“I have been called the killer of dreams from time to time – and I have a t-shirt that says that!” says Monica Penders with a laugh.
The longstanding CEO of Screen Canberra is musing on almost 15 years at the helm.
She’s retiring in September after taking the local film industry from the tiniest of backroom projects to a multicultural million-dollar operation that’s attracted major Hollywood productions like Blacklight.
There’s been a lot of laughter along the way, some tears, but a real sense that Canberra has reached the next level in local production with a bright future ahead of us.
“At the beginning, it was just me in the corner of the Canberra Business Council with a $170,000 budget, including my salary, grants and on costs,” she says.
“We now have five full-time staff and $5 million under management and we’ve gone from being a factual content provider to hosting international productions. The big difference is that we are now seen as a viable production hub nationally and internationally.”
Monica cites several major game changers: Secret City was a highly influential local production that showcased Canberra as a dark, brooding place that looked excellent on screen.
“Secret City was the gift that keeps on giving. The Sydney Morning Herald asked, ‘Who knew Canberra could be so sexy?’ – and I didn’t even pay for that,” she says.
“That was local IP, local authors in Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis. We balance that with major international productions like Black Light and Total Control, who are spending money here and profiling us to the world. That then helps local filmmakers get their projects up.”
The partnership with the ACT Government has been a vitally important ingredient and the success of recent ventures has demonstrated clearly to government how significant the economic impacts are.
“I often compare it to a conference on steroids. A big production comes here for a long time, that’s thousands of room nights and a huge hospitality spend. It also educates local people in the industry and helps them to build local knowledge.”
There are reality checks – the aforementioned dream killer reactions – when people come up hard against considered judgements from Screen Canberra, there won’t be interest in a project as it stands. From that, however, Monica has developed educational and pitching programs that expose local filmmakers to the national and international markets.
Screen Canberra’s pod program matches emerging filmmakers with the market and has been very successfully delivered in Singapore and New Zealand. Monica says Screen Canberra has been able to play a valuable connecting role in delivering new talent.
So why would people choose to film a movie or television series here?
Monica says the “beautiful clear mountain light” is a vitally important starting point. Everything in Canberra is close to everything else, the government is committed to making productions work, and we have skilled and passionate locals.
“Within 20 minutes, you can be anywhere from the airport to a sheep paddock, and that’s just not possible in other cities. When The Code was made here, they could switch locations three times a day, which is literally unheard of in Sydney due to the traffic.
“We’ve got a flat government structure, not 25 different councils. It’s just the ACT Government and the National Capital Authority, and everybody here is still really excited about filming, not jaded. This is an arts-focussed city with some fantastic local talent,” she says.
The future looks bright for the local film industry. No longer fledgling, it’s well on its way, especially as Sydney and the Gold Coast production studios are booked out for months and years to come.
“We have the talent here to write and come up with great stories, the training and education to grow local productions and I can’t see anything but upside ahead”, Monica says.
She’s taking some time off to travel with her husband and will be looking for new local opportunities after that, but for now, in the great Hollywood tradition, that’s a wrap.