A line-up that includes the likes of Nicole Kidman, Awkwafina, Tessa Thompson, Melissa McCarthy, Natalie Portman, Tom Hanks, Zac Efron, Chris Hemsworth, Luke Evans, Christian Bale, Adrian Grenier, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Chris Pratt, Liam Neeson, Idris Elba, Taika Waititi, Baz Luhrmann and Ron Howard might read like the guest list of top tables at a Hollywood awards night but, in challenging circumstances, these A-listers and their fellow cast and crew from up to a dozen international productions are currently Down Under, taking advantage of a boost to Australia's screen tax incentives, our top line crews and facilities and a safe and secure environment in which to shoot

International producers are acknowledging the nation's quick response to flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections and the filmmaking community's recognised expertise in how to run a production smoothly in the midst of a global pandemic.

Features including Marvel's Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, Thor: Love and Thunder, Mortal Kombat, Mark Williams' thriller Blacklight, Escape from Spiderhead, Idris Elba-starrer Three Thousand Years of Longing and TV projects for the likes of Netflix, Hulu and Universal Studios Group, including Nine Perfect Strangers, Pieces of Her and Young Rock are in varying stages of production across Australia's major cities and regional centres. Since July, eight international productions expected to spend AU$464 million in Australia have been announced, in addition to several large budget international productions already shooting. In the same period, Ausfilm has received AU$2.8 billion worth of international production enquiries. The Australian film industry's ability to quickly return to production is in part thanks to the independent feature Children Of The Corn, produced by Ford v Ferrari's Lucas Foster and Fremantle's long running TV drama Neighbours, which both met the challenges of working during a pandemic head on, and set up new COVID safe protocols that have ultimately allowed a safe return to work for productions both locally and globally.

Blacklight writer, director and producer Mark Williams says he considered shooting in the U.S., Canada and Australia but was ultimately swayed by Australia's success in managing the Coronavirus. Behind the scenes the Australian Government was able to announce an extension of its incentive packages to ensure that, as production returned, Australia would be able to quickly capitalise on its reputation as a safe and secure place for filming for the international studios, networks and streamers.

That's included an additional AU$400 million to the Location Incentive grant, which tops up the long running 16.5 per cent Location Offset available to foreign productions to an effective 30 per cent of local expenditure spend and an extension of the program to June 2027.

Children of the Corn, on set with XM2 Pursuit, Richmond, New South Wales

Safety in the Cornfields

Indeed, production on Children Of The Corn barely skipped a beat while other larger productions went into hiatus. At the time, it was able to lay claim to being the only significant English speaking film in production anywhere in the world. Producer Lucas Foster couldn't be more pleased with how the shoot was able to progress as the initial onslaught of the pandemic raged around him, despite the expense and the considerable challenges. Foster had settled on New South Wales as the film's location base in 2019 and had sown a field of corn in Richmond, a regional town on the outskirts of Sydney, creating a location backlot which allowed him to shoot during the Northern Winter, with an eye to a Halloween 2020 release.

Australia was an easy pick says Foster due to the incentives available and its quality crew base.

"I've shot with Australian Directors and DP's in the U.S. and I knew the crew would be a great asset, and support a system similar to the U.S.," Foster says. "The creative and crew base, the locations and landscapes in Australia are world-class but it's always the incentives that influences everyone's decision in moviemaking," he adds.

"We stitched together the Australian Location Offset, the state based Create NSW incentive and Screenwest's post-production incentives which enabled us to do post in Western Australia. And we had secured all our production insurance in December so we were all systems go."

Production was due to start in March, when the World Health Organisation declared Coronavirus as a global pandemic. But as productions shutdown like dominoes around the world, Children Of The Corn's remote location and backlot set meant that the cast and crew had effectively been in their own 'bubble', quarantined from the outside world and any immediate impact of the health of cast and crew from COVID-19.

"The Australian Government's quick reaction to the threat by COVID and the country's pro-business attitude helped our decision to keep production moving," Foster says.

"Instead of saying certain categories of work had to shut down, the attitude that we're going to do everything we can to ensure all work is essential was a great thing and public health policy was consistent." "Australia's can-do attitude and the mindset of 'let's get on with it' allowed us to make the decision to continue," explains Foster.

In practical terms, the production was ably aided by Stunt Co-ordinator and Safety Officer John Heaney who helped create and set up COVID-19 safety protocols, including identifying teams by badges on set, creating pods without movement between them, and an overarching production bubble by housing the majority of the cast and crew in a nearby hotel which had shut down.

