Location, location, location: Why filmmakers love Canberra

Posted 13 Jun 2019

Story by Her Canberra

“There is a little road in the middle of nowhere in Northern Ireland, fringed by gnarled trees and nothing else,” says Monica Penders, the CEO of Screen Canberra.

“A tiny nondescript village is close by, but bus-loads of tourists turn up there every day. It’s the road to Kings Landing in Game of Thrones.”

Game of Thrones superfans aren’t the only ones booking trips to get a behind-the-scenes look of their favourite show. ‘Set-jetters’ have made their way to the Croatian island of Vis in response to the “Mamma Mia effect”, Singaporean tourism gained a boost with the release of Crazy Rich Asians and California’s Monterey has seen a bump in tourism since Big Little Lies premiered.

And now, Canberra may be in on the set-jetter trend.

“We are getting a reputation for being a location of choice for high-quality sophisticated global drama. And the power of film on tourism cannot be underestimated,” Monica told an audience of movers and shakers at my most recent Salon Canberra event.

Monica Penders, Nick Birbilis. Credit: Rohan Thomson.

Ten years ago, Monica moved from New York to accept a position at what was then ScreenACT. She arrived to discover the organisation consisted of little more than a desk and a lot of blank looks from the community, particularly outside the ACT. “There is a film industry in Canberra?” she was asked over and over. While Canberra did have a “growing reputation” for documentaries, its name for drama or feature films was non-existent.

Louise Morris, Médy Hassan. Credit: Rohan Thomson.

Fast forward ten years and Canberra has “come a long, long way” Monica says.

Screen Canberra is now an independent not-for-profit organisation supported by a $5 million fund thanks to the ACT Government.

Canberra has attracted plenty of attention with several series, including The Codeand Secret City, which is currently on Netflix and “trending globally”. Another drama, Black B*tch, has just finished its Canberra shoot about the intrigue between a female prime minister and a potential rival who could become the first Indigenous prime minister and stars Rachel Griffiths and Deborah Mailman. “Hopefully this will be a returning series.”

Salon Canberra. Credit: Rohan Thompson.

To support budding filmmakers, Screen Canberra has established a start-up style ‘Accelerator Pod’ program – something Monica says “is pretty well unheard of in the screen industry” – and it’s been “super successful”. The last pod brought together 50 participants from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore to “collaborate, test their ideas with the market and make new partnerships”.

The first film through the Pod program will be released in late August throughout Australian theatres. This female-led “horror homage” to 80s slasher films, The Furies, was shot and post-produced entirely in the ACT, and two-thirds of the crew were Canberrans. “And it’s just wrapping up its sales in Cannes”.

Canberra’s capabilities in post-production and visual effects are also growing, as is its database of extras and actors. We have “amazing” music capabilities through the ANU School of Music, Monica adds. “We aim to be a one-stop shop.”

Tim Senden, Johnathan Efkarpidis, Sophia Hamblin Wang, Michael Liu, Virginia Cook. Credit: Rohan Thompson.

What makes Canberra a cinematic location?

“Visiting productions are taken back by the beautiful and cutting-edge design in new apartment and office buildings, university campuses, scientific labs as well as rolling hills, amazing sunsets and moody lakes,” Monica explains.

The Canberra that many Australians dismiss as dull and drab is not the reality for filmmakers, who see its potential as a backdrop for many stories beyond the political.

“We get approached for films of almost all genres thanks to our diverse and engaging city. Personally, I’m hoping we can have a thriller set on the trams!”

Michael Brennan, John Guida. Credit: Rohan Thomson.

Monica says it’s a “super interesting time” for the industry as we undergo “huge disruption”.

“Technology really has made audience king. Remember the time when you would be glued to the TV set at certain time to see your favourite show? Audiences are demanding that they can have access to what, when and whatever platform they want. Content distributors are screaming out for content. They want it fast. They want it cost effective. And they want it now. So, we are looking at innovative ways in which we can bring content to screen meeting all of these objectives.”

John de Margheriti, Monica Penders, Kirsten Lampl, Johnathan Efkarpidis. Credit: Rohan Thompson.

Screen Canberra is currently working with an LA-based firm with access to US and Australian A-list talent. A “proof of concept” for a TV series shot in Canberra is in the pipeline, and so is a writers’ room. And collaborations with the Academy of Interactive Entertainment are bearing fruit.

“No one else has our competitive advantages – ease of access, beautiful light, under-filmed locations, a variety of looks, only two jurisdictions to deal with and, frankly, a very hands-on state agency.”

So, does the future hold for Canberra’s filmmaking industry? “Watch this space,” Monica says.

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