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Destination: Australia

Wizards of Oz hang tough

SYDNEY — Competition from countries in Eastern Europe, South Africa and neighboring New Zealand, combined with a resurgent Oz dollar and the absence of incentives for international TV series has resulted in a downturn in locationing in Australia in the past 18 months.

But biz from abroad has picked up recently with Columbia’s “Stealth,” New Line’s “Son of Mask” and the American ABC telepic “Dynasty: Behind the Scenes” all shooting in Sydney. And Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures’ “House of Wax 3-D” is in pre-production at the Warner Roadshow Studios on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

The operators of film and TV studio complexes being built in Sydney and Melbourne are confident their facilities will be utilized by offshore and locally sourced productions.

“Stealth,” the “Mask” sequel and the “Dynasty” project are housed at the Fox Studios in Sydney, and the producers of “Stealth” built a big set on the back lot of the Serenity Cove Studios, which are under construction at Kurnell on Sydney’s Botany Bay.

Fox Studios chief exec Michael Harvey acknowledges that the Oz dollar, which appreciated by around 30% against the greenback last year, was a factor that contributed to the drop in offshore production. But he notes that the local currency fell by about 10% in the past month, which in his view puts it into a “reasonable ballpark.”

Two of Serenity’s six soundstages are due to open in June, with the rest slated to launch in the latter half of this year. “I’m fairly optimistic, based on negotiations we’re having with various producers,” says Serenity chief exec Kingston Anderson, who adds that his company is striving to ensure it won’t be affected by the vagaries of exchange rates by launching a film fund in Australia, along with Britain’s Spice Factory and Arclight Films.

The fund will provide gap financing for international and Oz films that will be shot at Serenity Cove; Anderson says backers hope to unveil the fund and the initial batch of projects by the Cannes fest in May.

The Central City Studios in Melbourne is launching officially in June, but four of its five soundstages are already finished and the Oz comedy feature “The Extra” christened the facility.

“We’re aiming for 70% utilization within 18 months,” says the lot’s chief operating officer, Tim Barnett, who has lined up a children’s TV series for a 27-week shoot, starting in October.

Tracey Montgomery, exec manager of locations and international production at Queensland’s Pacific Film and Television Commission, is bullish about the second half of this year, opining, “We’re pitching a lot of projects that are studio-based (which) are getting close to deciding on their start dates.”

Currency gyrations haven’t been a problem for Rising Sun Pictures, an Aussie f/x house that has worked on a slew of big films including “The Last Samurai,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Paycheck” and the upcoming “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”

“We’re competing primarily with companies in California and London for the jobs that require a highly skilled labor force,” says RSP head of production James Whitlam. “It comes down to how well, and how efficiently you can get the work done. Most of the time we find we’re more cost effective than our international competition.”

Aussie execs are convinced the nation has lost several hundred million dollars worth of TV production in the past few years because the 12.5% tax rebate for feature films shot Down Under does not apply to series.

Ausfilm, an industry body that reps state and federal film offices as well as 70 private companies, has lobbied the government to extend the concession to series, and it hopes this measure will be included in the May budget or as part of an upcoming industry incentive package.

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