25 September 2023

Screen Illawarra taking a starring role in building a thriving film industry in the region

| Kellie O'Brien
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One Night Anita's Theatre

Yael Stone (left) and Nicole da Silva (right) at the launch of Paramount Plus series One Night. Photo: Paramount Plus.

Screen Illawarra is creating a “rising tide” for the region’s film and TV industry after paving the way for big-budget productions and opportunities for industry talent.

The region has recently hosted a variety of major film and TV projects, including Disney’s upcoming Kingdom Planet of the Apes and Paramount Plus series One Night.

To support those, Screen Illawarra chairman Nick Bolton said there was a thriving film industry forming in the region, which has already grown to 400 members after launching just four years ago.

Being a member of the non-profit organisation gives those creatives, producers and technical experts job pathways, networking, professional development and education opportunities.

“In the past, they would just get their film permit and then bring all their cast and crew down from Sydney,” Nick said.

“From a local economic development perspective, we want to give people opportunities down here.

“We did a feasibility study late last year and it found that 75 per cent of work was done outside of the area, which is OK, but wouldn’t it be great to bring that number down?”

He said that extended to small production work, often their bread and butter, and efforts are being made to encourage corporates and government to choose Illawarra PR, content and advertising agencies over Sydney ones.

He said it all pointed to positive change after a challenging first few years due to the pandemic.

“Our industry was decimated, so no work was going on,” he said.

“We did some online webinars to keep everybody motivated, but it wasn’t really until after the pandemic we were able to start putting plans and strategies in place to really grow.”

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Nick said while revenue was minimal from grants and membership fees, Screen Illawarra had worked hard to secure sponsors and build ties with other creative partners.

“It’s been really lovely seeing that happen. A phrase I often use is ‘a rising tide’,” he said.

Along with the feasibility study, it invested in a business plan to allow it to go professional next year and fund a full-time general manager and administrator.

“At the moment we’re doing so much work, but we’re all doing it pro bono and that’s not sustainable,” he said.

“What we’ve done with no money, imagine what we could do if we were supported.”

He said the timing was right, as the Australian screen sector has tripled in three years from $800 million in 2019 to $2.2 billion in 2021.

The Federal Government’s Revive cultural policy, which is focused on streaming platforms like Netflix providing more Australian content from June 2024, is estimated to add another $550 million to the sector.

“This is just film and TV, it doesn’t include gaming, online. corporate, advertising and commercial,” he said.

“It’s a wonderful time for the screen community,

“Demand for content is at an all-time high and the proliferation of streaming services, I mean, we can’t keep up as consumers with what we want to watch.”

To ensure more content is filmed in the Illawarra, it invited Sydney production companies on a familiarisation tour from Helensburgh to Nowra last year with the four councils – Wollongong, Shellharbour, Kiama and Shoalhaven.

Screen Illawarra board members

Screen Illawarra’s board members, led by chairman Nick Bolton (back row, third from the left). Photo: Supplied.

“That was hugely successful because all of them had their eyes wide open, going ‘Oh my god, the possibilities here’,” he said.

“You can do Asian rainforest, you can do English farmland, you can do tropical beaches, you can do steelworks, you can do urban.

“I think there’s also the economic benefits that we’re an hour from Sydney and we’ve got great transport – whether that’s train, road or the airport.”

He said that was complemented by Screen Illawarra’s growing membership database and the four councils being pro film.

“When these big productions came down here, they’ve said, ‘You’re making our life easy’.”

To make the most of those opportunities, Nick said Screen Illawarra now needed to become a professional organisation to attract significant Screen Australia funding for further education to build on what was already offered by partners Illawarra iTeC, TAFE and the University of Wollongong (UOW).

Until then, it runs networking events, workshops and sponsored Short and Sweet Film Festival for emerging practitioners, which this year was won by TAFE Wollongong student Logan Sheldrick for a film shot in just one day.

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Nick knows what’s possible from such opportunities, having won it with his wife seven years ago, going on to the finals in Hollywood and winning Best Actor.

“It just feels like there is this really strong community building here and, as we keep promoting ourselves, it’s going to get better.”

He said that the community, which had now all become mates, was “punching above its weight” in multiple disciplines, from Good Chat TV’s social videos for social change, to Painting In Pictures filming for the BBC, and his company Ten Alphas creating the first Australian short film to win one of the world’s biggest short film festivals, Clermont-Ferrand in France, and getting long-listed for the Oscars.

Screen Illawarra’s next free networking event will be on 3 October at Headlands Hotel, Austinmer. Book tickets via the website.

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