Australian Screen Production Takes 18% Hit From COVID in 2019-20

Expenditure on screen production in Australia plunged by 18% in the financial year to June 2020, reflecting a near total shutdown of large-scale drama filming from March, due to the impact of the coronavirus and work from home regulations. But, until the virus struck in the fourth (April to June) quarter much of the industry had been on course for a record year.

“If you think that we lost more than a quarter of our year, three and a half months, but ended down only 18%, that’s a good result. It is only half the downturn you might have thought,” Screen Australia CEO, Graeme Mason told Variety.

The July 2019-June 20202 period saw total production spending of A$990 million ($693 million) coming from production of local and foreign feature, television and online drama titles, as well as post, digital and visual effects, according to Screen Australia’s annual Drama Report. The report counts spending in the financial year that production begins.

Australian titles that started principal photography in 2019-20 accounted for A$543 million ($380 million), a drop of 32%, generated by 74 local productions. The 41 foreign projects (including PDV-only titles) generated A$447 million ($313 million) in spend, an 8% increase compared with 2018/19.

They comprised A$283 million ($198 million) of production in the country and a further A$165 million ($116 million) for PDV-only titles.

Eight foreign features started shooting in Australia in 2019/20, bringing A$221 million ($155 million), a 20% increase, in expenditure from titles originating from the U.S., South Korea, Germany, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Foreign TV and online drama activity accounted for $193 million ($135 million) in Australian expenditure in 2019/20, up 59%, reflecting the increased spending by streaming platforms. The 18 streaming titles including the three foreign titles “Shantaram” (“The Bear”), “Odd Squad” season 3 (U.S./Canada) and “Bad Genius” (Thailand). There were fifteen PDV-only titles including “The Mandalorian,” season 2, “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” season 2, “What If…?” and “The Boys” series 2.

The continued weakness of the Australian dollar, which typically trading at around $0.70, helped to attract a diverse range of inbound productions. The Australian federal government’s “Location Incentive” program supported two foreign dramas that entered production in 2019/20, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Shantaram.” Productions were also assisted by the federal location offset system and support from state governments.

In 2019/20 total expenditure on Australian features was A$205 million ($144 million), 36% below the previous year. A total of 19 titles started production with 17 local features including “The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson,” “Streamline” and “Penguin Bloom,” and two official co-productions “Falling For Figaro” and the Jane Campion-directed “The Power of the Dog.”

Eight features that entered production in 2019/20 had their shoot interrupted due to COVID-19. Screen Australia says that evidence suggests that nine features were reported to have been postponed, with total budgets estimated to approach A$250 million ($175 million).

Several interrupted TV productions were able to restart shooting in June, including Network 10’s “Neighbours” and the second season of “Five Bedrooms,” and season two of children’s series “The Bureau of Magical Things” for Netflix and Network 10. ABC comedy “Aftertaste” was able to start pre-production in Adelaide in June, and Seven series “RFDS” returned to pre-production in Broken Hill.

The country sees itself as a success story. Not only has it largely overcome the virus outbreak, creating the conditions for production restarts and foreign inbound titles, the federal government and federal and state agencies have injected finance to help restarts. These measures include a Temporary Interruption Fund, which helps unfreeze insurance problems, and a A$400 million ($280 million) recommitment for the Location Incentive over the next seven years.

“The A$50 million ($35 million) Temporary Interruption Fund to date has been allocated to 23 approved projects supporting the safe return of production. And we have provided additional funding of A$53 million ($37.1 million) to Screen Australia and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation for the development and production of quality Australian content,” said Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts the Hon Paul Fletcher. The restarted projects have combined production budgets of over $330 million ($231 million).

“Several challenges remain with many projects reporting increases in costs as they make necessary adjustments to work in a COVID-safe environment, while others are yet to resume work or get started for a variety of COVID-related reasons. This will also have a flow on effect as some productions slated to commence work in 2020/21 have not been able to, with dramatic changes in production schedules impacting the availability of cast, crew and studio space,” said Mason.

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