News

As the pandemic rages overseas, scores of major film and TV projects are moving production to Australia. But will this gold rush bring any lasting benefits to the local industry? By Rick Morton.

Film productions move to Australia

Actor Chris Hemsworth and director Taika Waititi in Australia.
Credit: Instagram

Chris Hemsworth has been forced to film at a Gold Coast convention centre, such is the demand for sound stages in Australia. Next month, the Thor actor’s adopted home in Byron Bay will be invaded by Netflix’s Byron Baes, the streaming giant’s first Australian reality TV series, which has stirred controversy with locals and made headlines around the world. All around the country, it seems, the film and television industry is experiencing a gold rush. At least at first glance.

By one telling, there has never been a better time for the industry. As city skyline cranes were once used as shorthand for the country’s economic health, we’re told now to look to the stars as an indicator of fortunes.

Oscar-winning director Taika Waititi has been shooting in Australia since last year. Zac Efron got stuck here during the pandemic and has been put to work hosting Netflix documentaries. Julia Roberts arrived in March and will soon be joined by George Clooney. Natalie Portman has relocated, as have Matt Damon, Idris Elba, Rita Ora, Awkwafina and Melissa McCarthy. Normal People star Paul Mescal was on Sydney’s beaches shooting the film adaptation of Carmen. Mark Wahlberg, meanwhile, was spotted in Sydney’s inner east last week, although he’s only in town to film a multimillion-dollar campaign for a betting company.

“Current international production activity in Australia is unprecedented,” AusFilm chief executive Kate Marks tells The Saturday Paper. “And it’s not just because Covid-19 has made it difficult to film in some of the usual locations around the world. Much of this is down to the $400 million [grant] announced by the federal government last year,” she says. “I am confident this consistent pipeline of activity will continue for years to come, giving us the opportunity to grow as an industry, create jobs and enable Australian companies to invest in technology and infrastructure.”

International investment has soared – 12 projects have so far been announced as beneficiaries of the fund, in addition to $140 million announced in 2018. In April, Australian director George Miller revealed a prequel to his 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road will start shooting in June. Furiosa will be the largest film production in Australian history.

“The support of the federal and New South Wales governments were pivotal,” Miller said of the film. “They made it possible for the film to be greenlit, shot in Australia and for the production to be based in our home state.”

With so much production, space is at a premium. At the Village Roadshow Studios, just up the road from where Chris Hemsworth is shooting Escape from Spiderhead at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre, all nine sound stages at the southern hemisphere’s largest studio lot are booked out.

The Liam Neeson and Guy Pearce thriller Blacklight had to film at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. With no global conferences, exhibition venues across the country would have been sitting idle were it not for the influx from Hollywood.

At Melbourne’s Docklands, Development Victoria, a major projects arm of the state government, is overseeing the $46 million construction of Sound Stage 6. The 3700-square-metre venue – with a 900,000-litre water tank for good measure – will increase capacity at the studio lot by 60 per cent when it is finished later this year.

With Australia’s borders closed, and international arrivals capped, productions are also struggling to find crew locally.

Last week, Screen Producers Australia (SPA) surveyed its members and 80 per cent reported they’ve had trouble finding people to fill a range of jobs from assistant directors to gaffers, grips, location managers and camera operators. Ninety five per cent of those surveyed said the cost of attracting these workers had increased.

Which is great news for crews, but how long can the bubble last? And what does it mean for local productions and smaller outfits?

“While the current employment conditions are a boon for jobs and our world-class crews, there is a tangible flow-on effect into local productions and the local production businesses who are striving to maintain sustainability in challenging economic conditions,” SPA chief executive Matthew Dean says. “These are the businesses who will revert to being the main source of employment for crews once the tide of international productions returns to normal levels.”

The Saturday Paper has spoken with several Australian directors and screenwriters who say talk of a boom disguises the uneven nature of what is happening.

“It’s definitely true that a lot of productions can’t start because they can’t get crew,” one film and television director says. “Yes, we are in a boom, but also I don’t know any local directors who are working or who have had more opportunities from it.”

In essence, these productions are mostly importing their senior creatives.

As one screenwriter tells The Saturday Paper, there is a sense this is very much a “sugar hit” that cannot last, at least not without major structural changes in the industry.

But Netflix’s director of production policy, Debra Richards, sees it differently.

She likens the current boom to the explosion of features filmed in Australia around the turn of the last millennium – that one was propelled by the extraordinarily low Australian dollar, this one by Covid-19 and a slew of government incentives.

