Australian films ride high on new wave of success

Australia's small movie industry is booming, with a new wave of filmmaking pushing 30 feature films onto the production assembly line this year. Tax incentives for investors, plus assistance from government agencies at federal and state levels, are breathing new life into motion picture production.

International acceptance -- both in the form of sales and film festival awards -- has grown sharply in the past five years. But only now is this leading to a big boost in the number of films being made.

Australia's greatest successes in North America in recent years have been "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "My Brilliant Career," and "Breaker Morant." The latter, the story of a Boer war court-martial, won Australian actor Jack Thompson a "best supporting actor" award at the Cannes Film Festival in France last year. "Cars That Ate Paris," a thriller, also did well in North America.

"The breakthrough of some of our movies into the international marketplace has opened doors," Rae Francis, an Australian Film Commission consultant, says.

"Distributors in other countries are taking more notice of Australian films," she adds."They're bothering to view them and then they're buying."

Aside from the growing quality of Australian movies, one reason for the Australian film industry's success in selling its out-put overseas is that the movies are inexpensive to buy.

Industry sources say budgets are low. Crews are small and comparatively low paid. Actors, happy to work, don't demand vast sums from producers. Cheap locations rather than studios are used, keeping down overheads. (When the producers of one Australian film needed to shoot a string of interior scenes, they took their sets to an old rented warehouse rather than use a studio.)

The result: Australian feature films can be completed on budgets of less than finished product often looks as polished as big-budget US productions.

Occasionally, an American or British star is brought in to boost a film's appeal overseas. But unions will refuse to let foreign actors or actresses work in Australia unless it is shown that the stars will raise the chances of selling the film overseas.

Nowadays, few Australians are aware that their country's filmmakers had an industry to rival Hollywood's in the early years of this century, producing numerous silent films for the local market in Australia. But, from being one of the world's major producers of films, Australian production dwindled to almost nothing by the 1920s as the popularity of foreign films grew.

The 1930s witnessed a second wave of filmmaking. But local distribution companies were taken over by giant British and US distributors who preferred marketing their own products. Local production slumped.

The third wave -- the current, so-called "new wave" -- began in the 1970s, reviving an almost dormant industry.

Thrillers, love stories, and historical dramas are generally regarded by film critics here as the areas in which Australian filmmaking succeeds best. Comedies have been weak so far, showing the industry's in-experience in some areas.

Aside from Jack Thompson, who is a major star in Australia, the industry is not yet big enough to have spawned its own star system. Film actors and actresses tend to work, much of their time, for television and the theater.

Bruce Beresford, who directed "Breaker Morant," is the country's most successful director. He is currently working on a film called "Puberty Blues," based on a book by two young authors describing teen-age life in Sydney suburbia.

The most offbeat Australian film now in production is "Doctors and Nurses," a light-hearted film about hospital life in which child actors play doctors and other hospital personnel but adults play the patients.

New South Wales and South Australia each have state film commissions that invest in movies made in their states. The Australian Film Commission, a federal agency, does the same on a larger scale.

Kay Roberts, an official of the Australian Film Commission in Sydney, says, "Our films are being sold [abroad] for movie theater distribution a nd for TV -- the demand keeps growing."

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