to promote film within and about Tasmania, It absorbed the Film Unit, and produced documentaries for government departments and agencies, as well as family and children's films such as Manganinnie (1980), Save the Lady (1981), and two short children's television mini-series sold to the ABC: The Willow Bend Mystery and Fatty and George. The Corporation was privatised in 1983 by the Gray Liberal government.

Despite the financial disadvantages of geographical isolation and unpredictable weather, filmmakers are still attracted by Tasmania's natural advantages: soft 'European' light, and a range of stunning and accessible scenery. Two independently financed feature films made by Tasmanian directors have been produced in the state since the demise of the Film Corporation. Roger Scholes' The Tale of Ruby Rose (1988), filmed in wintry conditions at the Walls of Jerusalem, is the tale of a woman overcoming her fears as she undertakes a pilgrimage through the snow down to the valley in search of her past. The harsh physical environment was also integral to The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1998). Author and director Richard Flanagan's film is the powerful drama of a post-war migrant family in a Hydro work-camp.

Screen Tasmania, a state government agency, was established in 1999 to support the screen-based industry within Tasmania. As well as allocating funds to assist local filmmakers, it facilitates the production of features and commercials by interstate and international companies, such as the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs (screened 1999).

Further reading: A Atkinson et al, The dictionary of performing arts in Australia, Sydney, 1996; Film Consultants (SA) Pty Ltd, Report to the premier, Adelaide, 1977; T Howard, Tasmania and the flickers, Wyong, [1999]; W Perkins, Film appreciation for Tasmanian schools, Hobart, 1963; Film & Multimedia Taskforce, Development of the film and multimedia industry in Tasmania, Hobart, 1997.

Wendy Rimon