Paving the way for Australian Stories

Forty years ago the South Australian Film Corporation was born triggering a film renaissance and forging a path for the establishment of state funding bodies around the country. Paul Chai looks at how the organisation came to be and how its influence is stil being felt today.

Where did the modern Australian film industry begin? Many would argue that it started in 1972 in an empty office in Adelaide that contained some scattered furniture and a solitary telephone. It was there that Gil Brealey, the founding chairman of the South Australian Film Corporation, was charged with kick-starting a local screen industry. Australia’s first state-based funding body was the initiative of then South Australian premier Don Dunstan 40 years ago this year, but in its early days it also had to act as a production house.

“That’s because there was nothing there to produce,” says Brealey.

“The industry in Adelaide, as it stood, was about four single guys who were making documentaries and none of them had any real experience in making film with national or international interest. So I decided to do more than just fund, but to produce films our self and to set a standard.”

The SAFC’s first outing was to be a film about Gallipoli with backing from TV producer Hector Crawford but after contracting writer John Dingwall who had written for TV series Homicide and Division 4, to pen the feature, Crawford pulled out.

“We had one of the best writers in the country at the time and nothing for him to do,” says producer Matt Carroll, one of the SAFC’s first employees. “John and I went out and got drunk and we came up with the idea of a film about sheep shearers. That became Sunday Too Far Away.”

The pic, directed by Ken Hannam, tells the story of a group of sheep shearers on a station in the 1950s and is credited with starting the ‘70s boom in local film. “It became a pivotal film because there was no compromise in terms of its Australian-ness,” says Carroll. “Prior to that, there was nothing like this unpretentious slice of Australian life.”

The film had a difficult gestation with rained-out location shoots as well as toing and froing over the script but the final product was a triumph. Sunday Too Far Away became the first Australian film to be selected for the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes and toured the international festival circuit – more importantly it showed that Australian audiences had a thirst for local stories. A string of SAFC hits followed including Breaker Morant, Robbery Under Arms and The Club.

And before long, Brealey remembers, they were inundated with people wanting to tell stories. “In one year we had 400 scripts come to us which someone had to read and out of them came Storm Boy,” he says.

Director Peter Weir, who was beginning to make a name for himself, moved to Adelaide and the SAFC also struck a three-picture deal with Bruce Beresford but the corporation had an eye on developing local South Australian talent.

“The great success story there was Scott Hicks,” says Carroll. “He was a runner on Storm Boy and when I left the SAFC we had produced his first feature film Freedom.” Hicks went on to write and direct international box office hit Shine.

A film industry was born and by the late seventies every state had created its own film corporation; the SAFC remained in the production business until 1994 when it reverted to the traditional funding-only model we know today.

“The SAFC is part of the fabric of Australia’s film industry and history,” said Jenni Tosi, current head of Film Victoria. “The agency helped to revive filmmaking in this country in the 1970s and, importantly, shaped the way state funding bodies support screen practitioners and content creation.”

Today, the grandfather of state funding bodies continues its work as an innovator, the most recent development being the completion of Adelaide Studios, a state-of-the-art facility that this year received Dolby Accreditation, one of only two facilities in the country to do so.

“It’s the biggest game changer we’ve had for some years in terms of the way we do business,” says current SAFC CEO Richard Harris. “We now have something to use in the mix that other agencies don’t have.”

While the SAFC’s roots lie in feature film, Harris is keen to diversify the state’s offering. One area of potential growth is TV production and while South Australia has previously been viewed as a location for shows such as McLeod’s Daughters, Harris would like to position the state as a fly-in fly-out destination.

“Now we can say South Australia is not just where you come to get to the desert really quickly – which you can still do – its also a place where you can come over and get really high-level technical support and production facilities which positions us differently to how we have been seen in the past 30 years,” he says.

But one aspect of the funding body’s history Harris is keen to continue is the support for local talent.

“We’ve been really focused since I’ve been here on a new generation of filmmakers that have been doing interesting things but not quite cracked through to making longer form productions,” he says.

One such initiative is FilmLab, a $4.2m fund to support low-budget productions designed as a leg-up to local filmmakers.

Sophie Hyde, producer at Closer Productions, had the first film produced by FilmLab, the feature documentary Shut Up, Little Man! An Audio Adventure which went on to screen at Sundance.

“My experience of the SAFC over the last five years is that they have been very progressive about how a state funding body responds to an industry,” says Hyde. “They have led the way in helping talented filmmakers and working without market attachment, all the time being responsive to a changing landscape.”

Recently FilmLab extended to embrace digital content with the creation of Digital360Lab, a training scheme set for next year that will look at content creation in the digital space.

“They’ve also been very strong on partnering with producers here so the intellectual property will stay in South Australia,” Hyde adds.

This support has led to yet another mini-boom in South Australian filmmaking highlighted at the 2012 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards.

“We had an amazing year with Snowtown and Red Dog and Oranges and Sunshine last year,” says Harris. “At the AACTA awards almost every film that won was either shot here, funded here or made by a South Australia producer.”

The next 12 months is also looking busy at the SAFC. Filming has just started on The Babadook, a psychological thriller starring Essie Davis. Tracks, produced by Oscar winners Iain Canning and Emile Sherman of See-Saw Films will start later this year.

Next year Greg McLean’s horror sequel Wolf Creek Two will head into the state as will David Michod’s The Rover and TV series Sam Fox: Extreme Adventures.

But, with the agency’s budget tightened in the past 12 months, Harris is under no illusion as to the job ahead if the 40 year old agency is to maintain its reputation as the cradle of the Australian film industry.


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