A fully-fledged, Hollywood-style film studio for Canberra is a step closer with the expansion of the multi-million-dollar Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE) campus on track to start Stage 1 early next year.
Built on the old Watson High School site next to the Canberra Technology Park, the studio will eventually include a combination of sound stages, editing suites and virtual production technology – together with accommodation for students and staff of up to 580 people.
It’s also expected to provide hundreds of jobs for film students from the AIE campuses in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and Seattle and Lafayette in the US, and those online.
It’s the brainchild of entrepreneur John De Margheriti, founder of AIE and the Canberra Technology Park, and the man regarded as the ‘father of the Australian game industry’.
“There’s an opportunity to really develop the film industry in Australia, so we decided to spend about $200 million over the next 20 or so years on a new higher education and film studio complex in Canberra,” he says.
“After community consultation later this year, we’re on track for construction to start in 2024, and once that first stage is up in 2025, we’ll be making films pretty much on an ongoing basis. It’s going to mean hundreds of jobs for Canberra.”
John was recognised an Honorary Ambassador for Canberra in 2000 and was named CSIRO Benson Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014 for productivity and innovation at the iAwards, and in 2022 he took home the Pearcey Medal – Australia’s highest honour in the Information Technology (IT) industry – for his “lifetime contribution to the establishment and ongoing success of the Australian and Communications Technology Industry”.
“I was a bit surprised because to win that medal. All the major IT members in Australia have to vote for you, and what I was doing in the video game sector I didn’t feel really mattered to the broader IT sector,” he says.
John was born in Rome, Italy, but his family moved to Canberra in the 1970s. During Years 11 and 12 at Hawker College, he worked on his own science-fiction film inspired by the first Star Wars episode (now known as ‘A New Hope’). The rest was history.
“Through the process of making that film, I discovered the capabilities of computers, which led me down the path of video games,” he says.
Video games were still unchartered territory for Australians during the 1980s, but John saw the success overseas and knew what to do.
He dropped out of a degree in electrical engineering from UNSW in Sydney, and together with school friend Steve Wang, pooled money to buy one of the earliest computers, a Commodore PET. They used this to build their first game, Americas Cup Sailing Simulation, later sold to US-based video game company Electronic Arts (EA).
From 1985, John continued writing games for EA under the banner of his new company Micro Forté, based in Sydney. In 1994, he moved his headquarters to Canberra.
At the same time, he also created the Australian Game Developers Association to get all the nation’s big-wig game developers in one place, leading to the Australian Game Developers Conference.
“It largely took the video game industry from making a few million dollars a year to $3 billion,” John says.
But he’s perhaps best known for ‘BigWorld’, created from his patent of now common multiplayer online game middleware. When he sold the company in 2012, he was comfortably cashed up and decided to turn his attention to not-for-profit ventures in Canberra.
These included AIE, with the original 1996 campus in Watson, the first in the world for video game education.
“The idea was to really help young people find work in the games, the visual effects and film industries,” he says.
By this point, his initial Star Wars spin-off had grown into investment experience across six feature films, including Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse, I Hate Kids, Blue World Order, The Furies, Ladies in Black, and most recently, Sissy as a producer. His daughter, Emily De Margheriti, is also making waves in Hollywood as an actress.
He saw a hole in the local movie industry and approached the ACT Government nearly 10 years ago to ask for more land to take the local AIE campus to the next level.
“We’re doing this because we believe Canberra has a huge advantage over all the other states when it comes to making feature films,” he says.
“Most Australian films are under the $5 million mark because producers can’t find the finances for larger films, but what I’m doing is investing substantially to bring Australia independent genre films for worldwide distribution with the latest facilities and production financing that will be very competitive.”
While it might not spring to the mind of movie producers, the clean air, quiet cityscapes and colourful scenery of Canberra make for a film-friendly backdrop. In the past few years alone, scenes for Liam Neeson’s Blacklight, Netflix’s Kangaroo Valley and Singapore’s Mediacorp 20-episode drama series Shero have all been filmed in and around the ACT. John wants to build on this with a new one-stop shop.
“I want to create something special for Canberra so that we can get more Hollywood-scale films made here.”
The facility will provide producers with all the latest tech they could need, including large LED virtual production screens, such as those used to create the graphic backdrops in Disney’s The Mandalorian and Netflix’s 1899.
“We’re also doing it because it gives our graduates the opportunities to do more work in films,” he says.
“They effectively get paid to break into the industry.”
John says it’s “quite complex” constructing all the final grading rooms, edit suites, sound stages and virtual production rooms, but Stage 1 is on track for completion in 2025. It will then be “lights, camera, action”.