How the virus kickstarted Australia’s screen industry

The US networks were convinced to make that leap by the federal government’s 30 per cent tax rebate for post-production, visual and digotal effects work when performed in Australia.

Sydney’s Fox Studios is booked solid with Marvel blockbusters for the foreseeable future.

Then, when Eureka came to make game show Name That Tune for Rupert Murdoch’s FOX network in November, it decided to do so an ocean away from the intended audience. Due to travel restrictions, many of the contestants had to be found from among the ranks of expatriate Americans in Australia, as they have been for Frogger.

“It’s been harder than if we were casting in America, that’s for sure,” Culvenor said. “But by very virtue of the fact they’ve been ambitious enough to get on a plane and build a life in Australia, we’ve found some really interesting, extroverted people.”

The pay-off for Name That Tune, when filming commenced in Sydney’s International Convention Centre in November, was the presence of a live audience. An impossibility in the US at the time, it lent atmosphere and novelty, Culvenor is convinced, which contributed to the show’s subsequent ratings success.

“In the past year, our dual base has come into its own,” Culvenor said.

Australia’s relative freedom from COVID-19 to date has helped lure many other American productions to these shores.

Sydney’s Fox Studios is booked solid with Marvel blockbusters for the foreseeable future, while Universal Studio Group is making three big-budget scripted series at Brisbane’s Screen Queensland Studios (Young Rock, Joe Exotic, Irreverent) and one in Melbourne (La Brea).

The activity continues an upward trend of foreign spending in Australia’s screen industry, which was started by the 2018 introduction of a location incentive for overseas-owned productions to be made here.

An initial $140 million was topped up with another $400 million in last year’s budget, to be spent out to 2027 and applicable for up to 13.5 per cent of the budget of a qualifying production.

Combined with an existing 16.5 per cent tax offset for foreign producers using Australian locations and crew, the total subsidy for offshore productions is now 30 per cent.

That is at parity for the first time with other non-Hollywood locations such as Canada, the UK and New York, according to Paul Muller, head of the Australia New Zealand Screen Association, which represents Village Roadshow and the major American studios in the region.

Even before the pandemic, these incentives (plus the post-production rebate used by Eureka) had seen foreign spending in the Australian screen industry rise from a 2017-18 nadir of $130 million to $448 million in 2019-20, according to Screen Australia.

However, the COVID-19 kicker in 2021 is expected to see foreign investment break the previous record of $633 million set in 2016-17, when one-off grants lured Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Aquaman to Australian locations, Muller said.

As the pandemic ebbed, demand for Australian screen professionals would not, Culvenor predicted.

“We’ve seen the rise of the streamers, and now the big networks are fighting back, and it’s all feeding into this booming demand for screen-based entertainment,” he said.

Global production expenditure on non-sports content is forecast to grow to $205 billion by 2023, from $126 billion in 2013, according to consultancy Olsberg SPI.

The biggest challenge for Australia would be building enough additional soundstages, and training enough skilled crew, to maintain its share of the growing pie, Muller said.

“The Australian dollar not fluctuating wildly upward from where it is would help, too,” he said.

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How the virus kickstarted Australia’s screen industry