Moving into digital realm

Greater Union film laboratory subsidiary Atlab is investing as much as A$4 million ($3 million) into a digital electronic effects bureau, which will open its doors in November in the northern Sydney suburb of Crows Nest.

Called Dfilm, the venture is 65% owned by Atlab, with digital post-production experts Acme Production & Design taking the remaining 35% in the five-member operation, which should take two to three years to pay for itself.

Helmed by Atlab’s Alan Robson, the venture is based on Australia’s first Kodak Cineon digital film system and will enable material to be transferred from film to tape for effects enhancement and back to film without the usual loss of quality.

“It is a natural extension of the film-production laboratory processes we have been performing for the past 50 years,” says Atlab managing director Murray Forrest. “It will give us an all-encompassing service to provide to the industry. That’s what prompted us to set up this business to provide electronic effects and image manipulation services to the industry. It is a case of us preventing our traditional business from being eroded.”

Atlab – in various incarnations – has served the Australian film industry for 68 years, with printing, processing and post-production for features, TV, commercials and miniseries originating on film.

The backbone of Atlab’s business is new-release printing from overseas negatives for Australia’s three major exhibs – Greater Union, Village Roadshow and Hoyts – plus an expanding business circuit in the Asia/Pacific.

With a 1994 turnover of about $15.6 million, the operation has a virtual monopoly in Australia and a dominant position in the region, with offices in Sydney, Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Auckland. Fox and Disney are particularly strong customers for Japan and Southeast Asia, where Forrest believes there is little competish, with prints mostly being imported into the region.

“We have been looking for opportunities that exist for us offshore, but as yet we haven’t moved offshore,” he says. “The majority of our offshore business is printing for the majors like 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Disney, Columbia and UIP.”

He’s not actively considering establishing labs in Southeast Asia, but is “looking for opportunities to present themselves.” One example is Greater Union’s expansion into Malaysia, from which Forrest believes there may be benefits for Atlab.

100% owned

In October, Greater Union moved from a minority shareholding to 100% ownership of Atlab, cementing its 45-year involvement in the film laboratory business.

“Their investment is a sign of their total commitment to the business and to ensure the company continues to grow and looks at the newer technologies we have to embrace,” Forrest said.

Forrest believes the biggest challenge facing Atlab is “responding to the changing needs of the film industry, which we have been good at for the past 50 years, but film itself will be around for a long time yet, as Eastman Kodak will testify.”

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