Aussie rebates dominate SPAA talks

Foreign executives talk producers incentives

GOLD COAST, Australia — Foreign execs attending Australia’s SPAA Mart last week were treated to surfing lessons in the roiling sea of the Queensland coast and watched over by vigilant lifeguards. Inside the SPAA Conference hall local producers were offered no such sure instruction through the turbulent waters of the country’s new film and TV subsidy scheme and the new super agency that is set to administer it.

The country’s new incentives for producers were the dominant topic of conversation — and the SPAA meeting provided the industry with its first opportunity to discuss them.

The offset, a 40% tax rebate for features and 20% for television — is set to reduce a two-decades long reliance on government subsidies. Projects are eligible if they spend more than A$1 million ($895,000) Down Under, but they must pass an as-yet-undefined Australian Content Test. The test is in the hands of the Film Finance Corp. but will come under the purview of Screen Australia, the newly formed super agency combining the FFC, the Australian Film Commission and Film Australia. But producers doubt they can make any film that will qualify for the full amount.

One fear was that content test would not be rigorously enforced, leading to a glut of international runaway productions and little in the way of local stories, but FFC topper Brian Rosen seemed unconcerned.

“Australia only has so much capacity,” he said. “The idea that 50 ‘Harry Potters’ are poised to come down here may be appealing, but it is simply not practical.”

Rosen added that strict enforcement of the Australian content rules would deter Hollywood producers not keen to surrender creative control.

Australian film is trying to revive creativity and reconnect with auds at home and abroad. As TV ratings and film scores for local productions in Oz have slumped, the industry now bemoans a shrinking B.O. revenues and lower fees from free-TV.

A panel involving local distribbers discussion whether the country’s screens are being sunk under too many titles — some 263 theatrical releases in the first 10 and a half months of 2007. It asked whether the new offset and super agency era will mean more low-budget Oz films get made or fewer, perhaps better-financed movies.

Paramount exec Mike Selwyn suggested that fewer and bigger-budget films will emerge and said that idea is for them to serve the world market, not just Oz. “Paramount will definitely get involved either as a financial element or as a creative element,” he said. Buena Vista Intl. veteran Alan Finney said that his distribution outfit has no plans to do so.

Even before the new system kicks in properly, other Hollywood studios are getting more involved. Warner has backed George Miller’s “Justice League of America,” and “Fools Gold,” an action romancer with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey. Fox is backing Baz Luhrman’s epic “Australia” with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman and the Jackman-produced “Wolverine,” a spin-off from “X-Men.” Walden Media recently wrapped Jodie Foster-starring adventure “Nim’s Island.”

These spirited discussions somewhat eclipsed the official thread of the confab: Oz’s interaction and cooperation with its Asian neighbors — a move to tie in the inaugural Asia-Pacific Screen Awards held at the beginning of the conference.

But considering the gloomy cloud that has hung over past conferences as features failed to fire and television drama languished, it was nice to see a buzz in the air.

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