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Confab tackles biz woes

SPAA to focus on developing Oz stories for global auds

SYDNEY — Stagnant foreign investment in Oz drama and a rapidly changing marketplace has spurred the Screen Producers’ Assn. of Australia to dedicate much of its 21st annual confab to figuring out how to “Take Australian Stories to the Global Market.”

Organizers want to stimulate debate about developing stories with international appeal and finding ways to boost foreign revenues and capitalize on splintering digital audiences.

“Crash” producer Cathy Schulman will deliver a keynote address. A slew of Aussies who straddle Oz and Hollywood will speak on the topic Nov. 14-17 before the 650 producers, lawyers, bureaucrats and allied professionals at the event on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Aussie filmmakers have been grappling in recent years with a worldwide contraction in television sales and have not yet realized revenue growth from digital media. With planned changes to government funding of the production industry under wraps for a few more months, producers must be more creative than ever in the hunt for funding.

U.K.-based screen sector strategist Jonathan Olsberg will encourage producers to explore opportunities of new digital platforms.

“One view is that there’s going to be a massive great server in the sky and people will grab what they want when they want it,” he says.

The endless-demand scenario excites producers, but also generates uncertainty. What should they be making? Shorts for worldwide mobile phone broadcast or open source movies?

“Compared to (the certainty of) five years ago, nobody really knows what the future holds,” Olsberg says.

Stacey Testro, the Aussie talent manager who nurtured production of the first “Saw” pic, says unless Aussies share information, they will be left behind.

“In Australia there’s a secrecy born out of fear,” she says. “If you’ve only got one idea you shouldn’t be in the business,” she says.

Aussies also have been hobbled by the country’s small population — 20 million people can’t justify the production budgets most filmmakers need to make entertaining films.

To spend more, they need foreign sales and investment. But while “Saw” went boffo, numerous other attempts to make “international” projects, using nonspecific locations and actors with American accents, have failed with both international and local audiences.

The most successful Oz films internationally have celebrated their Australian-ness, such as “Mad Max” and “Crocodile Dundee.” The two big local hits of the year so far, “Kenny” and “Ten Canoes,” also are uniquely Aussie but that’s where the similarities end.

The films are a study in contrasts. A short film remade as a feature by commercials director Clayton Jacobsen, “Kenny” received no government assistance and was largely funded by the SplashDown portable- toilet company that features in it.

“Kenny” has grossed $5 million in a dozen weeks on 125 screens, more than last year’s hit “Wolf Creek,” and is still going strong. Director Jacobsen is upbeat about potential for offshore sales, but given the usual reception for Australian comedies (with the exception of “Crocodile Dundee”), “Kenny” could be a difficult sell.

“Ten Canoes,” on the other hand, collected critical accolades, a prize at Cannes and notched sales to 13 territories. Directed by the godfather of independent filmmaking, Rolf de Heer, it is a textbook example of old-school success.

Both “Kenny” and “Ten Canoes” will turn a profit, but “Kenny” will do so this year, while it might take several years for returns from “Ten Canoes” to reach investors.

“Ten Canoes” executive producer Sue Murray sees potential in the evolving international market. “It’s just that the configuration of the deal is changing all the time, and you’ve got to keep on top of it,” she says.

Veteran producer Al Clark says good films will always be able to raise money, but with the specialty divisions of the Hollywood studios in production overdrive, selling to them has become harder in the past few years.

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