Aussie co-production partnerships pay dividends

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SYDNEY -- Australia and its eight official co-production partners will be eyeing the market this year to see how financing and production on several key features progresses.

Two U.K.-Australia co-productions, Jane Campion's "Bright Star" and Scott Hicks' "The Boys Are Back in Town," and one Australia-China co-production, the children's fantasy feature "The Last Dragon," are prepping to shoot this year.

Those three features alone are set to boost the co-production tally, which in 2006-07 numbered just three features films: the stop-motion Australia-Israel co-pro "$9.99"; Gillian Armstrong's "Death Defying Acts," which was made in the U.K. and stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce, and which was co-funded by the Sydney-based Film Finance Corp.; and Roger Spottiswoode's China-Australia-Germany co-pro, "The Children of Huang Shi," starring Chow Yun-Fat and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Combined, these three features -- all of which will be released this year -- had a total production value of AUS$19 million for the Australian sector.

Australia currently has official treaties with Canada, China, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Singapore and the U.K. Memorandums of understanding are also in place with France and New Zealand, and treaty negotiations are under way with South Africa.

The key for the new co-productions will be unlocking the new producer rebates that become available to co-production partners under Australia's various treaty agreements. For Australia, "the test will be how the new offsets work and how we can use co-productions to leverage better deals," says Screen Producers Association of Australia executive director Geoff Brown.

Adds Ausfilm CEO Caroline Pitcher: "(The new rebates) give the formal co-production country a much better opportunity to partner with Australia."

One area of the Australian industry set to further benefit from an increase in co-production activity is the postproduction, digital and visual effects (PDV) sector.

When principal photography occurs in the partner's country, postproduction and other PDV work tends to be done in Australia, adding to the consistent inflow of work to Australian companies. This was the case for both "Death Defying Acts" and "Children of Huang Shi."

Indeed, the new treaties signed this year with Singapore and China are expected to further sanction the strong relationships that Australia has, "particularly in the post and visual effects sector," according to Catherine Waters, who heads up the branch of the Australian Film Commission that administers the treaties for the Australian government.

Locations marketing body Ausfilm is also looking at how Australia's co-production treaties can attract further production Down Under.

"Over the next three years, Ausfilm be focusing on diversifying the number of geographic markets we can attract and hitting those markets more deeply than we have before. We're better off doing deals with markets with which we have co-production deals," Pitcher says.

Tania Chambers, CEO of state agency the New South Wales Film and Television Office, adds that Australia needs to be capturing more co-productions and developing relationships that are truly two-way.

With the Singaporean and Chinese co-production treaties signed this year, she notes the recent advice from Singapore's minister for foreign affairs, George Yeo: "If people don't push the refresh button on their knowledge of countries and industries in Asia at the moment, they are in great danger of being out of date," she says. "If you look at the Singaporean industry over the past five years, it's just transformed. It's still evolving, but being in this region, it's really essential we keep that in mind."
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