Aussiewood: our guide to Australia’s film studios

Australia now boasts four main production studios with facilities of international calibre. Set to take on the Hollywood big league, Georgina Pearson gives a brief snapshot of each studio in its current state.

In order to compete with such universal giants, Australia’s studios must offer that little bit extra – a uniqueness not found anywhere else. While perhaps considerably smaller in comparison to the backlots of Hollywood, Australia’s absolute landscape versatility has proved to be a substantial draw-card.

Jon Cassar executive producer for Stephen Spielberg’s Terra Nova (which shot on location in the Gold Coast Hinterland as well as the Gold Coast’s Village Roadshow Studios) told Encore when searching for the right studio you have to weigh up several factors. “You look at two things. You look at infrastructure and studio space. We started with two studios and we’re already up to three. Having the volume of studios to pick from is good. And they came here because there is as much varying jungle in a close parameter.”

Albeit the smallest of the four, Adelaide Studios is an entirely new complex and perhaps compliments rather than competes with Australia’s existing studios. Richard Harris, CEO of Adelaide, told Encore the concept was to create not just a production studio
but a community of industry professionals. “We are connected to an industry hub and the SAFC (South Australian Film Corporation). We actually deliberately developed the whole idea of the site to create a hub of filmmaking production and practitioners.” Open for just over two months, it offers state-of-the equipment, including two sound stages, production offices, wardrobe facilities, recording and editing suites and a 96 seater theaterette. Harris explained that it aims to target mainly domestic productions. “Where we differ from the rest is we are not huge, I mean our largest soundstage is 1000m2 and that is probably one of the smaller ones on the Fox lot. We are primarily targeted towards the domestic Australian production market. So it was a very deliberate decision to target domestic productions, rather than try to replicate what they had on the East Coast.

Harris added that technology was also another unique aspect to Adelaide’s lot. “What is also different is that we have sound stages and mixing facilities and production offices all on the one complex so in a way we are probably more integrated across all levels of production and post-production in a way that others aren’t.” Harris believes that as there is no intention to expand towards bigger productions, Adelaide Studios aren’t competing as much with the rest. “I think that in some ways we are, but we are not competing in the sense that their main aim is to drive towards bigger productions. And we are not. There are of course other stages and mixing facilities in the country that we will be competitive with but we are specifically not competitive with Fox or Docklands in the same way.”

Adelaide’s main focus will be television, Harris 
said. “We made a very conscious decision to focus on TV because we realised that TV was very well suited
to using these studios. And scale cost effectiveness meant that they’d also be well suited.” Harris said it
was unlikely feature films would be shot in the studios. “We were looking at feature films but, features films are very difficult and unpredictable, whereas television actually brings in the critical mass of production and
it also brings in longevity of production.” In November, Adelaide will start pre-production of its first ever series Resistance, a $14m sci-fi kids show executive produced by Star Wars producer, Gary Kurtz.

As Australia’s largest production facility, Sydney’s Fox Studios is spread over a 32-acre site with 155,000m2 of sound stages (eight) supported by 35,000m2 of offices and133,000m2 of workshops, construction space and art departments. Nancy Romano, chief executive of Fox Studios told Encore that for Fox, it’s all about bringing in the big productions. “We have three of the largest sound stages in the southern hemisphere and hence, we really lend ourselves to features that have large sets. For instance currently we are shooting The Great Gatsby and in the past have shot features such as The Matrix Trilogy, Mission Impossible II, Moulin Rouge, Australia and Wolverine.” However, where the studio really shines is in its wider cinematic scope – Housing over 50 television and film related businesses, the studio is also neighbouring (AFTRS), the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and the Brent Street Dance School – which Romano sees as a point of difference – positioning Fox as a truly creative campus.

Romano also told Encore that its lighting department is one of a kind. “We are the only studio that offers our industry a “one stop shop” – particularly since we recently launched “Fox Lighting” which, in itself, gives us a competitive advantage as we are now Australia’s largest studio and leading supplier of lighting equipment.”

