Australian film industry heads for Pitts

Is Brad Pitt star enough to do for Australia what Hugh Jackman started with The Wolverine?

Pitt, one half with Angelina Jolie of the highest-earning celebrity movie couple in the world, according to Forbes magazine, may have to woo Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her cabinet to extend a tax rebate location offset deal.

While the Pitt-Disney movie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo, has been pitched to Australia for filming in Sydney's Fox studios, sources said it may yet be made in another, more competitive, country.

Pitt confirmed to MTV that he is on board given director David Fincher was driving the project, based on Jules Verne's story: “I'd love to. I mean, he's my man. He's got a great take on it.”

But if Pitt and Disney fail to make their case, industry insiders warn Australia faces a brain drain of thousands of skilled film crew members, whose employment has been battered over the past two years by an uncompetitive strong Australian dollar

When The Wolverine, which stars Jackman, wraps filming soon in Sydney, there is no major internationally financed film that could employ thousands of Australian crew scheduled here.

The Pitt film – by no means assured – is the only movie of its size considering Australia in 2013.

Without it, many camera operators, sound, lighting and special effects whizzes will likely leave Australia for financially competitive movie-making cities abroad, in search of work on the next big summer blockbusters.

A strong roster of small domestic films won't be enough to employ a fraction of them. Nor will post-production visual effects work on movies made elsewhere, such Will Smith's latest movie, After Earth, nor Australian co-productions such as The Railway Man, which is filming in Queensland with Colin Firth.

Los Angeles-based Australian movie veteran Grant Hill, who produced the Matrix movies made in Sydney for the Wachowski siblings, confirmed to Fairfax Media in a rare interview that Australia had been seriously considered for its latest $200 million epic, Jupiter Ascending.

After hearing The Wolverine was given a one-off investment equivalent to an increase in the location offset rebate from 16.5 to 30 per cent – for a total taxpayer contribution of more than $25 million – he had asked for the same level of rebate for Jupiter Ascending.

He contacted Ausfilm, the body charged by government with marketing Australia's screen production incentives, and said that even though the Wachowskis originally aimed to film the sci-fi movie in the UK, “If you can give us the deal that Wolverine has then we'll turn around tomorrow and move over to Australia”.

Ausfilm “pushed it pretty hard” with the Arts Minister, Simon Crean, but Hill said he was told four weeks later it was not possible to extend the deal in the short time frame – thus Australia lost 2000 jobs.

Mr Crean told Fairfax Media he supported broadening the one-off 30 per cent location offset but has declined to discuss the loss of the Jupiter Ascending movie.

Debra Richards, the CEO of Ausfilm, said the 20,000 Leagues negotiations were commercial-in-confidence.

“Mate, I can't talk about that,” she said. “All I can say is Disney, along with other studios on the back of Wolverine, started enquiries because the government was talking about the one-off project being equivalent to 30 per cent. I can't say anything about Disney.”

But no other producers apart from the Wachoswkis appear to have seriously followed through.

Mr Hill said the Australian dollar was at just 68 US cents when the last Matrix film was made in Sydney. Now, at beyond US parity, the Australian dollar was prohibitively uncompetitive.

Sydney and Melbourne were now losing out to high skilled moviemaking centres in London, Berlin and the thriving Canadian filmmaking cities, while in the US, Louisiana and Georgia were aggressively offer filming rebates.

Filming in the globalised movie industry is cheapest in Romania, the Czech republic and Hungary, where the basic crew skill set is growing.

“One of the worrying problems of a rebate is that there is some confusion about its implementation,” Hill said.

“The film industry has a brain drain really quickly. People can survive at the most highly skilled level for only a certain amount of time – but it is very much a global industry now and people have to start going elsewhere for employment.

“Its taken a lot of time to build an industry to the level it occupies around the world – it takes much less time to lose a lot of that, you now what I mean?

“A lot of my friends down there have had a very tough last couple of years. Most have hung in ... but you have to keep feeding the monster.”

Mr Hill said Australia had a world-class broad and deep movie skill set, and the Wachowskis would probably be back in about a year when planning their next movie – which he declined to name – and see if the higher rebate had been broadened.

The story Australian film industry heads for Pitts first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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