Monica shoots for the stars

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Canberra has a movie industry? It sure does! FREYLA FERGUSON discovers the quiet successes of ScreenACT

TWO years ago, film producer Monica Penders was living in New York when she was offered a job at one of America’s most successful television companies HBO.

But she turned the opportunity down to come back to Australia to take up the position of ScreenACT director.

“People say New York to Canberra, what a difference,” Monica says. “It’s like chalk and cheese, you can’t compare them.

“I love it here, two years have gone so quickly and there’s so much I still want to do in this job.”

ScreenACT, supports the growth of the local screen industry, through funding and advice on development and production.

“It’s about building an industry – getting good product out there,” Monica says. “Because if we get good product out there, then there is more work coming to the ACT. My job is to develop people, to develop product.

“The Australian government is really working towards building a sustainable industry.

“We want to look at films that can get into Sundance or Cannes.”

Monica’s love for film began as child watching the Road Runner.

But it wasn’t until she moved to New York in 1998, that she became actively involved in the independent film scene.

Furthering her film studies at New York University and the New School, Monica worked on such films as “I’ll Take You There” and numerous student films at Columbia University and the university’s film festivals.

In 2003, she became a founding partner of Forgan-Smith Entertainment, under which she produced the $US27million film “The Secret of Moonacre”,starring Tim Curry (“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”), Ioan Gruffudd (“Fantastic Four”) and Natascha McElhone (“Californicaton”).

At ScreenACT, Ms Penders has been involved in the development of numerous locally produced projects including “Resistance” – a high-end science fiction children’s TV series that has been picked up by ABC3, “Into the Shadow” – a documentary that received theatrical distribution, “Memoirs of a Plague”, that was shown at the Canadian international documentary festival HotDocs and low-budget feature film “The Dinner Party”.

Last year, Monica launched ScreenACT’s Project Pod, which saw local film makers work with an international script consultant on story and narrative that resulted in five projects receiving grants.

This year, ScreenACT has launched Producer Pod – a series of workshops and projects  for local screen producers focusing on film development, finance, marketing and distribution.

Producer Pod featured industry experts including the New York producer Mary Jane Skalski, who produced the Oscar-nominated feature “The Visitor”.

Despite the intense job at ScreenACT, Monica continues to develop her own projects. Currently she is developing a new film, thanks to a grant from ArtsACT, based on the book “Jays Fly to Barbmo” set in Norway during World War II. The grant saw her fly to the Norwegian Lapland for research into the film.

“To entertain and take an audience out of their world for two hours is a really powerful tool,” Monica says.

Although she’s an American citizen and still owns her apartment in New York, Monica is calling Canberra home for now.

“Canberra is the perfect place for me,” she says. “I feel it’s the right place at the right time.”

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