Comeback kids

Aussies hope biz woes will be banished by pic, TV projects

SYDNEY — Aussie TV auds love “Lost,” but the show’s plane-wrecked, deserted-island-dwelling, forgotten-survivors premise lends the local film and television production industry an uncomfortable analogy.

With box office down 10% in 2005 — a bigger downturn than the U.S. — and Stateside TV dramas seemingly the only thing that local auds want to watch, many industryites are searching for a way to escape the downturn.

Part of the problem is that foreign sales for all indigenous films has been difficult to come by. On the TV drama side, the failure of local productions to draw eyeballs in recent years has become a vicious cycle where fewer dramas are made with greater caution, which then fail to inspire auds.

But there is a core group of survivors, and often unexpected ones, such as paybox Foxtel and Cannes pic “Suburban Mayhem,” plugging away to rescue the industry.

On the face of it, film has taken the biggest nosedive.

“I’ve done a lot of films, and this is the most nobbled I’ve seen the industry,” says James McTeigue, who made his directorial debut with “V for Vendetta” after working as first a.d. on both local and Oz-based Hollywood pics, including “The Matrix” trilogy.

Cinemas are dominated by Hollywood fare — local pics scrounged a 2.8% share in 2005, mostly from the qualified successes of “Wolf Creek,” “Look Both Ways” and “Little Fish” — a result about double the haul of the previous year and well below the 10-year average of 4.8%.

Although the local biz may be suffering, the country is still a draw for runaway productions, but with a caveat.

The Australian Film Commission’s drama survey for last financial year showed that the offshore sector remained strong — foreign features spent A$243 million ($179 million) here. But right now, Australia’s three big studios — Fox Studios Australia in Sydney, Warner Roadshow Gold Coast Studios and Central City Studios in Melbourne — are bereft of substantial productions.

Fox and Central City were occupied last year, and Baz Luhrmann’s stalled Outback epic due to lense at Fox is now slated for 2007.

But topper of lobby agency Ausfilm, Mark Woods, is confident “the last quarter of 2006 will see some upturn” in the fortunes of all three sites, with some big-budget productions skedded to shoot at the facilities.

There have been a few local standouts. Outback frightener “Wolf Creek” grossed $16 million in the U.S., a respectable sum compared with previous Aussie pickups. Helmer Greg McLean can also be added to the growing list of successful exports to Hollywood as he’s working on follow-up “Rogue” for the Weinstein Co.

There is also considerable heat attached to Murali Thalluri’s debut “2 thirty seven,” a micro-budget drama about suicide that’s come out of nowhere to recoup its budget three times over with sales to Oz, Japan and France. Aussie pics set to screen in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, “Ten Canoes” and “Suburban Mayhem,” are attracting heat, plus the critical success last year of “Little Fish” and “Look Both Ways” buoyed the biz.

“There’s a groundswell of really interesting films about to be released,” says “Suburban Mayhem” helmer Paul Goldman. “I know the public (is) entitled to be skeptical, but this year they’re about to go on some pretty wild rides.”

Indeed, Mick Molly’s comedy “Boytown,” about a hit ’80s pop group reforming in order to recapture their past success, is another greatly anticipated film, as Molloy’s laffer “Crackerjack” topped the B.O. in 2002.

In television, six U.S. dramas dominate the top 10 (news shows and terpsichorean contest “Dancing With the Stars” fill out the rest), but none of the once-popular homegrown drama skeins makes the cut.

“McLeod’s Daughters” and “All Saints” are ranked 12th and 14th, respectively, with average auds of just over 1.3 million each, while long-running series “Blue Heelers” and “Stingers” have been led to the gallows.

Also terminated were quality debutantes “Last Man Standing” and “The Surgeon,” a critically lauded half-hour experiment from Southern Star/Ten Network that sought to address some of the budget concerns that dog many Oz dramas by shortening the run time and keeping set changes to a minimum.

These cancellations have led many to proclaim the death of TV drama, but others differ.

Southern Star’s Gus Howard, series producer of “Heelers” for almost its entire 12-year run, admits there is a “gulf” between Oz and U.S. TV product but one that can be crossed.

“Part of the problem is that producers and broadcasters have lost their way with the public; it’s a passing thing,” Howard says. “There are huge rewards for the producer (who) comes up with a show that fits the times.”

To this end, Howard is working on several drama projects (thus far unnamed) for Southern Star in conjunction with the various networks.

And one of the surprises is the emergence of paybox Foxtel as a drama player.

This has been a deliberate tactic by feevee channels to invest the mandatory 10% of their programming budget on exclusive Aussie drama, rather than co-financing in a subordinate position to the terrestrial channels, as they have done in the past.

The strategy has reaped dividends, with drama series “Love My Way” garnering kudos and viewers eyeball for Foxtel, while Movie Networks’ exclusive pics “Solo” and “September” also are tracking well.

” ‘Love My Way’ marked a policy change for us in terms of investment in Australian drama,” says Foxtel’s television and marketing topper Brian Walsh. “What it demonstrated is the criteria by which the free-to-air networks decide on drama is not necessarily the same for us; we were encouraged by the HBO model, which created distinctive and brave television, and we wanted to do the same.”

So paybox intends to “go solo” on more drama projects this year, and at the end of this month it will be announcing a new crime drama developed by John Edwards of Southern Star (“Secret Life of Us,” “The Surgeon”), a gritty love story set in Sydney’s western suburbs. Skein goes into production in August and will air on Fox8 at the end of the year.

Even the free-to-air networks — who steered clear of drama in the second half of ’05 — have some anticipated projects this year.

Network Ten’s programming topper David Mott has called “Tripping Over,” a story about the Aussie twentysomething ritual of traveling to Blighty, “some of the best scripts I have ever read.”

Based on this, the network has turned what was going to be a miniseries into the mini run of six hours plus 13 additional episodes; drama will screen on Ten later this year.

“A lot of people are downplaying drama, but we are not laying down and saying it is too hard,” Mott says. “We believe that these stories will resonate with people.”

Other drama production bright spots include Ten and Southern Star’s “Secretary,” about the lives of a group of office workers, and Nine Network’s “Interrogation” from Grundy Television.

Aussie TV comedy is another surprise growth area, with two new comic talents coming to the fore.

Chris Lilley’s mockumentary “We Can Be Heroes” — following candidates vying for the philanthropic title of Australian of the Year, and all played by Lilley — has been one of television’s few export successes, selling Stateside to the Sundance Channel as well as to Blighty and Canada.

Meanwhile, Channel Ten’s sketch show “The Ronnie Johns Half Hour” has presented some of the country’s sharpest satire and is proving a word of mouth draw among the network’s target 18-35 aud, winnings its latenight slot in that demo. The sketch skein has also attracted international interest, with several overseas offers from the recent Mip market being finalized.

Jigsaw Entertainment’s Nick Murray, producer of “Ronnie Johns” puts the success down to the sensibilities of its cast. “It’s sketch comedy, but it is tackling things that other people wouldn’t tackle.”

And the country’s favorite family from Fountain Lakes saw their made-for “Da Kath and Kim Code” reach an aud of 2.1 million, a blockbuster figure.

Many industryites have the right to feel a little dazed and confused, like “Lost’s” crash survivors, but their continued efforts to catch the attention of passers-by may rescue them soon.

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