Screen biz reaches out even as local pics prosper

Australia’s film industry is facing the prospect of empty studios, heavy job losses and the closure of some of its small post-production houses as international shoots have dried up, but adversity is also fueling creative changes to lure more co-productions and draw attention to local product.

Our incentives aren’t good enough, and our dollar is too high — we have been told by the studios that they are not even going to budget for Australia,” says Jackie O’Sullivan, topper of Ausfilm, the body charged with bringing international productions to Oz.

photos/_storypics/australia_countrymap.jpg” align=”left” vspace=”3″ hspace=”3″>The government’s 15% Location Offset program for international productions looks small next to U.S. offerings from places such as Detroit, Mich., and Louisiana, which both offer 40% tax breaks. Add that to a substantial drop in the number of international productions being made and the tyranny of distance, and it’s clear to see why studio pics are staying home.

Executives that greenlight a film like to be able jump on a plane to the set and be there in an hour if there’s some trouble,” says Stuart Beattie, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Australia” scribe who’s making his directorial debut with “Tomorrow, When the War Began,” one of the few highlights on Australia’s 2009 production sked. The teen actioner, about a group of kids isolated when Australia is invaded, wrapped late last year.

Tomorrow” is all Aussie coin, but the list of international productions that almost lensed Down Under is fast rivaling those that actually did.

Just last month Peter Berg’s $150 million actioner “Battleship” pulled out of shooting at the Gold Coast’s Warner Bros. Studios after failing to get a last-minute hike in the Location Offset incentive, and “The Green Lantern” rejected Fox Studios in Sydney in favor of New Orleans late last year.

The annual Screen Australia Drama Production Survey showed foreign production in Australia had plunged from A$251 million ($234 million) last year to just $20 million in 2008-2009, with not a single Hollywood heavyweight lensing in the country for the first time in nearly 20 years.

With such figures and rejections, the Aussie biz could start to get a complex, but there are signs of life.

What was interesting was that the international hole was very apparent, but nevertheless drama production overall was up,” says Screen Australia topper Ruth Harley. “And that’s because of George Miller’s and Zareh Nalbandian’s big projects.”

Work from CGI-animated tales “Happy Feet 2″ (from Miller) and “Guardians of Ga’Hoole” (from Nalbandian) have been helping to prop up post houses.

Harley says this is proof that, while the 15% Location Offset is failing, the far more generous Producer Offset (PO), which totals 40%, is working, though it requires a more stringent Australian content test.

The Australian-driven product has absolutely saved Australia’s bacon in this very hard time,” Harley says.

The biz is awaiting the findings of a government review looking at increasing overseas incentives that is set to conclude towards the end of the year. But given the speed at which governments work, little will be done before the 2011 budget, too late to save many jobs and even some businesses. So one of Ausfilm’s answers is to get creative with the current scheme.

We are working with Americans on different levels of budgets and forming partnerships with Australians and accessing the Producer Offset that way,” says O’Sullivan. “But it will be a different budget level. It might be A$15-$30 million ($14-$28 million), but you need three of those to make up for the one or two or three big ones that don’t come.”

O’Sullivan’s other plan, apart from continued lobbying of the government to speed up its review, is to give co-productions a boost.

There are currently just three co-productions in the pipeline: French co-prod “L’Arbre” (The Tree), based on Judy Pascoe’s novel “Our Father Who Art in the Tree”; Russell Mulcahy’s 3D shark actioner “Bait,” the first-ever co-prod with Singapore; and Brit co-prod “Oranges and Sunshine.”

Ausfilm will host its first London co-production forum May 10-11 to encourage U.K.- Aussie ties; there will also be a literary session to pitch books.

To assist, Screen Australia is looking to amend its co-production guidelines to make working with local producers easier, expected to be announced this month.

It’s not radical stuff — it’s not big changes — but hopefully we can get just a bit more elasticity into the guidelines so that Australian producers will be able to more easily fit their projects together with international producers,” says Harley.

The Screen Oz topper is also upbeat about one unexpected bonus for the Aussie biz, the increased attention from international distribs keen to fill an ever-diminishing studio slate.

The studio distributors here are undersupplied because of the contraction in the U.S., and that contraction has made them interested in our product,” says Harley, citing Paramount’s surge of interest in the past 12 months for titles such as “Beneath Hill 60″ and Roadshow’s ongoing investment in titles such as “Mao’s Last Dancer” (a box office champ at $14 million), breakout hit “Bran Nue Dae” and specialist titles such as “Beautiful Kate.”

So they have got the grunt, and they’ve got the screen power to get a film a big opening,” Harley says, “and that’s the best you can get.”

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