News 20.04.18

GRAHAM BURKE: THE PICTURE SHOW MAN



Following the announcement that he was awarded the Order of Australia, Village Roadshow co-chief executive spoke with Ausfilm about the trajectory of his 60-year career in the Australian film business

“It’s all show business kid … Give ’em the old razzle dazzle. Razzle dazzle ’em. Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it. And the reaction will be passionate.”

The lyrics that Richard Gere sings in Chicago couldn’t be more apt to describe the decades-long career of Graham Burke, in part because colleagues all talk about his passion for film that’s driven his achievements, and in part because he cites Chicago as one of his favourite films of all time, alongside Australian classics like Gallipoli, Mad Max and Happy Feet and the more recently lauded Lion.

Starting a part-time job at a theatre in regional Victoria at the age of 14, Burke has been instrumental in building the business of iconic Australian entertainment group Village Roadshow, in parallel with the peaks and troughs of the Australian film industry over the last half century, in a storied career that this year saw him named as a recipient of an Order of Australia (AO) for service to film production, broadcast media and leisure industries, and to the community.

The razzle dazzle of Burke’s career, is seen in films he’s been instrumental in bringing to the screen, including Australian icons Mad Max, Breaker Morant and Red Dog.

It’s also seen Village team up with Warner Bros., to create one of the country’s largest film distributors Roadshow Films; and the international expansion of its brand through production entity Village Roadshow Pictures.

But Burke takes equal pride in the bricks and mortar side of the business: Village’s national chain of cinemas, the Gold Coast-based theme parks Sea World, Movie World and Wet N Wild, and the Village Roadshow Studios, now the southern hemisphere’s largest production complex.

In recent years he’s been a passionate and vocal advocate, as well as agent for change, on industry issues including production incentives, and piracy.

It was film’s ‘razzle dazzle’ that drew him in as a 14-year old in Ararat, 200km from Melbourne, when he got a part-time job tearing tickets at the cinema owned by Village founder, the legendary Roc Kirby.

Graham Burke and Lynne Benzie

“I did every job there from mopping foyers, delivering reels, to running live entertainment at showings,” he explains, and was made manager of the theatre at age 16.

That led to full-time work in Melbourne for Kirby’s drive-in cinemas, despite winning a scholarship to study teaching, which was quickly set aside.

“I was split in part because I never failed anything and I knew there was no way I was going to pass anything because I wasn’t going to any lectures,” Burke says. “I was working part-time in the movie business and that became obsessively triple full-time”

“I’ve been very fortunate that my business is my hobby and that my claim to fame is doing what I love,” he adds.

Lynne Benzie, now President of Village Roadshow Studios, who has worked with Burke for over 28 years says, however, that his impact on the industry has come about by doing more than just “what I love”. It’s about his advocacy, passion and determination, she says.

“If it wasn’t for Graham we wouldn’t be here,” she says simply.

Benzie, who was personal assistant to the head of the studio complex when they met, had the desk next to Burke.

“It was the vision he had with Warner Bros. to collaborate on theme parks and the studios that made it all work. He stood by us 100 percent.

His passion for film and his vision of what he wanted the studio to be is the main reason for its success,” says Benzie.

That passion hasn’t eased up over the years, she adds. “He is always waving the flag for us and has been critical in lobbying for production incentives over the years”.

“He just never gives up, especially when we need that little bit extra to support the business”.

For his part Burke is extremely proud of the evolution of Village Roadshow Studios.

‘We’ve made some great films from Pirates Of The Caribbean: Deadmen Tell No Tales, to more recently Thor: Ragnarok and Aquaman. Perhaps, more importantly, we’ve hosted thousands of people who have developed their skills and jobs there,” Burke says, adding he is confident that the current production incentives for foreign features to shoot Downunder, will be increased.

On the exhibition side of the business he’s seen Village Cinemas evolve from the rural picture theatres of the 1960’s, the museum piece drive-ins of the 1970’s to the multiplexes and their high-end VMax and 3D screens.

The one constant that’s remained across those changes Burke says is quality. “People always want to go out for quality. It’s part of who we are as humans. And when we find ways of delivering that quality we have to give people the best possible experience,” he says of Village’s continued push into new technologies and formats. That’s why he contends Village has been the major player in exhibition in Australia for decades.

Production and his involvement in various Australian films however is central to his philosophy and the reason behind his more recent vocal and passionate work against piracy.

“The Australian film industry is very important because many of the films that we see shape our character, in fact they can be more important than the people we meet,” he says.

“Movies like Red Dog, Muriel’s Wedding and Breaker Morant shape our values and were key parts of my life and my kids’ lives growing up. We often see more of ourselves in our films than we do in each other.”

Now Burke says his new “labour of love” is fighting piracy as the chairman of lobby group Creative Content Australia.

“I want to make sure young kids have the opportunity to write scripts, produce films, star in films and designs costumes – it takes a lot of people to a make a film,” he said.

“Pirates employ no-one, they pay no taxes and they make their income by scamming people.”