Western Australia: A world of their own

The State has experienced a growth in production as its agency offers new incentives to build a sustainable creative community. Peter Galvin reports from Perth.

For ScreenWest’s Harry Bardwell, a core principle for West Australia’s state screen agency is the ideal of building a sustainable creative community. This is the basis for ScreenWest’s programs and strategies says Bardwell, who is the agency’s director of production  development. “WA is a wealthy state based on minerals and engineering, but we are also trying to build a strong professional creative sector.”

In terms of the screen industry, it was not so long ago that WA was suffering from a brain drain.

“As soon as people reached a certain professional maturity they left,” explains veteran director Steve Jodrell (The Circuit), a Perth native based in Melbourne. “In fact, if you were to survey film industry professionals in all the states, you would find a  disproportionate amount of West Australians among them!”

Things are so healthy in the state’s screen industry right now, Bardwell claims, that the issue is a “brain scarcity.” This January, ScreenWest pitched a points-based incentive funding model to the state’s screen industry players that will reward producers if they commit  to employing West Australians in key positions.


Last year, ScreenWest chief, Ian Booth – who was not available for comment this time – claimed a “mini-boom” for the state’s film and TV sector. Figures released by the agency in January 09 indicate that the growth has continued. Production in the state in 2007-08  was worth $42m; with ScreenWest’s investment at $5.09m. Between February and December 08, the agency invested $5.7 in production across projects worth $26m, representing 72.5 hours of programming.

ScreenWest expects that WA will produce another 72.5 hours on the current 08-09 slate. Amongst the productions shot in the state over the past year are the long awaited feature of the hit stage musical Bran Nue Dae, a second series of The Circuit; 3 Acts of Murder  (aka Conversation Killer), a high-end TV movie about a true life murder in the 1920s written by Ian David (Blue Murder) and directed by Rowan Woods (Little Fish) and the big budget boxing movie Two Fists One Heart, which will be distributed by Disney in March.

There was also a large slab of programming emerging from WA’s ‘core’ production sectors of children and factual programming in the past year. When explaining the strength and growth of the screen industry in WA, most of the well-placed players Encore spoke to  credit these two sectors as being crucial in understanding how the state has achieved its current value and rate of production.

Amongst the major titles produced in children’s TV this past year were Stormworld, a $10m series, co-produced by WA veteran Paul Barron and his company Great Western Entertainment and Canada’s Bright Light; Dogstar, from Media World Pictures; and Trapped,  from Northway productions.

There were a dozen documentaries (one-off or series) produced in the past year, including The Hunt for HMAS Sydney from Electric Pictures; a second series of Who Do You Think you Are? from Artemis Internationa;l and The Snake Crusader from Prospero  Productions.

Last year the West Australian government invested directly in Bazmark’s Australia. Bardwell explains that ScreenWest “managed” this investment, but it did not any way impact on the agency’s funding pool. “But this in no way reflects a change in policy…we are not  about to base our industry around production attraction [for large runaway pictures].” Bardwell says that traditionally, WA has not tried to attract Hollywood pictures. Locally, this policy has its critics: “I think there is a feeling that  ScreenWest ought to be spending  more on production and [chasing the big films],” one freelancer complained to Encore.

“I think the work right now is inconsistent,” adds Mike Montague of Montague Production services. Based in Perth, his recent credits include Two Fists One Heart, Bran Nue Dae, Lockie Leonard and 3 Acts of Murder. “I think we’ll be working pretty hard in the coming  year, but there are always instances where we are losing pictures to the eastern states.”

Graeme Sward CEO of Freemantle’s Film and TV Institute says that ScreenWest’s strategies, especially schemes that have assisted emerging filmmakers, have paid off long term: “There certainly seems to be a lot of work at the moment for crews.” He says that much of  what ScreenWest has done [much of it in co-operation and consultation with the FTI] has been “about real targets and real outcomes.”
He cites projects, many of them aimed at Indigenous filmmakers (Encore will present a feature on Indigenous production next month),such as Deadly Yarns, but also Nick Shorts, an initiative aimed at developing animators; iArts for the ABC, in which young Perth  company WBMC, helmed by Aidan O’Bryan and Janelle Landers, was commissioned to produce three documentaries and an online component.

Comparing ScreenWest with the similarly funded New Wales Film and TV Office, Bardwell believes that NSW [meaning Sydney] has an industry nearly “ten times larger than WA” [whose screen industry is split between three of the state’s centre’s Perth, Broome and  Freemantle with a combined population of 1.6m]. This means that the agency and screen practitioner’s have to be more focused and strategic. “There is a market orientation here that is not really seen as much in the other states.”

Andrew Ogilvie of Electric Pictures (Skippy: Australia’s First Superstar) concurs. “Here in WA we make things for an audience, and that equates to a market.” He says while drama has been very much focused on stories that are specific to the culture and experience of  Western Australia, the children’s and factual sector have traditionally been “internationally focused.”
For instance, he says, Electric Pictures’ latest big budget documentary three-parter Cracking the Colour Code, an exploration of “how humans view colours”, has “ten broadcasters from around the world involved”, including SBS.

Sue Taylor (Taylor Media), producer of The Shark Net and 3 Acts of Murder told Encore that her company has grown in the last year and so has her overhead. The immediate future looks good. “We have perhaps three or four projects on the slate prepared and ready to  go.”

Amongst them is a co-production with France, based  on the novel Our Father Who Art in a Tree by Judy Pascoe. But Taylor cautions that the recession will inevitably have an impact on the business; in terms of “boom and bust”, the film industry always feels like it’s in  a recession, she says. “Now it feels like the resto of the world has joined us.” The world-wide economic slow down will, Taylor adds, “create a hiatus of some nature in WA, but what form it takes no one can possibly tell.”

Encore would like to acknowledge Accorhotels.com.au and Novotel Langley for their travel assistance in preparation of this story.


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