Alongside the big budget films, Fox has been home to massive domestic TV productions such as Australian Idol and the X Factor, and is presently filming
 Good News World, Celebrity Apprentice and Kitchen Whiz. When touting for new productions Romano said it is important to use incentives that will benefit the local industry. “We use everything at our disposal as we understand the benefits to NSW and the local industry – this includes both federal incentives and state incentives.” With such a huge complex to fill, it would seem that Fox must sit empty for half the year in between big shoots. Romano explains that the while recent dollar strength has found international productions slightly lacking, the complex is almost always buzzing. “There are many factors which determine when and if productions come to Australia. Currently the lack of international productions is predominantly due to our rising dollar coupled with a Location Offset that is not competitive enough with other countries and certain US states, which makes life a real challenge to keep the studio busy all of the time. And Fox Studios Australia is never really completely empty. Whether it’s a feature, a television production, commercials, music videos, a fashion show or a launch, there is always something happening.”

Trailing just behind the major production complexes – but by no means lacking – is Docklands Studios Melbourne. Rod Allan CEO of Docklands explained that currently a full range of shows is in the making. “At the present time Channel Nine is occupying one of our stages and is using that stage to make audience-based shows like Millionaire Hot Seat, The Footy Show, Million Dollar Drop and those sorts of shows. We also have Channel Seven’s second series of Winners and Losers. We’ve had Australia’s Got Talent and Talking ‘Bout Your Generation.

Spanning 60,000m2 with five sound stages, Docklands is set to start renovations next year – including adding bigger support areas and three more sounds stages. Allan described the changes: “We have had some funding approved to do some improvements to the studio which include, in the case of our smaller stage, stage 5, some changes and extensions.” The aim is to make it more suitable and flexible for audience-based television. “The second part of the improvements is to make alterations to the interior of our warehouse building, so it is better suited to accommodate multiple clients at the same time.” Despite its largely television-based portfolio, Allan maintains the studio does not exclusively chase TV productions. “We are quite agnostic. We will look at all types of production; I think it is good for the productions environment if we have a mix of different production types.” Allan echo’s the sentiment of other studios, saying a strong Aussie dollar is tough when attracting international productions. 
“We recognise that under the current situation, with the strength of the Australian dollar, it’s increasingly difficult to secure international productions. So although we still work hard at that, we have been concentrating a lot on domestic production. And we need to be able to continue to service our national film industry.” The close proximity to both Melbourne’s CBD and major highways makes Docklands sought after as a shooting destination. Allan told Encore you could be out of town and in a remote location very quickly. He added that the film culture of Melbourne is also what makes this studio unique. “I think Melbourne is a very film-friendly destination for all types of productions and we see ourselves as being part of that package that you get from shooting in Melbourne. There is a variety of locations on offer here and Melbourne is very well set up to support both small and large scale productions.”

With its tropical climate and ready access to a vast range of non-descript scenery including sand dunes, jungle and rugged mountain terrain – the Village Roadshow Studios in Queensland attracts many international productions. Previously home to big budget flicks such as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn treader, Fools Gold, Nim’s Island and James Cameron’s Sanctum, the lot offers eight sound stages, ten production offices, several workshops and a host of editing suites, wardrobe, and make-up departments. Each sound stage is equipped with modern, industry standard facilities including air conditioning, extraction fans, steel grids, catwalks – and vary in size with an overall floor area of 10,844m2 – making it one of the largest production lots in the Southern Hemisphere. Lynne Benzie, president of VRS explained that the studio is used for many different types of productions. “We’re available for anybody that wants to approach us to use the facility. We’ve done commercials, product launches, DVDs and film clips”. She added that no single type of production is targeted; however, it is the international films that keep the financial wheel turning “We target every kind of production. I travel overseas twice a year and got to Los Angeles as well as the UK. But, the international productions sustain the industry; they are the ones that are able to outlay capital to grow things like the tanks or the stages”. But again, with the strong Australian dollar, there has been a decrease in offshore productions, and more local films are stepping up to make use of the 40 per cent producer offset, Benzie said. “We are getting a lot more international productions looking at becoming co-productions, so as to access the producer offset that way”. She added that the main point of difference for VRS is its custom-built water tanks. “We have three; one in stage five, we have an above ground round tank and we have the big one we built originally for Fools Gold”. With the principal tank measuring 30 by 40m2 it is the largest custom built water tank in the country.

Benzie concluded that VRS is in an exceptional position due to its complete landscape ambiguity. “I think each state is unique in what they have to offer, but with Queensland because we are so diverse in the locations, we can double for so many areas like the Pacific and Bahamas, and Kansas. And it’s just all so accessible to the studio. It makes it a lot easier to attract productions here.”


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