Luhrmann's epic features Aussies at every level

The Aussie film industry has finally nabbed a starring role in a Hollywood-backed blockbuster.

Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming epic “Australia” features the country’s rugged landscape centerstage and Aussies at every level of production, a promotion from their sometimes invisible toil on some of the biggest productions of the last decade.

WB’s “Matrix” trilogy lensed in Sydney; George Lucas took “Star Wars: Episode II” and “Episode III” Down Under; and Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie had significant roles in New Zealand’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

“Australia” is toplined by Aussies Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, with a script penned by Stuart Beattie, Richard Flanagan and Brit Ronald Harwood, and design by Luhrmann’s Oscar-winning collaborator Catherine Martin.

“The importance of that film is enormous,” says Ian Robertson, head of Holding Redlich Lawyers’ media division. “It’s the first blockbuster that’s identifiably Australian.”

And then some. Pic has in all seriousness appropriated the nation’s moniker, something filmmakers usually do only when making comedies.

“Australia” is being billed as a sweeping Outback action-adventure romance, the story of an English rose who inherits a remote cattle station but is forced to pact with a stockman to protect her property from a takeover.

Pair experience the bombing of Darwin by Japanese forces firsthand as they drive 2,000 head of cattle over unforgiving terrain.

“The film will appeal to a very broad audience,” says Fox senior VP international marketing Kieran Breen, citing “an epic setting, great adventure and drama, all set in a unique moment in time, circa 1935, when the world was at war and Australia was the final frontier. … The combination of Baz and the Australian content will make this one of the biggest films in Australian box office history.”

Pic opens Nov. 13 with studio planning its widest-ever release in Oz, surpassing the 537-screen rollout of “Star Wars: Episode III.” Stateside release is skedded for the following day and through other international territories around Christmas to maximize auds and Oscar hoopla.

In 2006, WB released “Happy Feet” in the U.S. mid-November for Thanksgiving, and it went on to become the highest-grossing Australian film there ever with nearly $200 million gross. The next four highest-grossing Australian films in the U.S. are the first two “Crocodile Dundee” pics, “Babe” and “Moulin Rouge!”

“Babe,” “Moulin” and “Happy Feet” did not feature Australia in any identifiable way, while 20 years ago the low-budget “Dundee” series caricatured rural Oz. Many Aussies were embarrassed to be represented internationally as Outback ockers, and the tourism boom partly fueled by the film’s release eased their pain only a little.

For “Australia,” federal agency Tourism Australia is working alongside Fox in a bid to leverage the film’s worldwide rollout.

“We see enormous potential in this film,” says Tourism Australia’s Rachel Crowley. She says pic’s central storyline of a rugged Outback adventure dovetails well with the org’s purpose.

Breen confirms other iconic Aussie brands have inked deals with the studio to capitalize on the film’s release, among them national airline Qantas, telco Telstra, rural apparel label RM Williams and shopping mall chain Westfield.

For the Oz industry, Luhrmann’s first film in seven years is already a triumph.

While preparing to shoot the pic, the multihyphenate took time to help persuade the Oz government to introduce a new incentive scheme that will effectively result in the feds writing Fox a check for about 30% of “Australia’s” production costs.

Even if critics pan the pic, Aussies will queue at the box office, if only to decide for themselves whether Kidman and Jackman have any screen chemistry or to see what design maestro Martin can achieve when she flips the switch to rural. And what will Luhrmann’s soundtrack to period Oz sound like?

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