Fox Studios in Oz bows with big bang

Red carpet rolls out for $288 mil studio

SYDNEY — With almost 5,000 guests in attendance, Sunday’s opening of Fox Studios Australia was more an anybody-who’s-anybody fete than a who’s who of the film world.

On hand were Rupert Murdoch and his new wife Wendy Deng; Lachlan Murdoch and his wife, model Sarah O’Hare; thesps Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor and Alex Dimitriades; helmers Nadia Tass and Bruce Beresford; media titan Kerry Packer, James Packer and his wife Jodie Meares; state premier Bob Carr; and prime minister John Howard (despite a week of publicly sparring with Murdoch over Oz’s media policy).

The highlight of the festivities — to officially roll out the $288 million soundstage, facilities, cinema and retail complex in inner-city Sydney — was a lavish fireworks and special effects-laden show on an outdoor stage that was flown in from Belgium for the night.

Guests guzzled more than 10,000 bottles of champagne and wine and 15,000 glass of beer before, during and after the show, which was broadcast to 60 nations. More than a year in the making, the show paid tribute to 20th Century Fox’s cinematic history, opening with a short Gillian Armstrong-helmed video paying homage to musical movies. Afterward Kylie Minogue (recovered from a mishap in rehearsal the day before) gave her rendition of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Then Hugh Jackman (fresh from the London production of “Oklahoma”), Shirley Jones (who starred in the film version more than 30 years ago), Human Nature and Jon Stevens — along with a 45-piece gospel choir — sang Rodgers & Hammerstein numbers. As planes flew overhead, “Titanic’s” Gloria Stuart gave a video address, and Marcia Hines gave an energetic rendition of “Young Hearts Run Free” from “Romeo + Juliet.” The studio was then officially declared open by Murdoch and “Star Wars” characters C3P0 and R2D2, and Tina Arena performed “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic.”

“Facilities are in the center of Sydney and excellent for making films,” Murdoch told the crowd. “What it means is a lot of tourism and a lot of industry for Sydney.” The four-year process of building the studio was marred by sometimes bitter opposition by some local residents and disquiet in sectors of the local filmmaking community over the impact the arrival of a studio will have.

Government and tourism officials welcomed Sydney’s first major studio, hoping it will provide an extra tourism focus for Sydney as well as competition for Queensland’s Warner Roadshow studios and Melbourne’s upcoming Paramount complex in attracting big budget foreign films to Sydney. George Lucas will call the studio home for the next two “Star Wars” prequels, and Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” is shooting there. “Mission: Impossible 2,” “The Matrix” and “Babe: Pig in the City” have already lensed at the locale.

Many filmmakers welcomed the chance to work on bigger productions with Fox, but others fear the inflationary effects of crews working for big budget productions, with several producers already reporting difficulty in sourcing experienced crews at reasonable prices. Some fear the government will use the arrival of studios as an excuse to further cut funding for local films.Indeed, the night highlighted the contrast between Fox and Oz’s indie industry given it was everything Oz’s film industry is not: well rehearsed, highly choreographed and big budget. So while Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman presented a thoughtful tribute to Oz filmmaking, the federal government awaits a report from leading agencies the Australian Film Commission and Film Finance Corp. that looks into serious problems confronting Oz films, which include poor B.O. and sluggish foreign sales.