New studio complex, increased prod'n funding boost industry

This article was corrected on Feb. 27, 2002.

MELBOURNE — After almost a decade in decline, Victoria’s film and TV industry is on an upswing. Following a promise made in late 1999 by the new Labor government, the state’s peak film agency is being overhauled, a new studio complex has been greenlit, production funding was increased and Australia’s second state has re-emerged as a production center for TV drama and feature films.

Working Title’s “Ned Kelly,” toplining Heath Ledger, is pegged to lense there starting in March, five local features went into production between October and December 2001 and a raft of network dramas have been greenlit for Melbourne.

The resurgence can be tracked to an A$31.6 million ($16.3 million) government production funding boost in April 2001, which added $6.2 million to the state’s existing $1.6 million cash flow facility and $8 million over four years in recoupable investment funds.

On the studio front, Victoria premier Steve Bracks tells Variety: “We were losing (out) to Sydney and Brisbane on some of the major productions. I was intent on turning that around and capitalizing on the talents, skills and abilities (in Melbourne).”

Following the construction of Warner Studios on the Gold Coast in 1988 and Fox Studios Australia in Sydney in 1995, Australia’s share of productions has increased, but aging facilities and stagnant funding ensured Melbourne missed most of the action.

Warner Roadshow lensed “Queen of the Damned” there last year because it was helmer Michael Rymer’s home, HQ for Roadshow and the town featured good gothic backdrops. But with no large-scale soundstage available, production was forced to shoot in derelict warehouses.

The proposed development will house four film and two TV stages, the biggest measuring 25,000 square feet, another two measuring 15,000 square feet, and the adjacent commercial venture will house industry-related tenants.

In Hollywood last June, Bracks launched a tendering process that incorporated a $22 million land loan, but the offer failed to spark international bidders. Local winning bid was from Central City Studios.

CCS, run by businessmen Tim Barnett and Peter Bartels has the inside track due to its overwhelming financial clout. It has pledged to bring $36 million worth of private investment to the site, is liable for any cost overruns and is finalizing its financial and legal requirements ahead of the March 29 signoff.

Melbourne site will compete with Warners for mid-range projects but Bracks says, “I am totally convinced we will grow the (business) by what we have done, plus the federal tax laws have been improved,” referring to the federal government’s attempt last year to streamline tax incentives.

The deal also stipulates that 25% of the site’s annual output — which must total more than $52 million — has to be Australian productions.

The government is also restructuring the local film agencies. Film Victoria is now the body responsible for overseeing production investment, and the Australian Center for the Moving Image will focus on its mandate as the film culture org. New boards assembled will oversee the organizations’ different agendas; the government was due to appoint CEOs very soon.

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