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Hollywood Is Beating Path to Australia

Filmmaking: Lower costs, incentives lure producers. Trend has Tinseltown's tradespeople worried.

July 11, 1999|JAMES BATES and ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A few keystrokes on a computer wipe out the white sails of Sydney's opera house and the steel loops of Harbour Bridge that spans the Australian city's waters.

What's left is a generic, nondescript metropolis hugging the picturesque blue ocean. It's a postcard-like scene that could be almost anywhere--like the United States. For Hollywood's rank-and-file workers, that's a problem.

Thanks to modern special-effects technology, Sydney sans its two most famous landmarks worked fine as a setting for "The Matrix," the Warner Bros. film that has been one of the year's biggest box-office hits. Filmed in Australia at a cost of about $62 million, the science-fiction thriller could have easily cost 30% more had it been shot in the United States, according to executives close to the production.

"The Matrix" is one of several major Hollywood films shot in Australia lately, a trend that is raising fears among U.S. production workers that the country is a budding Canada when it comes to luring films and TV movies. Thanks largely to a cheap currency, government incentives and restrictions on U.S. workers, Canada has successfully drained a good portion of Hollywood's production. Now there are concerns that Australia may be on the same track.

Australia hasn't borrowed from all of Canada's playbook. It isn't nearly as aggressive as Canada at offering tax incentives to producers. Still, in an era of Hollywood belt-tightening, Australia is enticing producers with lower costs, a growing film production infrastructure and a highly diverse terrain of cities, jungle, deserts and mountains.

"It is viewed as an emerging Canada," said Bryan Unger, associate Western executive director of the Directors Guild of America.

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Until recently, Australia had received little attention as a place for U.S.-developed films and TV shows seeking to shave costs. But a study released last month shows that the number of U.S. productions shooting abroad to save money is growing at a faster clip in Australia than anywhere else.

In addition to "The Matrix," the big-budget "Mission Impossible 2" starring Tom Cruise is being shot there. George Lucas has already said he plans to shoot the next two "Star Wars" installments in Australia.

Cable channel TNT's version of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" was shot in Australia, as was an upcoming TV movie of Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." Director Terrence Malick shot his Oscar-nominated "The Thin Red Line" in Australia, substituting its jungles for those of the Pacific island of Guadalcanal, where the World War II story is set.

And Australia has its own vibrant film industry as well, exporting such popular films as "Babe" and "Shine" to the U.S.

According to the study by the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild, the number of productions since 1990 that left the U.S. for Australia to save money jumped 260% to 18 last year. The growth rate of feature films shot there for the same reason--as opposed to shooting there because a story calls for it--rose at an annual rate of 26.4%, the highest among foreign countries.

The number of U.S.-developed productions shot in Australia still pales when compared with the 232 shot in Canada last year. In addition, Australia's percentage increases are so high in part because the numbers are still relatively small. Finally, there is still Australia's problem of being 7,500 miles and 17 hours away from the decision makers in Los Angeles.

But whereas Canada has developed into a magnet for thin-profit productions on tight shooting schedules such as TV movies, Australia is showing it can lure the kind of big-budget feature films that can afford to spend months on location.

Australia was once a backwater for U.S. entertainment companies. In addition to its distance, it lacked a large infrastructure of sound stages, suppliers, post-production facilities and skilled crews that major productions demand.

All that has changed. Advances in communications technology and the rise of the Internet has eased the distance and time zone burdens. Australia has built state-of-the-art studios, including one in Sydney built by 20th Century Fox, whose parent company, News Corp., is based in Australia. Stages there are reportedly booked until well into next year. Warner Bros., which has a production partnership with the Australian entertainment company Village Roadshow, is a partner with the firm in a studio lot there as well.

As production facilities have expanded, so has the number of experienced film crews.

"The talent pool down there is very, very professional. They are very, very willing to jump in and make movies down there. It's a more effective place to make movies from a cost perspective," said Robert Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount's motion picture group.

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