Co-prods High On The Aussie Agenda

Australian producers are busy these days, not just with a newly invigorated local industry, but also thanks to a renewed level of co-productions with partners from the U.S., Britain, Japan and even Poland.

So much so that U.K.-based Portman Entertainment Group, a co-production veteran, is beefing up its Australian presence. The newly expanded Australian production and distribution operation will go full-throttle in August and will aim for six projects a year, with many of these being co-productions, chairman and chief executive Victor Glynn says. Movie budgets would range from $2 million to $10 million, he added.

Glynn has a long history of association with the biz Down Under, normally making two productions a year and three acquisitions a year from Australia and New Zealand.

He noted Portman has had a Sydney presence since 1970 and did a lot of work with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) in the early 1980s and more with the Seven Network in the latter part of that decade, before assuming a lower profile in the past few years.

“It was always on the agenda for the past few years – Australia is a significant supplier of English-language products,” he said.

Portman is presently co-producing the John Sexton thriller “The Blackwater Trail,” starring Judd Nelson and Peter Phelps. It has just finished shooting in Queensland. The group also has financing, distribution and production involvement in “The Flight of the Albatross” out of New Zealand.

Portman is working with Seven to make a $6 million movie of the phenomenally successful soap opera “Home & Away,” in time for the U.K.’s 1996 summer box office.

“It is a great kids’ movie for the summer,” he said of the pic, his brainchild. “I think we will get a good return. We are pretty conservative really. We do take some risks, but they are pretty calculated.”

Far less of a safe bet is Portman’s work with U.K. filmmaker Mike Leigh on pix like “High Hopes” and “Short and Curlies.” Seemingly a surer thing is Mike Newell’s (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) “An Awfully Big Adventure,” which was a Portman production shot in Dublin.

Also shot in Dublin was a miniseries co-production with Seven, called “September,” starring Jacqueline Bisset.

Portman is also in co-production with the ABC and Britain’s Channel Four on a probable 13 installments of one-hour episodes of “Aunts Up the Cross,” a whimsical look at Sydney’s King’s Cross red-light district in the 1940s and ’50s.

Another co-production with Japanese partners is “The Virtual Hero,” which is still in the development stage. Glynn said there was a “strong possibility” of the virtual reality adventure pic being shot Down Under.

Film Australia, the government-backed producer and distributor, also looks set for another overseas selling blitz, starting a 15-week Sydney shoot on “Spellbinder,” a children’s TV series co-production with Telewizja Polska (Polish TV).

To be launched in October at Mipcom in Cannes, “Spellbinder” has been pre-sold to Kerry Packer’s Nine Network, on which it will screen nationally, starting in September. The venture, announced last April, is Film Australia’s first co-production with Polish TV and is said to be Poland’s largest foreign production deal to date.

The $6 million, 26-part series of half-hour episodes was 14% financed by Polish TV, 16% by Nine and the balance by the Film Finance Corp., with development from Film Australia.

Until five or so years ago, Film Australia was best known for its documentaries. Since then, it has made significant inroads into the children/family market, with “Johnson & Friends” said to be the first Australian children’s television program sold to an American network. Fox began screening the 52-episode show last October.

Other children’s series produced by Film Australia include “Escape From Jupiter,” a co-production with Japanese broadcaster NHK, “The Girl From Tomorrow” and its sequel, “Tomorrow’s End.”

The latter two were sold to around 29 overseas markets, including the U.K.’s BBC, France’s FR3 and Germany’s ARD. “The Girl From Tomorrow” telemovie/pilot was sold to the Disney Channel.

Film Australia also has ongoing partnerships with the U. K’s BBC and Channel 4, NHK Japan, Fuji Eight, ZDF in Germany, WGBH in Boston, WTTW Chicago, Maryland Public Television, KBS Korea and Radio Television Hong Kong.

“Spellbinder” producer/director Noel Price, executive producer Ron Saunders and writers Mark Shirrefs and John Thomson were involved in the “Tomorrow” success, auguring well for the new project’s international prospects.

The Sydney shoot follows a 14-week shoot in Poland, which reduced production costs by around 30%.

The series tells the story of a teenage boy, Paul, who finds himself marooned in a world where the Industrial Revolution never happened and a group called the Spellbinders are in charge. The cast includes Judy Morris from the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s popular “Mother and Son” comedy series and Brian Rooney from the ABC’s internationally successful drama, “GP.” Film Australia’s annual turnover is $13.5 million , a third of which comes from a Federal Government contract to produce Film Australia’s National Interest Program. It also acts as an international sales distribution agent.

Meanwhile, Total Film and Television is co-producing a film, “Turning April,” with Alliance from Canada. Total’s other recent co-productions include “Alex” and “Cops and Robbers.”

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