More location shoots renew optimism Down Under

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SYDNEY -- If there's one film that will define the Australian industry in 2008, it could very well be, well, "Australia."
 
Baz Luhrmann's AUS$130 million ($114 million) romantic epic represents so many facets of the local industry -- which is riding a new wave of prosperity -- that with principal photography completed last month and a release slated for late 2008, expectations here are high already for the film's success.

The film's financing, its on- and offscreen talent, locations, and its ambitious scope have many parallels with the state of the Australian film sector.

While "Australia" is backed by a major Hollywood studio -- 20th Century Fox -- it's the first major film made here to use the new producer offsets and other new financing mechanisms introduced by the federal government last year that have heralded a turnaround in industry fortunes after several years of sluggish production levels.

As its name suggests, the film is set against the vast sweep of the Australian outback, which -- along with the country's coastlines and cities -- has been the focus for selling Australian locations to foreign filmmakers for the better part of a decade.

"Australia's" cast showcases major Australian acting talent, with names like Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil, Jack Thompson and David Wenham taking supporting roles alongside leads Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

The marketing possibilities for the film have not been lost on iconic Australian companies like Qantas and Telstra, as well as statutory authority Tourism Australia, which is holding discussions with Luhrmann on the tourism opportunities stemming from the film.

All things considered, "Australia" is as big a film as ever emerged from Down Under, and Luhrmann has said that its timing is fortuitous.

"We are seizing the day and saying it's possible that a large-scale picture could be made here," Luhrmann told The Australian newspaper last month, adding that no other market at the moment could assemble a local story, director, crew, stars and budgets on the scale of Australia -- apart from the U.S.

Its ultimate success aside, Luhrmann's audacity in putting together an Australian-made film with an Australian story, using its landscape and stars alongside rising local and foreign production levels and the new financing mechanisms, has imbued the industry with a new sense of confidence.

The optimism is being driven by several sources: The Australian Film Commission's annual national production survey shows an uptick in the value and volume of foreign productions shooting in Australia; an increase in the value of local production -- particularly TV drama; and a third of the production budgets going to post, digital and visual effects. In all, production activity in Australia for 2006-07 rose 68% year-on-year to AUS$625 million.

And after last year's very low result for foreign feature production, with expenditure in Australia at just AUS$27 million, the value of the 2006-07 foreign feature slate rose to AUS$111 million.

For the first time, the AFC survey measured the value of postproduction, digital and visual effects (PDV) work, which came in at AUS$129 million in 2006-07, or a total of 30% of production expenditure for the period.

Those figures come just prior to last year's introduction of new financing structures that include a 40% tax rebate to producers making qualifying Australian films; an increase in the location rebate to 15%, available to foreign productions with a minimum Australian expenditure of AUS$15 million; and the introduction of a 15% offset for PDV work -- all aimed at underpinning the financial health of the industry.

Greg Smith, communications and public affairs director at PDV effects house Animal Logic -- which made 2006's "Happy Feet" with Aussie director George Miller -- contends that 2008 will herald a new maturity in the Australian industry.

"What the new incentives for production will do is achieve their objective," he says. "They will help take filmmaking from the kitchen table and usher it into a new era of enterprise."

Adds Brian Rosen, CEO of national funding agency the Film Finance Corp.: "With the introduction of the producer offset, filmmakers are now empowered to get stronger deals together. We are being presented more projects than we can finance, but that is a sign of a healthy, dynamic and energized industry."

Those new arrangements are also attracting top-tier Australian creatives to return home to work, according to Tania Chambers, CEO of state agency the New South Wales Film and Television Office.

"There will be a spike in production, at the very least with internationally recognized Australian (directors) making films back in Australia," she says. "Whether it's the key directors or others, there's such an incentive now for funding to make them in Australia or make them as co-productions."

A quick roll call of prominent Australian directors with films in the pipeline supports Chambers' theory.

2008 will see the release of Gillian Armstrong's supernatural thriller "Death Defying Acts," while new films set to go into production include Jane Campion's "Bright Star," Scott Hicks' big-budget "The Boys Are Back in Town," Bruce Beresford's "Mao's Last Dancer" and Phillip Noyce's "Dirt Music," the feature film adaptation of Tim Winton's novel set in Western Australia.

The new financing structures are also proving attractive to Australia's official co-production partners, with "Bright Star," "Death Defying Acts" and "The Boys Are Back in Town" all Australia-U.K. co-productions.

At the same time, foreign production is on the rise here, with production capacity all but taken up for the first six months of the year, according to Caroline Pitcher, CEO of locations marketing agency Ausfilm.

"We are seeing demand from overseas for shooting and PDV work ... so Australia is set for a really busy first six months in 2008," says Pitcher. "But the second six months are quite unknown because of the writers strike and the potential Screen Actors Guild strike as well."

Meanwhile, production is continuing on HBO miniseries "The Pacific"; Fox's "Wolverine" is prepping to shoot in Australia, New Zealand and New Orleans; and Kennedy Miller is in preproduction on "Justice League of America" for Warner Bros. here.

But despite the increase in foreign production, Ausfilm, which celebrates a decade in business this year, is not resting on its laurels. This year it will redirect its marketing from Australia's locations and facilities to the talent, personnel and the capabilities which Pitcher says set this market apart from others that have similar cash incentives.

"Next year we'd like to re-emphasize our focus now on the amazing talent that we have in Australia across the board," she says. "Not just actors but our crews, directors, technicians, animators -- and really start to pump up awareness of our capacity and capability as a filmmaking destination."
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