“This is not a sugar hit,” Richards says. “It’s part of a well-balanced diet. And it will continue, particularly if the government, which has been very supportive with incentives, continues those.”

It could be said the country’s film and television industry is currently in the second act of a very dramatic narrative arc: the scene has been set, and the tension is necessarily building. But now Australian producers are wondering what, exactly, the third act is going to deliver for the local industry.

“The government has been dining out on the success story of the $400 million boost,” one industry figure says, “but we all know the US production companies will not stick around here for long.”

Last year, Arts Minister Paul Fletcher pulled three powerful levers that have the potential to reshape the future of the Australian film and television industry. These changes have an alliance of screenwriters, producers, actors and directors deeply concerned.

First, Fletcher announced the government would relax local content requirements for the three commercial free-to-air television networks: Channel Nine, Seven and Ten. Under the new regulations, a points system will be introduced that will halve the number of hours dedicated to scripted drama, documentaries and children’s television.

For drama, points will be given according to budget: ranging from 1.5 points for productions that cost less than $450,000 an hour, to seven points for more than $1.4 million an hour of content. In short, the minimum yearly requirement of 250 points can be reached faster if a production’s budget is bigger. But fewer hours means less work for budding and even established industry talent.

Minister Fletcher has signalled a willingness to subject streaming services, such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ to content rules – 5 per cent of revenue – but this falls far short of what the industry says it needs to thrive.

“Based on international precedent, streaming services should invest 20 per cent of locally sourced revenue in producing new, Australian content,” Australian Writers’ Guild president Shane Brennan says. “This is imperative to balance the contraction caused in the sector by the government’s changes to free-to-air TV regulation.”

In France, moves are afoot to push streaming services’ quota to 25.5 per cent for local production. Canada is aiming for 30 per cent. Foxtel, which operates in Australia on a slightly different financial model, has also won a break from the Coalition under Fletcher’s changes. It is presently required to devote 10 per cent of its total drama expenditure to Australian content – and has produced hits such as Wentworth while doing so – but this will fall to 5 per cent under the new system. Stan, curiously, is regulated by the free-to-air content requirements of its owner, Channel Nine.

Netflix’s Debra Richards doesn’t think there’s any “market failure” in the Australian industry that needs to be addressed with regulation. “I don’t want us to get into a position where we are just delivering for the sake of a contract, for example,” she says. “And I used to be a regulator. That is why you regulate: for market failure. We are happy to be more transparent, absolutely, and more open.”

The reality series Byron Baes will count towards this. Richards concedes they didn’t expect the backlash to the series, which will document the lives of a group of Instagram influencers, but production will push ahead in May regardless.

“I’m really confident about it, I think it’s going to be great,” she says. “We are aiming to build up, not to tear down.”

Netflix also has a slate of Australian productions in the pipeline, including a reboot of the scripted drama Heartbreak High.

Separate to local content requirement changes, Minister Fletcher is preparing a new bill that would expunge the so-called “Gallipoli Clause”. This clause currently allows feature films to attract tax offsets from the Australian government if they spend money shooting an Australian story in an overseas locale. Gallipoli, of course, is the namesake film, but many other projects have benefited from the clause, including Balibo and Mao’s Last Dancer.

The amendments are not all bad news. The television credit has been boosted from 20 to 30 per cent under the amendments, while the film offset remains at 40 per cent after criticism when the government tried to drop it to 30 per cent. But the minimum spend threshold is set to double to $1 million, a figure that cuts out a lot of smaller and independent productions.

“The government’s $400 million incentive to bring foreign productions to our shores doesn’t generate Australian intellectual property or homegrown success,” says screenwriter Jan Sardi AO, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Shine and also worked on the television adaption of The Secret River. “We’re grateful for the retention of the feature film producer offset at 40 per cent, but we’d also like to retain the minimum expenditure threshold at $500,000 and keep the Gallipoli Clause.”

In March a convoy of Australian screen greats descended on Parliament House in Canberra to draw political attention to the concerns of the local film and television industry. Run by an alliance between the writers’ guild, producers, directors and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the Make It Australian campaign wants the government to make the streamers spend 20 per cent of their local revenue on new Australian drama, documentary and children’s content.

Actors Simon Baker and Bryan Brown spoke passionately, but it was Justine Clarke who gave the most affecting performance. The Play School host picked up a ukulele and sang the theme of the long-running children’s television show. According to those in the room, it became quite emotional and the lyrics took on an added depth. There are people with games. And stories to tell

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Eats, shoots and leaves".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.