Australian entertainment rebounds

TV sector thrives, film posts signs of revival

Aussie filmmakers see it as a sign of revival that two Oz pics have been selected to play at Cannes: Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” will unspool in competition, and Warwick Thornton’s “Samson & Delilah” is screening in Un Certain Regard.

Local filmmakers also point to Aussie Sundance opener “Mary and Max” and the country’s healthy representation at Berlin as the dawn of a local film renaissance.

It’s been awhile coming. The biz has been buffeted for three years by immense industry upheaval, matched by local auds’ disinterest in homegrown films — a sentiment in common with international auds.

Domestic box office share has languished around 1% for Oz films made outside the studio system. Highest-grossing pic in 2008 was “The Black Balloon,” which earned A$2.3 million ($1.6 million) and swept the Australian Film Institute Awards, not because it was particularly brilliant but because it was a one-horse race.

While the filmmaking community is on the rise, other disciplines are peppered with bright spots aplenty.

Australian television dramas and comedies are topping the weekly ratings; the new federal production incentive, which funds 20% of a qualifying Australian production, is goosing local commissions by Aussie networks. The legitimate theater biz is cooling but off an all-time high.

Cinema box office is booming, up 6% in ’08 and a further 16% year-to-date. Australia’s biggest circuit of affiliated cinemas, Greater Union, has begun a massive overhaul of half its sites that will significantly boost the number of 3-D cinemas in the country (Australia lags well behind the U.S.). These sites will be re-branded Event Cinemas and boast refurbished auditoriums with digital capabilities.

One formerly bright biz spot is now dimmed — foreign productions. Despite the showcase of Aussie talent on display in high-profile pics including Alex Proyas’ “Knowing,” the sector has been hurt by the absence of major international productions during the September-to-April summer season.

The slump was caused by “the potential SAG strike and the end effect of the WGA strike,” explains Caroline Pitcher, CEO of federal lobby collective Ausfilm, adding, “The attraction of big-budget feature films can boom and trough.”

The strength of the Australian dollar against the U.S. greenback didn’t help, either, she says. The Aussie dollar hovered at about 90¢ throughout 2008, peaking mid-year at 98¢.

But there is some hope. “With the dollar now sitting in the low 70s (cents range), Australia becomes a much more attractive option,” she says.

Warner Bros. recently confirmed it would lense a $150 million adaptation of DC Comics’ “The Green Lantern” at Fox Studios Sydney starting in July.

Walden is close to confirming that its next Narnia pic, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” will shoot in Queensland.

Recently digital effects house Rising Sun Pictures completed work on “Terminator Salvation,” and under way in Sydney are animated features “Guardians of Ga’Hoole” at Animal Logic and pre-production of “Happy Feet 2” from George Miller at his new joint venture with Omnilab, Dr. D Studios.

Foreign pics of a sizable budget and digital effects undertaken in Oz are eligible for a 15% locations rebate, while films that pass the test devised by federal film agency Screen Australia to prove their “Australian-ness” are eligible for a 40% producer offset.

There has been controversy in the past 12 months about which films have been eligible for the latter incentive.

Miller’s planned “Justice League” last year went into turnaround when it was deemed ineligible. Summit is seeking the 40% offset for “Knowing” but it doesn’t expect success.

Among domestic producers, the rebate — introduced almost two years ago — has taken time to settle amid a massive overhaul of federal funding agencies that saw the Film Finance Corp., the Australian Film Commission and doc agency Film Australia merged into a single bureau called Screen Australia.

The legal and accounting costs behind getting the rebate has been a disincentive. Plus the credit crisis has made the market hostile to new financial products.

Australian producers, like filmmakers worldwide, are finding gap finance and distribution guarantees very difficult to obtain, but producer James Vernon says banks now perceive the rebate as a deal sweetener in producers’ pursuit of gap funds.

“The offset is working very well, and (in time) it will become about as complicated as getting a mortgage,” says Vernon.

This is good news for local producers who are in a comparatively sweet funding position, able to tap coin from Screen Australia, state agencies, film festivals and through the rebate.

“I reckon we’ve got an extraordinary group of films,” says Screen Australia topper Ruth Harley of pending releases “Disgrace,” “Samson & Delilah,” “My Year Without Sex,” “Mao’s Last Dancer” and “Bright Star.”

Time will tell if auds agree.