Mini budgets get shrinking feeling

Producers assn. blames TV nets for tight skeds

SYDNEY — Ask Tony Buckley if you want proof of how tough it is to finance and produce miniseries in Australia nowadays.

The vet producer has just wrapped “Jessica,” a historical saga based on a Bryce Courtenay novel and toplining Sam Neill, up-and-comer Leeanna Walsman, Lisa Harrow and Tony Martin.

The four-hour mini shot for eight weeks, following seven weeks of pre-production, on a A$7.5 million budget ($4.5 million).

Compare that with Buckley’s “The Potato Factory,” a four-hour mini also based on a Courtenay tome, made in 1999. The difference? It had the “luxury” of nine weeks of prep, a nine-week shoot and a budget of $4.7 million.

The necessity to work faster for less money than four years ago meant high stress levels for the crew, particularly department heads, and a real “struggle to maintain quality,” says Buckley, who nonetheless is proud of the onscreen accomplishments.

Buckley and reps of the Screen Producers Assn. of Australia (SPAA) blame the local TV networks for the compressed skeds, asserting license fees for minis have been static for the past few years despite rising production costs. Webs typically pay $180,000- $240,000 per hour.

“Jessica” is a co-production between Australia’s Screentime and the U.K.’s Powercorp. Coin came from a variety of sources, including Australia’s Network Ten and pay channel Movie Network, the Film Finance Corp. and the NSW Film & Television Office.

Helmed by Peter Andrikidis, it’s a story of love, deceit and sacrifice during the early 20th century, set in the farmlands around Narrandera, then a frontier town in rural New South Wales.

SPAA exec director Geoff Brown is seeking the FFC’s help in trying to persuade the three commercial networks to up license fees, as they’ve done for children’s drama.

But he acknowledges, “They have the market power, and there’s very little we can do.”

As a newly appointed member of the FFC board, Buckley is looking forward to the funding agency taking a more dynamic role under Brian Rosen, who became CEO March 31.

Rosen is due to present his blueprint at the May 7 board meeting. “We expect to see some innovative ideas from Brian that will help push the industry further ahead,” Buckley says.

He will have to excuse himself from FFC’s July meet when the board considers a proposal to fund his pic “The Oyster Farmer,” a co-prod with the U.K.’s Little Wing Films.

It will mark the feature debut of short-film writer-director Anna Reeves, who with Buckley has assembled a strong cast including Jack Thompson, Kerry Armstrong, David Kelly and David Field.

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