15 July 2021

Lights, action - Canberra! How the ACT is building a local film industry

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Filming in Canberra City

Filming in Canberra City for the film Blacklight starring Liam Neeson. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

A huge sound stage being built in Canberra is the next step in creating a long-term film industry in the ACT.

The Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE) and Screen Canberra are currently building the 24-metre LED sound stage at the AIE’s headquarters (part of the former Watson High School site). The soundproof hangar will be the largest facility of its kind in Australia when completed.

A 2021 budget bid submitted by the AIE asks the ACT Government to chip in $450,000 for the space used for indoor filming. The funding would go towards soundproofing and rigging lights for the project which is expected to open next year.

Monica Penders, who heads Screen Canberra and was responsible recently for bringing the Liam Neeson vehicle Blacklight to Canberra, says the facility is part of a two-pronged strategy to meet industry demand.

“I’ve always said I’m loathe for government to build a big complex that sits empty”, she says.

“But as things stand there is a $2 billion forward workload potentially coming from the US and if we get our capacity up, we could be busy here in Canberra for the next few years.”

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She acknowledges that there are always troughs in the industry so an expensive facility like the sound stage needs to have alternative uses. That’s provided by the AIE’s virtual production course which gives students the chance to use top-end production facilities that prepare them to enter the industry immediately.

“It’s state of the art, so students who go through it are ready to go straight into the industry – there’s not the gap,” she said.

“The idea is a mutually beneficial ecosystem. I help fill studios with production, they have the equipment and students are getting production experience at that high level”.

While Penders says the focus is not particularly on international production, there are huge benefits when the city can attract the likes of Blacklight, which brought 80 crew into town for 14 nights, creating more than 1000 room nights for local hospitality providers.

The other opportunity being pursued by the industry collaboration is developing local skills.

“What I would love to see is that as we’re busy all the time, more people will move back to Canberra who had to move away because there wasn’t enough work. We think that Canberra will be seen as a production hub because of our ease of access. In what capital city can you be at the airport and then 10 minutes later in the centre of the city,” Penders said.

Currently, the industry doesn’t have a depth of experience among crews and a key part of building the industry is bridging the gap between people who may have relevant skills but not qualifications for film work, or who have worked on smaller productions.

“Sydney has a backlog with Disney for the next five years, so does Brisbane with Marvel productions. George Miller is operating out of a Sydney warehouse because he can’t access facilities.

“Canberra has the highest uptake of arts per capita in Australia . We can turn ourselves from a public service town into a city with a creative industries focus, a knowledge and culture centre”.

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