Hollywood’s big part in the Queensland film industry

The Courier-Mail

THE night the 2014 season finale of popular American sitcom Modern Family went to air, Qantas reported a 25 per cent spike in website traffic out of the US. For Qantas it was an initial pay-off for a reported $500,000-plus investment the airline had made in bringing cast and crew to ­Australia on a specially branded “Modern Family Flyer” A380 for a “holiday down under” episode filmed in the Whitsundays and NSW.

For Queensland, which also supported the venture via a production incentive grant, the tourism benefits of showcasing destinations such as Hamilton Island to a worldwide audience of 125 million viewers are clear.

In effect, the result was a half-hour long advertisement for our tourism industry, coming in at a fraction of the cost of 60 seconds of paid advertising during the program.

That was one episode of one television show. In Queensland, we’ve recently wrapped up filming of the fifth instalment of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which has pumped more than $100 million into the local screen industry.

As Screen Queensland chief executive Tracey Vieira points out: “In terms of tourism, one of the huge things is the number of visits driven by productions.”

“We had people flying out from overseas to visit the Pirates set, to stand with thousands of fans waiting to catch a glimpse of Johnny Depp on set, and marketing hasn’t even started.”

Marvel Studios will inject a similar amount — and employ about 750 local crew — to film the next Thor movie here, starring Chris Hemsworth. Kong: Skull Island is confirmed and will start shooting next year, and the next instalment of Ridley Scott’s blockbuster Alien franchise is also bound for Australia, with locations to be determined.

These big-ticket Hollywood productions are just the high-profile end of Australia’s film and television industry, worth about $6 billion a year, and well over $1 billion annually in Queensland, according to analysis from Deloitte Access Economics.

In Queensland alone, there are literally dozens of smaller productions across film, television and multimedia that are employing thousands of people both directly and indirectly which never get the attention of a Depp or Hemsworth film.

Nor are the spin-offs to the wider economy from a major Hollywood production such as Pirates often taken into account by people who question whether production incentives and assistance offered by both the Queensland and Federal governments is money well spent.

With Pirates, for example, Vieira says that 5811 local companies worked on the film with the flow-on benefits being as diverse as $4 million spent with local crane hire companies to $500,000 with a far north Queensland landscaping company for set dressing. It’s not just a one-off fillip for local production crew but the sort of big-ticket investment that helps underwrite the longer term sustainability of local productions through investment in local talent and infrastructure.

As David Court and Abi Tabone from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School put it recently, it is all about having a steady pipeline of work so that local talent doesn’t bleed from the industry.

“It’s the kind of work a future-looking Australia should be celebrating: collaborative, intricate, and highly skilled,” they said. It’s view held by dozens of Queensland firms working in every area of the screen industry, from producers to special effects, casting and post production.

Ray Smith, from post production house Cutting Edge, is recently back from what are becoming increasingly regular trips to China.

As he puts it: “We are winning post production for advertisements ahead of companies from Tokyo, New York and London. We’re not winning on price but because we are dead good at what we do.”

Operating out of a small market such as Brisbane has meant that Cutting Edge has become “specialists at everything — at being all things to all men”.

The key, according to Smith’s business partner, Michael Burton, lies not only in attracting the brightest talent, but in embracing new technologies and platforms. This means thinking about screen production in terms of online material or “webisodes”, and positioning yourself at the forefront of new content delivery formats, such as virtual reality.

The same model has been applied by Hoodlum, a local production house internationally renowned for developing programs such as Secrets and Lies and the BBC hit series, Spooks, the latter of which scored Hoodlum founders Nathan Mayfield and Tracey Robertson two BAFTA awards.

The duo trained in what Mayfield describes as the “halcyon” period in Queensland in the late ’90s — early 2000s ­following the opening of the Warner Brothers Studios on the Gold Coast.

When they struck out on their own, he says they knew they needed a point of difference, so in the still early days of the internet, before YouTube was even born, they decided to focus not only on television but also web-based content.

In conjunction with Channel 7, they produced the world’s first multi-platform series, Fat Cow Motel, a tongue-in-cheek whodunit mystery shot in Harrisville. That exposure has led to distribution deals around the world for Hoodlum’s subsequent work, with Secrets and Lies now sold in about 40 countries, and two feature films now in development.

The challenge, Mayfield says, is sustainability.

“The ambition is always to have an industry big enough to allow you to move from project to project, to have multiple clients,” he says.

Part of the solution is big offshore productions filmed here which he says serve as an incubator for local industry in terms of training, investment in new technology, international exposure and the ability to attract talent back into the industry.

“We are really good at telling our [Australian] stories; the challenge is to monetise that.”

The momentum is building.

In 2014-15 Screen Queensland recorded its best year in terms of the volume of production and how much money was spent. All up, 28 per cent of all production in Australia took place in Queensland, up from just 2-3 per cent three years ago, according to Screen Queensland’s Tracey Vieira.

Not all production involves Screen Queensland though, and Vieira says one day a true mark of the organisation’s success may be its own redundancy.

“Things happen without coming to us for funding, and that’s great. That’s the ultimate goal, that we have a thriving industry and we’re not needed.”

Right now though, without the support of Screen Queensland and other similar agencies interstate, Australian voices would seldom be heard in film and television.

“The big issue is that it is much easier to buy American production than it is to buy Australian, so if screen agencies didn’t exist we would lose our Australian voices on screen.”

Screen Queensland plays a development role at several ­levels, ranging from location scouting to help with early development of scripts and higher profile plays for Pirates-style blockbuster productions.

More recently the agency finalised a $5 million loan to ­Village Roadshow to build a new sound stage at Robina, which will be one of the biggest in the southern hemisphere.

The aim, says Vieira is “to get smarter about how we’re leveraging our businesses so we are not so dependent on big international productions.”

She also stresses though that Australia has, by international standards, one of the lowest levels of incentives when it comes to attracting films.

“We have a lower dollar than the US, but so does New Zealand, so does Canada and all the other places they go to. What Australia needs to do is build meaningful relationships.”

That may be as simple as leveraging of a production such as The Shallows, which is shooting here at the moment, via a series of meeting with the producers that allow local writers and producers to pitch their stories.

It means forming a partnership with new content platforms such as subscription service Stan to make exclusive content, which will see teams of writers and producers compete for a $1 million production budget.

A lot of the industry’s achievements go largely unnoticed.

“They don’t,” Vieira says, “get the media attention because they don’t have the stars, but they’re good career builders and they can make commercial sense.”

Here she points to productions such as the Jonathan M. Shiff produced Mako Mermaids — a children’s television drama, the spin-off of H20: Just Add Water,which is screened in more than 100 countries and made on the Gold Coast.

“If you look at the creative industries around the world, they are on the increase compared to other industries,” she says.

“And it is typically a clean industry with huge growth opportunities … games, apps, multi-platform. It is really diverse and ever-evolving.”

Paul Syvret is a non-executive director on the Screen Queensland board.

This article first appeared in Queensland Business Monthly


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