Locals shooting for the stars

ROBERT MACKLIN, back in the movie world for three days, emerges convinced there is room for a film industry in Canberra

IN so many ways, Canberra is coming of age. A perfect illustration occurred recently when I had the privilege of taking part in a fascinating three-day workshop on television production held at the Canberra Business Council headquarters.

It was a revelation.

Like so many writers, I lead a monkish existence between bursts of intense public exposure as I promote my latest book. So I don’t often go to group events. But because I graduated from the screenwriting course of the Australian Film and Television School the same year as Jane Campion and other worthies, I dip my toe in the moving picture business from time to time.

In fact, I have always preferred writing films and at one stage – when one of my books was turned into an MGM movie starring James Spader and Jason Robards – I was terribly tempted to try my luck in Hollywood. However, good sense prevailed and we stayed in Canberra where the family grew up sane.

When I was arts editor of “The Canberra Times” in the ‘90s, I hammered away at the government of the day to develop a film industry here. We have so much going for us – more sunshine than anywhere else in Australia, bush, snow, mountains, suburbia, marvellous iconic buildings and, most important, wide uncluttered roads that allow cast and crew to get where they want to without dreadful hold-ups.

The one ingredient we lacked at that time was a critical mass of talented people who wanted to be film makers. Indeed, take away the legendary Andrew Pike and a few close associates and the cupboard was almost bare.

Not so now.

ScreenACT director Monica Penders is fast becoming an irreplaceable National Capital treasure. Canberra-born, Monica went out into the film world and made it in the toughest market of all: New York.

There she raised funds and produced pictures and got them up on the world’s screens, most notably the $27million fantasy “The Secret of Moonacre”. So respected is she in the Australian industry that she’s able to attract the best people to share their knowledge with a growing band of talented writers, directors and producers.

This was the workshop I joined as one of the most respected television producers in Australia, Gus Howard, gave us the benefit of his vast experience. Gus is best known as the producer of the long-running “Blue Heelers”, but he has also made movies and other television programs with all the people who matter.

He was a hard taskmaster at the workshop. All 18 of us had to create and develop a TV program then “pitch” it to Gus, who adopted the role of network boss or production house supremo as required.

The result was mind-blowing. Of the 18 pitches, at least half have a very good chance of being made – and being shot in and around Canberra, thus providing jobs, investment and a fabulous showcase for our fair city.

It’s hard to think of another endeavour where the ratio of return on investment could be so extraordinary. I can’t tell you how pleasing it is, after all these years, to be present at the birth.


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