New film incentive clouds definition of 'Aussie film'


SYDNEY -- The Australian film sector is in a state of flux. Production levels are slowly increasing, and bigger-budget projects are being greenlighted in line with the expectations of what the recently introduced Australian Screen Production Incentive will deliver.

At the same time, though, Aussie producers and distributors are grappling with definitions of qualifying Australian films, the mechanics of the new incentives and how the new mega-agency, Screen Australia, which starts operations on July 1, will administer it all.

Certainly the new incentive, also known as the 40% producer offset, has generated a flurry of activity among producers with new projects and heralds changes to the way independent distributors do business as they seek to co-fund more local productions with the incentive.

Last month, postproduction house Animal Logic, Village Roadshow and Warner Bros. announced production of the 2010-slated big-budget CGI feature "Guardians of Ga'hoole," which will take place in Sydney over the next two years -- the second major feature after Baz Luhrmann's forthcoming film "Australia" to use the incentive.

Also set to be made under the new offset is Fred Schepisi's Vietnam War film, "Last Man," as well as Jane Campion's "Bright Star" and Scott Hicks' "The Boys Are Back in Town," both of which are U.K. co-productions.

But the debate swirling around the industry now centers on the definition of an Australian film for those wanting to qualify for the incentive.

That debate was triggered by director George Miller and Warner Bros., who wanted to use the incentive to help finance the 2009-slated "Justice League: Mortal" but were denied, reportedly because the film had been developed by a U.S. studio, is based on an American story and script, and featured an ensemble cast of American and Australian actors.

Miller nevertheless contended that "it's clear in this case, if the film's made here with creative control by my company, which has been in continuous production here for a quarter of a century, and the financing is coming from Village Roadshow, you're talking about creative and financial control resting in Australia."

But the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the creatives union, lobbied against giving the film the offset, arguing that it was introduced for cultural reasons.

"It is clear that a film should demonstrate high levels of Australian content as well as high levels of Australian participation in the production, including writer, director, producer, cast and crew," says MEAA director Simon Whipp.

The Film Finance Corp., which is administering the new offset before it's folded into Screen Australia this month, clarified the definition of qualifying Australian content.

"Where the underlying rights have been created by a non-Australian and the subject matter is not Australian, the FFC would expect all development of the project to be originated and owned by Australians," the FFC said in a statement. "Where the subject matter is not Australian or about Australians, the FFC would expect the project's development to be originated, created and owned by Australians."

Elsewhere, local features still aren't commercially successful at the Aussie boxoffice. Last year, local films took 4% of the local boxoffice, but that figure was inflated by "Happy Feet," which earned more than AUS$20 million ($19.4 million).

According to the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia, the Australian

boxoffice is up 7% in the first quarter compared with last year. But Aussie releases have been small in number. With at least 22 films set for release this year, the top-ranking local film to date is the coming-of-age drama, "The Black Balloon," which took in AUS$1.9 million after seven weeks in release.