Queen of the screen
The Australian state of Queensland is making hay while the sun shines, drawing in ever more high-end productions whilst helping to drive the country’s economic recovery.
Since film and TV production was able to resume in Australia in the second half of last year, there’s been no stopping Screen Queensland in its mission to grow the Sunshine State’s screen sector.
It’s rare that a week goes by these days without an announcement of some high-end production or other choosing to film in the state, which is among the safest places in the world to shoot as the pandemic rolls on. With cases of Covid-19 in extremely low numbers, Queensland is in the midst of a vaccination blitz as part of the country’s continued fight against the pandemic.
Meanwhile, like other parts of Australia, it has become something of an enclave of Hollywood, with blockbusters such as Netflix’s Escape From Spiderhead, starring Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth, and Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic shooting in Queensland recently, and NBC Universal-owned streamer Peacock’s series Joe Exotic arriving in July.
With nearby New Zealand also faring pretty well in the battle against Covid-19, competition is extremely fierce on both an international and a national scale to convince those behind high-end features and TV projects where to shoot.
Leading that charge for Screen Queensland is Kylie Munnich, who became CEO in October 2019 and had only just got her feet under her desk in Brisbane before she had to swap it for her home office a few months later due to the pandemic.
The exec brought over 25 years’ experience in film and TV distribution and development at international media companies such as Sky, Sony Pictures Television and MGM International Television – soon to be acquired by Amazon – to her new role.
Munnich says she feels very lucky to be working in an area of the business relatively shielded from the impact of the major consolidation going on as a result of the streamers, which have helped drive up demand for content and, consequently, locations in which to shoot.
Born in Brisbane, Munnich was away for 30 years working in cities including London and Sydney before her recent, perfectly timed homecoming. “It’s really encouraging to see the industry thriving and it’s a great time to work for a state agency that’s motivated to get projects here and support the industry,” she says.
There’s an overwhelmingly strong economic argument for a thriving screen sector, with productions such as Netflix’s True Sprit estimated to return more than A$24m (US$19m) to the state economy and create more than 300 jobs for cast, crew and extras in Queensland.
Pitching itself as the film-friendly production paradise of Australia, Queensland is known for its stunning and diverse natural locations, attractive financial incentives, facilities, post-production and VFX studios.
For example, Screen Queensland’s Production Attraction Incentive aims to attract ‘footloose’ film and television projects to undertake the physical production of the project in Queensland through the provision of a grant.
Projects are considered footloose where they have a genuine production, post-production or VFX destination alternative. The funding amount will be at the discretion of the Screen Queensland Board and is subject to the availability of funding at the time of application.
Open to all domestic and international producers, generally a minimum of A$3.5m must be spent in Queensland on approved production elements. Projects must be one of the following: a scripted feature film, telemovie, miniseries, pilot or series; or a documentary feature film or television one-off/series.
The Queensland Government has recently announced an additional A$53m in its budget for Screen Queensland’s Production Attraction Incentive, on top of the A$100m invested since 2015.
Screen Queensland’s Post-production, Digital and Visual Effects (PDV) Incentive has also increased from 10% to 15%, making it the most competitive of its kind on the east coast of Australia, and A$4m over four years has also been allocated as part of a new North Queensland Regional Program.
There is also an incentive to attract production to regional Queensland, which is defined as somewhere outside of a 150km radius of the Brisbane or Gold Coast central business districts.
The range of competitive incentives offered for both film and TV producers can be combined with either the Australian government’s location offset and incentive, the producer offset or the post, digital and visual effects offset.
Screen Queensland also supports official treaty coproductions, which can tap into federal agency Screen Australia’s 40% producer offset, highlighting the wealth of both state and federal incentives on offer.
Screen Queensland will also help producers find the perfect shooting location, with myriad options available, including some of the country’s most enviable white beaches, tropical rainforests, deserts, swamps, lush green meadows, dry grasslands, sprawling cityscapes, sleepy towns and historical architecture.
The only landscape Queensland can’t recreate is snowy Vermont, says Munnich, who is confident the state has pretty much any other kind of location a production could need.
