'Australia' aims to cast wide net, reel in prod'n

Baz Luhrmann's WWII epic opens Tuesday in Australia

SYDNEY -- Australia rolls out its most expensive movie ever Tuesday, hoping the grandly named epic "Australia" will attract overseas investors to revive the local film industry and also tourists.

Billed as a cross between "Out of Africa" and "Gone With the Wind," the nearly three-hour romantic adventure starring homegrown Hollywood stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman is reported to have cost 20th Century Fox about $130 million.

"Australia" is a World War II drama about an English aristocrat who travels to Australia and joins forces with a cattle "drover" or cowboy and an Aboriginal child to drive a herd of cattle across the stunning, rugged Australian landscape.

Geoff Brown, executive director of the Screen Producers' Association of Australia, said the industry hoped director Baz Luhrmann's film draw in investors and lure moviegoers back to Australian movies after a string of bleak, boxoffice flops.

"This is a truly cinematic film, a real epic, filmed in 1940s style. We just haven't had the opportunity to show our wares on this scale before," Brown told Reuters.

"This is the marketing tool for Australian film. It's an Australian film from beginning to end, shot in Australia with an Australian cast, crew, special effects, lighting, even director, and we are seeing this as a calling card to the world."

Tourism Australia has spent AUS$50 million ($32 million) on an advertising campaign and promotions linked to the film, aiming to make Australia a coveted destination as the global financial crisis hits tourism, as "Crocodile Dundee" did in the 1980s.

The campaign received a major boost last week when influential U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey described it as "the best movie I've seen in a long, long, long, long time."

Local film industry watchers were not convinced after watching Luhrmann racing to finish the ambitious movie and reportedly battling studio executives over its length and ending.

"It's set to be either Australia's most fabulous cinematic feat -- or its costliest folly," wrote the Sydney Morning Herald.

But the local film industry was hoping the movie would put Australia back on Hollywood's map as a good location, with talent for filmmaking and as a nation producing top-class films.

Brown said reliance on government funding had seen a shift from popular, quirky Australian movies like "Muriel's Wedding," "Strictly Ballroom" and "Babe," to darker, art house movies.

This even drove away Australian moviegoers with government figures showing Australian films' share of the national boxoffice dropped to 4% in 2007 from 10% in 1994.

Brown said "Australia" was one of the first films to take advantage of a new system for privately financing films introduced last year, under which the producer can claim back 40% of production costs through the tax system.

"This film is a great example. We can go to Hollywood and say we can cut 40% off costs," he said, but added the ongoing credit crisis would clearly make it harder to secure financing.

Luhrmann, known for "Strictly Ballroom" (1992), "Romeo and Juliet" (1996), and "Moulin Rouge" (2001), acknowledged it would be hard for "Australia" to meet high local expectations.

But he said even if the film was not a financial success, he hoped it would draw more international financing to Australia.

"The idea of people like Peter Weir or Australian directors who have global financing ... coming back and working in Australia, that's much more present as an idea," he told Reuters.

"Australia" opens in the U.S. and Australia on Nov. 26 and in Britain on Dec. 26.
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