August 22, 2000


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Aussies make way for Hollywood and Games

Victoria Tait in Sydney

From an inter-galactic Hollywood blockbuster to a gritty low-budget film about one of the country's most notorious killers, cameras are rolling across Australia.

The surge in film production is coinciding with international attention generated by the Olympic Games here in September.

"The Olympics will bring a whole lot of people into Australia, perhaps for the first time," said Kim Dalton, chief executive of the Australian Film Commission.

"For many of them, their image of Australia and their understanding of Australia has come from film."

Big budget Hollywood has been queuing up to film Down Under, seen as home to a top-flight -- but inexpensive -- pool of film making talent, a cheap dollar and, since the 1998 completion of Fox Studios Australia, world-class production facilities.

The value of Australian independent films totalled A$291 million (US$169 million) in fiscal 1999, government data showed, but another A$200 million was spent last year making movies at Fox in Sydney and Warner Roadshow Studios north of Sydney.

For director Baz Luhrmann, the availability of a full-blown production studio in Sydney meant having it all -- the chance to make a major movie and live at home.

"Australia is a cost-effective place to make a film, but that wasn't the major driver," said Martin Brown, producer of Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge".

"Baz feels any film maker or artist does better by sleeping in their own bed."

"Moulin Rouge", a musical set in 19th century Paris and filmed here, stars Sydney native Nicole Kidman and Britain's Ewan McGregor.

Luhrmann's films have a reputation for featuring offbeat subjects -- and making money.

He made "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet", which created its own genre tailoring the bard to MTV teens, for US$21 million and his much-loved debut film "Strictly Ballroom" for US$2 million.

Brown said "Moulin Rouge" was made for an "average Hollywood budget", suggesting about US$40 million.

Local film makers say Luhrmann has once again created a new category with "Moulin Rouge", created entirely in Australia by Australians.

All but a handful of the 600 cast and crew are locals.

"We're not a small Australian film and we're not a big studio product," said Brown, from the southern state of Tasmania.

Others in the industry believe the precedent bodes well, broadening the definition of Australian cinema to include stories that take place beyond the continent's borders.

"Moulin Rouge" will be in post-production for three more months and is targeted for U.S. release in December, Brown said, adding that other films will follow.

"We're not the only film makers who see Australia as an attractive economic proposition."

No sooner had Luhrmann finished shooting "Moulin Rouge", than George Lucas got started on the next leg of the "Star Wars" saga.

In late 1998, Lucas told reporters in Sydney that episodes II and III, each with a US$120 million budget, would be shot at Fox Studios Australia.

"Star Wars Episode II" involves some 500 cast and crew.

Filming is set to finish in Sydney in September, then move to Tunisia and Italy. The film is to be released in 2002.

Before the Jedi set foot on a Fox production stage, Kidman's husband Tom Cruise fought villains there in his US$80 million budget "Mission Impossible II".

It was filmed about a year ago at Fox, and showcased much of Sydney's dazzling harbour and stunning Opera House.

What's next?

"We have a very substantial international film coming in at the end of the year," said Kim Williams, chief executive of Fox Studios Australia. He declined to elaborate.

The studio, already booked to 2003, is considering expansion.

"It's certainly under consideration. Demand has been much greater than we anticipated," Williams said.

The Hollywood presence has heightened demand for Australian crews and locales.

But in a country where the average movie budget is A$4 million, that presence has sparked debate over whether the demand will enhance the local industry or kill off the independent, small-budget films for which it is famous.

Williams insists bigger-budget studio production is not at the expense of the local industry.

"The two are not mutually exclusive. The advent of the more substantial production in Australia has led to the expansion of the entire industry," he said.

He says film and television production at Fox is in addition to its sound and special effects facilities, where the Oscar-winning futuristic thriller "The Matrix" was created, as well as a programme for scriptwriters.

Smaller-budget film makers say prices have edged higher but have not skyrocketed.

Asked whether a low-budget independent film like "Strictly Ballroom" could get made in the current climate, Tristram Miall, who produced it, said: "Of course it could."

Film critics say 2000 is so far shaping up as a banner year for the low-budget Australian film and its ability to attract moviegoers across the country to the cinema.

The teen hit film "Looking for Alibrandi" was for about A$4 million" and has so far taken in A$8 million, said Miall, who produced it.

Earlier this month, "Chopper", the story of Australia's most notorious living criminal, murderer Mark "Chopper" Read, opened to rave reviews and box office success.

It earned A$1.3 million in its first weekend in the cinemas, surpassing Mel Gibson's American revolution epic "The Patriot".

Shot at Pentridge Prison in Melbourne, producer Michele Bennett cast former inmates with prison tattoos to save money.

Read, who spent half his life in prison and had his own ears lopped off in a bid to get out of jail early, handpicked comedian Eric Bana to portray him.

Bana also starred in Working Dog Production's "The Castle", reportedly made for less than US$1 million and distributed by Miramax in North America in a deal worth some US$6 million.

Working Dog's next offering "The Dish" is slated for national release in October. The tongue-in-cheek film looks at Australia's role in the Apollo XI moon landing, which stars Sam Neill.

On the balmy Gold Coast in the northern state of Queensland, actor Paul Hogan is resurrecting laconic outback hero Mick Dundee at Warner Roadshow Studios for a third Crocodile Dundee film.

And in an example of life imitating art imitating life, Dundee, like Hogan in the late 1980s, is off to Hollywood.

Many here still cringe at the 1986 film, seen as having exported an image of Australians as good-natured larrikins whose abilities revolve around a can of beer, and groan at the thought of the image being revived.

However "Crocodile Dundee" remains the highest-grossing film ever released in Australia, the biggest-grossing foreign film ever released in the United States, and in 1986, the highest grossing film in the world.

"Crocodile Dundee I and II are among my favourite Australian films," the AFC's Dalton said.

"If they produce a third such film, that's something to be celebrated."

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