Indoors, meanwhile, Screen Queensland Studios opened in January 2019 and is Australia’s newest and third-largest studio complex. The lot is 15 minutes from downtown Brisbane and 12 minutes from Brisbane International Airport.
Queensland also has the largest sound stages in the Southern Hemisphere and three purpose-built water tanks, including the largest in Australia, all located at the Gold Coast’s Village Roadshow Studios, and the Gold Coast is serviced by an international airport.
Among the productions using Village Roadshow Studios are Netflix’s True Spirit, the screen adaptation of Jessica Watson’s record-breaking solo circumnavigation of the world, and season two of Amazon’s The Wilds, which chose to swap New Zealand for Queensland in another major coup for the state.
“Initially attracted to Queensland for our Covid-safe status, producers are now saying how much they want to return and make more projects here — for the locations, depth and skill of our crews, competitive incentives and all-round positive experience of working in Queensland,” says Munnich.
Elvis may have left the building, but another big-budget production, Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lies, the biographical survival drama depicting the Tham Luang cave rescue of 2018, has recently wrapped in Queensland, having begun production in March.
Such is the demand for studio space in the state at the moment that the production instead filmed in warehouses on the Gold Coast because all the studios were full, says Munnich. Plans are afoot for a new film studio to be built in Cairns in the far north of Queensland, to help further stimulate the industry in that area, alongside a TV production hub planned for the Gold Coast.
Meanwhile, season six of reality TV juggernaut Australian Survivor has been made in Cloncurry, outback Queensland, while Hollywood royalty George Clooney and Julia Roberts will star in Ticket To Paradise, filming in The Whitsundays, the Gold Coast and Brisbane later this year.
“Once production started again in August there’s been no stopping us. We have been incredibly lucky there have been no Covid-19 related delays at all since production started again in Queensland,” says Munnich.
But it’s not all about servicing the needs of Hollywood. Screen Queensland also works with local producers on their creative and financial needs and Munnich says Screen Queensland takes its responsibility to increasing diversity in the screen industry to reflect the Australian community very seriously.
“If we didn’t do that we would just be an economic agency selling Queensland to the world. It’s important that we encourage Queensland storytellers. We’re really committed to finding and uncovering new talent and supporting people in all stages of their careers,” says Munnich.
Among the initiatives to encourage this are a co-development deal with Stan, where Screen Queensland jointly funds projects with the Aussie streamer to take them from development to production to screen. Three productions were selected for development as part of the 2020 SQ + Stan Premium Drama Development Fund.
The funding body commits at least 10% of its screen production and games development funding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander projects and storytellers. Douglas Watkin is content director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program at Screen Queensland and the agency is aiming to be a leader in creating and sharing First Nations screen stories to drive cultural change.
As part of another development initiative, five participants were recently selected for the week-long writers’ lab, which concluded with participants pitching to Netflix, Stan or SBS executives for feedback.
From this pitch, Screen Queensland selected Brisbane-based writer, producer and director Clare Sladden to run a writers’ room to develop her TV drama series Pathological, under the guidance of renowned US showrunner Bradford Winters (Oz, The Sinner, The Americans, Berlin Station).
Screen Queensland chief creative officer Jo Dillon described Sladden’s series as an “outstanding project for further development” and if a broadcaster picks up the series, Screen Queensland has committed to co-financing its development.
Meanwhile, perhaps the best example of a recent, local Queensland-produced show to have travelled the world is Bluey, the show about a lovable and inexhaustible puppy that is currently winning over children and parents alike on Disney+ and CBeebies. The ABC animated preschool show is now available in more than 60 countries and is currently in production on its third season at Brisbane’s Ludo Studio in association with Screen Queensland and Screen Australia.
As the production boom continues, Screen Queensland is enjoying its moment in the sun. But Munnich is determined this run continues well beyond the current pandemic.
“Australia has decades of experience in international and national TV and film production. There’s a justifiable reputation there. We took advantage of the fact we are Covid-safe and could get people in while incentivising production. We’re really determined to maintain that momentum. We don’t want this one moment, we want this to be a sustainable industry with a pipeline of productions coming through,” she says.