Australia looks to boost tourism, box office

SYDNEY — Baz Luhrmann’s Fox-backed romantic epic “Australia” looks to be the biggest Oz pic since “Happy Feet,” but having elected to borrow his nation’s moniker for the title, the helmer is now feeling the heat.

“I’m under a lot of pressure, aren’t I,” he admitted to a packed press conference last week at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.

With both foreign production and box office for local films in a stagnant period, Oz bizzers are hoping the $100 million-plus pic will deliver a much-needed shot in the arm to the country’s film industry.

“The importance of that film is enormous,” says Ian Robertson, head of Holding Redlich Lawyers’ media division and Screen Australia board member.

Lensed in rural and outback northern Oz, the period romance follows an English rose (Nicole Kidman) to an Australian cattle property where, against the backdrop of Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1935 she meets a drover (Hugh Jackman).

Pic taps the design expertise of his double-Oscar-winning wife, Catherine Martin, with a script penned by Luhrmann and fellow Aussie, “Collateral” scribe Stuart Beattie.

Quintessentially Australian actors fill support roles, among them David Wenham, Jack Thompson, Bill Hunter, Ben Mendelsohn, David Gulpilil, Essie Davis, Ray Barrett, Barry Otto, Jacek Koman and Kerry Walker.

“It’s the first blockbuster that’s identifiably Australian,” Robertson says.

Australia’s most iconic brands have inked as promotional partners; Qantas, telco Telstra, rural apparel label RM Williams and shopping mall chain Westfield. .

Last week Tourism Australia confirmed Luhrmann had been enlisted to produce an ad campaign that will be the centerpiece of its domestic and international promotions for the next year.

The A$50 million ($48 million) multimedia promotion focusing on rural Oz will echo themes from the film but won’t feature the stars or be directed by Luhrmann.

Commencing six weeks ahead of the Oz world preem on Nov. 13, Tourism Australia will roll the campaign out in the U.S., U.K., Japan, Australia and other key Asian and Euro territories alongside Fox’s international marketing push.

Unusual tandem initiative will see the “Australia” and Tourism Australia messages alongside each other but Tourism’s push will not mirror pic nor contain footage from it.

“It’s our ad, we’ve engaged Bazmark to produce,” says Tourism’s topper Geoff Buckley.

Tourism is languishing in Oz, hurt by an Australian dollar that has doubled in value against the Greenback in seven years. The film biz is enduring similar woes.

Recent Hollywood-backed productions “The Pacific” for HBO, Summit’s “Knowing” and Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” have all wrapped and no future productions have been confirmed.

While preparing to shoot the pic, Luhrmann 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.

Domestically, however, the generous 40% rebate for films shooting in Australia has yet to deliver a production upswing.

Which explains why Luhrmann’s feeling the heat.

“The film will appeal to a very broad audience,” predicts Fox senior VP international marketing Kieran Breen.

“The movie has a great deal of awards potential,” a Fox insider optimistically hopes, “It’s big in scope and grand in every way.”

Breen says it is, “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.”

He predicts the combination of Luhrmann and the Australian storyline could result in one of the biggest Aussie films ever.

Fox is planning its widest-ever release in Oz, surpassing the 537-screen rollout of “Star Wars: Episode III.”

“Australia” opens Stateside the following day and in other territories around Christmas to maximize awards positioning.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more