Foreign investors spark interest in Aussie films

Amid gloom, Oz remains optimistic

SYDNEY — The curse of “interesting times” hangs over Oz film. Just ask such industry stalwarts as producer Jonathan Shteinman (“Thank God He Met Lizzie”), Screen Producers Assn. exec Geoffrey Brown and Screen Directors Assn. topper Richard Harris about the hair-raising roller-coaster ride of recent years.

Public production coin is down 30% and falling. Government agencies such as the Film Finance Commission (FFC) face an uncertain future. The beleaguered Australian Film Commission (AFC) is under attack for proposing increased development funding via cuts to shorts production coin. Reaction is mixed to the Film Licensed Investment Co. (FLICs) scheme, the new tax-based funding initiative. Meanwhile, last year’s dark, edgy homegrown pics captured only 4% of local auds.

But it’s not all gloom. As FFC policy manager Michael Ward point outs, the combination of an attractive exchange rate, state-of-the-art facilities, a fine filmmaking reputation, 40% cheaper crews and attractive tax rebates and exemptions means production Down Under is booming.

“The real giveaway is the guilds and unions complaining about the loss of major productions to Australia,” Brown laughs. “If Hollywood feels threatened, we must be doing something right.”

“No thanks to the current federal government,” Shteinman sniffs, arguing the current influx of production and investment could easily disappear and is no substitute for having “a base level of local film production which is government-supported and 100% culturally integrated.”

Indeed, Shteinman’s concerns are shared by many, despite the industrywide chorus predictably welcoming the upswing. “I think it’s a testament to how our talent pool is perceived internationally that production is still buoyant, despite hard times at the box office,” says Showtime Australia acquisitions and development exec Marion Pilowski.

Pilowski highlights a recent five-pic deal, for $5 million-$12 million per film, sealed between Universal and financier Klaus Selinger’s (“Liar Liar”) April Film and Entertainment as particularly positive. Outgoing AFC topper Kathy Robinson agrees, depicting the involvement of former AFC exec Philippa Bateman in the April deal as “a very clear signal” foreign investors are actually “interested in who we are, what we do and want to participate in that which exists here.”

Pilowski’s own cabler Showtime has heaped coin on a staggering 23 films over three years, leading the way for rising TV coin for Oz film, including Cannes Intl. Critics’ Week pick “Strange Fits of Passion,” a collaboration between pubcaster ABC and cabler Arena.

The industry also keenly awaits promised legislation imposing Oz production quotas on the battle-scarred pay TV sector. But there is opposition to the inclusion of New Zealand production under the new cable quota.

Meanwhile, Pilowski balks at riding a wave of smug boom complacency, reflecting rising industry concern that the offshore-driven upswing might be fueling government designs to further cut public film financing.

“That could be paranoid,” Pilowski muses. “Obviously times change and we need to change with them, but it would be short-sighted for the powers that be to rely too heavily on ephemeral overseas funding in moving ahead with any dismantling of existing structures.”

There is also a rising tide of unease regarding inflationary effects of a proposed goods and services consumption tax (GST). Brown says no one knows how the GST will operate yet, but the industry is nervous about its potential impact on production costs and cash flow.

Similarly, people are keen to embrace new avenues for raising production coin such as the pilot FLICs scheme. However FLICs Content Capital exec David Court readily admits fears abound that the scheme could represent a government stealth approach to abolishing film support initiatives such as the tax concessions of 10BA and agencies like the FFC and AFC. Arts minister Peter McGauran insists there are no plans to dismantle industry support structures, highlighting the government’s longest ever four-year funding pact with the FFC. Despite the fact this pact also pegs the FFC’s funding at its lowest ever, Robinson and Ward both are inclined to accept the minister’s protestations.

Not so Brown, who argues, “The fears regarding 10BA and the FFC are quite reasonable,” especially as the treasury has scheduled a review of 10BA tax concessions at the end of the FLICs pilot. “At the moment we’re just holding it together,” Harris agrees. “It’s becoming harder and harder to get international sales for features, we’re watching docu funding drying up, fewer and fewer opportunities for our animation sector, the FFC constantly under threat, a lot of funding cuts on a whole range of levels. If these trends continue, we’re in for a very difficult time.”