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Soundstage noise

Oz faces buildout challenges amid slump

SYDNEY — Several long-touted studio complexes planned for construction Down Under have fallen prey to increased global competition, a downturn in the local production industry and legal tangles.

Just two years ago, a studio boom was in the offing with four in development, but the recent resignation of Kingston Anderson as chief executive of Serenity Cove Studios in Sydney indicates boom has turned to bust.

Mid-2003, Central City Studios in Melbourne was nearing completion, property developer brothers Michael and Paul Hathaway were touting the imminent construction of Saltwater Studios, a A$90 million ($70 million), seven-studio complex on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and two sites were poised to open in Sydney.

Greg Timms and Simon Kerslake were readying Sunrise Studios, a state-of-the-art wet stage in Sydney’s north, while across town developer Paul Williams was talking up the $62 million 10-studio and corporate park Serenity Cove.

These facilities intended to compete with Fox Studios Australia in Sydney and the Warner Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast, both of which had recently been expanded.

With the production industry already in decline in 2003 the viability of so many new sites appeared unlikely.

Central City Studios, a five-studio facility in Melbourne’s Docklands, is the only successful startup. It has been operating for more than a year and was most recently used by Sony’s “Ghost Rider,” though it is now in the parlous predicament of having no announced future bookings.

Saltwater Studios amounted to naught, as did Sunrise Studios. Kerslake tells Variety that despite having spent three years developing the high-tech facility with private finance, he and Timms are “focusing our energies elsewhere.” He declines to elaborate on why the pair had abandoned their plans.

At Serenity Cove, Anderson has begun legal proceedings against Paul Williams claiming two months unpaid wages.

Beyond that, Anderson says he is legally prevented from explaining why, 30 months after announcing a six-stage complex would open in 2004, nothing has been built.

Anderson says Sydney needs a second studio.

“Large offshore and local productions have been using the warehouses and externals for two years, which proves there’s demand for facilities,” he said.

Fox Studios has been fully occupied by Bryan Singer’s “Superman” since January, and chief executive Michael Harvey is “optimistic but not bullish” he’ll fill the facility when that production vacates in September.

In Queensland the situation isn’t as sunny.

Warners Studios used a $6 million loan from the Queensland government to fund an extra two soundstages in 2002, but it has struggled to fill them.

Last year “House of Wax” and two World Wrestling Entertainment movies were filmed there, but the site has been vacant since.

Fox’s “Aquamarine” shot at locations around Queensland, a new version of “The Swiss Family Robinson” is expected to do likewise early 2006 and there has been a resurgence of local productions feeding employment.

Robin James, chief executive of the Pacific Film and Television Commission says: “It’s been difficult, but we’re hopeful a very large production will be in the studio before the end of the year.”

Australia’s resurgent dollar has been a disincentive for U.S. producers who not so long ago could get exchange rates of two Oz dollars to the greenback.

However, James is adamant that despite increasing competition for runaway productions Australia is competitive thanks to state-based tax incentives and the federal government’s 12.5% rebate announced September 2001.

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