Aussiewood: Sydney and the Silver Screen

Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman call Sydney home
Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman call Sydney home | © 2008 20th Century Fox / James Fisher
Photo of Tom Smith
11 February 2020

Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, Hugo Weaving, Rebel Wilson, Rose Byrne. Limousines full of A-list actors have rattled off Sydney’s production line, but the impressive behind-the-scenes credentials of the Harbour City’s booming film industry are less well known.

Around 60 percent of Australia’s 17,000 screen practitioners call New South Wales home. With a sparkling coastline and year-round sunshine, Sydney’s natural appeal for film-makers is obvious. But the city’s world-class studios, cutting-edge post-production facilities, talented staff and generous government incentives are just as strong an allure to international productions. Just ask Marvel, who’ve virtually become a fixture at Fox Studios Australia in Moore Park, Sydney.

The elephant in the room during any discussion of the Australian film industry, though, is how Hollywood blockbusters dominate domestic content. In 2019, Australians spent $1.229 billion at the box office – and a mere $40.2 million of that was earned by local flicks, a measly 3.3 percent. Avengers: Endgame (2019) grossed $84,164,634 – more than double every Aussie movie combined. With so much of the spotlight shining on big-money international films, how much room is left for local voices?

According to Nashen Moodley, director of the Sydney Film Festival, locally produced films are the most well received at local festivals | © Richard Milnes / Alamy Live News

“I’ve found that, over the years, the reports of the death of the Australian film industry have been hugely overstated,” says Nashen Moodley, director of the Sydney Film Festival. “Sydney has a phenomenal local film industry. We have a world-class line-up of festivals across the country, which is indicative of the city’s appetite for film, and we have plenty of great local talent that has gone on to enjoy international acclaim. It’s certainly a great filming location.”

Sydney was named a UNESCO City of Film in December 2010 – a bid designed to support local film-makers and attract international ones, supported by the city’s vibrant arts culture and existing screen infrastructure. It also reflects the government’s keenness to attract film-makers to Australia’s largest city, which includes the tax breaks that are so pivotal in luring big-budget productions.

For example, the NSW state and Australian federal governments offered a $24 million incentive plus a tax break to secure Thor: Love and Thunder (2021) starring Aussie A-lister Chris Hemsworth in 2019, estimated to create 2,500 jobs, inject $178 million into the economy and expose next-generation film-makers at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) to the Marvel Studios trainee programme.

‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ received a $24 million incentive plus a tax break and was estimated to have created 2,500 jobs and injected $178 million into the Australian economy | © BFA / Alamy Stock Photo

“Right now in Sydney we’re seeing a terrific amount of activity,” says Kate Marks, CEO of Ausfilm, the organisation that markets the Australia’s screen industry to the rest of the world. “This is a result of a combination of things, including the current competitive incentive programme being offered by the Australian government; Sydney’s lifestyle and film-friendly attitude also plays a big part.”

Sydney’s landscape offers a smorgasbord of filming backdrops – it’s got a city centre that’s doubled for New York and London, jungle that’s stood in for Mexico and Japan, beaches that mimic Latin America (plus, of course, Summer Bay on Home and Away) and outback that’s provided alien terrain on the planet Mars. And the array of innovative post-production facilities and highly skilled crew is just as important.

A Sydney-based animation studio and the mastermind behind Peter Rabbit, Animal Logic is a pioneer of digital animation | © Sony pictures / Animal Logic Entertainment / Columbia pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Animal Logic are pioneers of digital animation, creating The LEGO Movie (2014) and Peter Rabbit (2018). Fox Studios have the biggest sound stages in the southern hemisphere – the state-of-the-art facilities behind The Matrix trilogy (1999–2003), The Great Gatsby (2013) and The Wolverine (2013). Chameleon Touring Systems are one of the southern hemisphere’s largest lighting suppliers, and Norwest Productions are an audio industry leader. The arrival of George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in September 2019 cemented Sydney’s reputation as a global digital, post-production and visual effects (PDV) hub.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010–2011) and countless Marvel franchises are among the long list of blockbusters to take advantage of Sydney’s digital, post-production and visual effects companies – a sector that’s booming, given the insatiable global demand for streaming.

“It’s also a very easy city to live and work in,” Marks explains.

‘The Lego Batman Movie’ (2017) is one film that took advantage of Sydney’s standout digital, post-production and visual effects facilities | © ANIMAL LOGIC / DC ENTERTAINMENT / LEGO SYSTEM A / S / LIN PICTURES / Alamy

“Sir Ridley Scott, when directing 20th Century Fox’s feature Alien: Covenant (2017), said, ‘I had never shot here before… and I have to say Sydney has been spectacular. Fox Studios are very efficient. What is wonderful… is that I live less than eight minutes’ drive from the studios. It takes at least an hour by car to get to any London studio.’”

The talent is behind the camera, too. Local directors such as George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road; Happy Feet, 2006) and Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby; Moulin Rouge, 2001) are acclaimed. Training programmes like the UTS Animal Logic Academy and ILM’s Jedi Masters give Sydneysiders specialised PDV skills. AFTRS is one of the world’s top 25 film schools, while NIDA is a conveyor belt of household names – graduates include Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto, Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Hugo Weaving and Judy Davis.

“Australia is said to have something in its drinking water because of the phenomenal acting talent,” Marks continues. “However, we are also globally renowned by US studios and film-makers for offering incredible production crew across production design, cinematography, directing, costume design and art direction, which can also be attributed to the many years our crews have worked on international productions filming in Australia.”

Like other English-speaking countries, however, Australian productions are dwarfed by Hollywood blockbusters. In 2017, Screen Australia admitted that none of the 94 movies it had financed since 2008 had made a profit, but defended the cultural value of telling local stories.

Grainne Brunsdon, the head of Screen NSW, insists that the quality of Australian stories will help them to find global resonance. “Film is an important and accessible medium for promoting our diverse culture both in Australia and globally,” she says. “Importantly, this includes the telling of Australian stories and Australian history through the eyes of our talented First Nations storytellers and film-makers.”

Warwick Thornton, the first indigenous Australian to win the Cannes Caméra d’Or, for Samson and Delilah (2009), as well as Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, 2009; Jasper Jones, 2017) and Leah Purcell (The Drover’s Wife) are some of the country’s most talented film-makers. Blackfella Films’s Redfern Now (2012) – a portrait of contemporary indigenous life in inner-city Sydney and Ryan Griffen’s Cleverman (2016) – a sci-fi reimagining of ancient indigenous Dreaming stories in a dystopian future – are two of Sydney’s most successful modern productions.

Sydney’s crowded calendar of film festivals is another way to find quality local content. The Sydney Film Festival, Winda Indigenous Film Festival, Antenna Documentary Film Festival, Flickerfest on the sands of Bondi Beach and the Queer Screen Film Festival hosted during Mardi Gras all offer an antidote to the glut of global productions that streaming services churn out.

“There is a huge boom of popularity for locally produced films during film festivals – they’re often some of the most well received,” Moodley explains.

Brunsdon adds that people should “keep watching and supporting Australian screen content at the cinema and on streaming platforms, the more eyeballs our productions get, the stronger our position as both a filming location and centre for production becomes”.

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