If the history of Hollywood were a film, 2020 would be the dark night of the soul — the moment when all hope appeared lost.
In North America, last year saw the lowest number of cinema tickets sold per capita in at least 40 years, if not a century.
And as the coronavirus situation steadily worsened, it made it difficult not just to screen movies but to shoot them.
That raised concerns about a lack of content in the pipeline right when demand from homebound consumers was highest.
As Patrick Clair, the Emmy-winning title designer, told the ABC in September: “I think we are all going to have to get very creative about how we keep telling stories in a world where filming is restricted for safety reasons.”
One option being pursued is to go where the virus isn’t.
“The international spotlight is firmly on Australia,” the CEO of Ausfilm, Kate Marks, told a parliamentary committee last month.
With little COVID transmission and a $400 million location incentive from the Federal Government, “the world is now looking at [Australia] as a destination for producing high-quality international screen content.”
Foreign production money is pouring in
Ausfilm, which has offices in Australia and the US, had received inquiries related to 37 projects in the five months to December, an increase of 300 per cent on the same period in 2019.
Those productions were worth $2.1 billion in total.
The movies include Escape From Spiderhead, a Netflix sci-film film adapted from a George Saunders short story and starring Chris Hemsworth.
That film, to be shot in Queensland, will bring an estimated $47 million into the local economy, according to the Queensland Government, and hire 360 cast and crew members.
A new Ron Howard film about the Thai cave rescue, Thirteen Lives, will also film in Queensland from March, while three Matchbox Pictures/NBCUniversal series will film in that state over the next 18 months.
As these and other projects get underway, they are bringing not just cash but A-list celebrities to Australian shores, many of whom are finding relief from their home country’s COVID crisis.
But while the productions are welcome, the arrival of some stars has generated anger.
Matt Damon, Melissa McCarthy and more call Australia home
Matt Damon arrived in Australia in early January and was controversially granted permission to quarantine in a private residence in Byron Bay, a decision some say represented a double standard.
He is believed to have a role in Thor: Love and Thunder, the next instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, due early next year.
That film, written and directed by Taika Waititi, is shooting in Sydney and will also star Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, and Chris Pratt.
Zac Efron has spent considerable time in Australia in 2020, staying mostly in Byron Bay before shifting further south.
He has recently been in South Australia filming Gold, a Stan original film about a pair of explorers who find a gold nugget in the desert.
The Irish action movie star Liam Neeson was in Australia towards the end of last year filming Blacklight.
The film shot in Melbourne in November and in Canberra in January and features Neeson as an “off-the-books fixer for the FBI”.
Directed by Ozark co-creator Mark Williams, Blacklight will inject $43 million into the local economy and create 500 jobs, according to the Federal Government.
It also created a bit of commotion in Canberra, which apparently has perfect streets for filming car chase scenes.
You might remember that Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic was forced to shut down in March last year when Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson became two of the first celebrities to be diagnosed with COVID-19.
No-one else on the production became infected, and work resumed in September.
At that time, Hanks was granted an exemption from hotel quarantine because, Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said, the film industry “is bringing a lot of money into this state”.
That prompted criticism from the Prime Minister and others. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk defended allowing Hanks to quarantine at a private residence, saying it was part of the film industry’s COVID-safe plan.
The movie is slated for release in November, with Austin Butler playing Elvis and Hanks in the role of the singer’s manager, Colonel Tom.
Nicole Kidman has been back in her home country — with husband Keith Urban in tow — making Nine Perfect Strangers, a Hulu series.
The series was filmed around Byron Bay, where co-star Melissa McCarthy and her family have also been living, and is based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, who also wrote Big Little Lies.
Production wrapped in December with the show, created by David E Kelly, set to air this year.
Australia may remain popular beyond COVID
The head of Screen Australia, Graeme Mason, said while the productions might be foreign, there were benefits for local workers.
“Whether they be the set dresser or the grip, or whatever they are, on the whole they’re Australians, and this is providing incredible employment and skills for those people,” he told the committee.
“They’re sending their kids to school and they’re doing it on the back of that work.”
The desire to film in Australia is not expected to diminish greatly even after the pandemic subsides.
There is a shortage of production space worldwide, according Ausfilm’s Dr Nick Herd, and Australia has high-quality facilities, including the Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast, where Luhrmann’s Elvis movie is being made.
He told the committee when you add to that the increasing thirst for content, as streaming platforms multiply, it equals strong demand in the local sector extending into the next decade.
Original posted at www.abc.net.au