Foster says many of the protocols developed with Safework NSW and Screen NSW for COVID-safe shooting provided a template for productions worldwide, given that, as a U.S. production, Children Of The Corn was obliged to give all its protocols to U.S. unions and guilds which have since used them as the basis for production elsewhere.

And while COVID-19 was disruptive, and expensive (with reports that shoots are at least 20 per cent more expensive due to COVID-19), Children Of The Corn Executive Producer and First AD, Sean Harner adds that "overall we've had a very positive experience working in very difficult circumstances. NSW really stepped up and gave us the freedom to make what we needed to. I don't think that we could have done this anywhere else in the world."

"And I've never had a crew that rolled in every day to work as our crew did," Harner adds. "We just all kept going and their loyalty and professionalism was unmatched. I look at Australia now as my film family."

While Children Of The Corn set the benchmark for dealing with the pandemic, others quickly followed suit.


  • "I LOOK AT

A superhero
40,000 TESTS

Marvel's superhero feature Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, based at Sydney's Fox Studios, like so many others was forced into hiatus for an extended period, so when cast and crew returned for production in July it was under a strict regime. Actor Simu Liu told his 320,000 Instagram followers at the end of the second 13- week block of shooting in Sydney that the cast and crew's health and safety were a priority, with 40,000 COVID-19 tests undertaken during the shoot.

"This shoot was a marathon like no other, broken up by a massive fourmonth hiatus during which the world completely and irrevocably changed. We finally returned to principal photography in July with a promise that we were going to do it right, emphasising the health and safety of our hundreds of crew members. Through the thirteen-odd weeks back we made on-set safety an absolute priority, starting from masks and frequent sanitisation to rapid testing and pod systems. Everyone sacrificed, and in the end? Over 40,000 COVID tests without a SINGLE positive. From the lights to the sound, behind the screen and in front, I'm so proud of this crew of people and I can't wait to show you what we made with @destindaniel [Director, Destin Yori Daniel Cretton]."

Adapting to the challenges of COVID-19, including quarantine and testing regimes, with no positive results, underscores the level of support that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Executive Producer, Charles Newirth, and Marvel Studios Vice President of Physical Production, David Grant, say was vital in getting the film to shoot in Australia in the first instance.

"We worked for years teeing up Shang-Chi to come to Australia, it was a matter of lining up the studio, and then working with the Federal Government to obtain uptick in the incentive. We also obtained a grant from the government of New South Wales, which enabled the entire package to come to the amazingly wonderful Sydney," explains Grant.

Adds Newirth, "The film offices help expedite things and make things happen, there's tremendous depth of talent here in the acting community and the crews and the quality of work that you get here is as good as it gets anywhere. There is just a can do, 'we want you here' kind of attitude and how can you beat that? People come to work with a very good spirit, there's a camaraderie and a joy to that, that makes me love coming to work every day here."


Kombating COVID

For Mortal Kombat Executive Producer E. Bennett Walsh, the effects of COVID-19 weren't felt until late into production with additional filming and post-production taking place in Sydney in October and November 2020, after the main shoot completed in Adelaide and on location around South Australia in late 2019

The additional scenes were able to film in Sydney's International Convention Centre and the ease of production there mirrored Walsh's experience in South Australia.

Walsh is no stranger to Australia having made Ghost Rider in Melbourne in 2005 and Stealth in Sydney in 2004 - both of which pushed the envelope in their filming requirements then.

With Perth based Director Simon McQuoid and Producer James Wan on board, Mortal Kombat qualified for Australia's Producer Offset, giving Australia an edge over Belfast which was also in the mix for production outside of the U.S.

"Having Simon as a first-time Director on a film of this scale working at home, allowed us access to the Producer Offset and gave us a flexibility we wouldn't have had elsewhere. It made production low risk and we were able to do things that pushed the film. The Studio was very happy with that," Walsh explains

Mortal Kombat on location, Mount Crawford, South Australia. Photo: Todd Garner
Mortal Kombat on location, Coober Pedy, South Australia. Photo: Todd Garner

"The South Australian Film Corporation was very eager to support us and locations around Adelaide, including the Lee Creek Mine, which doubles in the films opener as the Roman Coliseum and Mount Crawford plays for 16th Century Japan, certainly played to the film's strengths," he adds.

Nevertheless, there were challenges.

"South Australia doesn't have the number of sound stages that other states like NSW and Queensland have but we ended up getting a lot of value out of South Australia.

"Australia is a complex production centre that produces highly skilled movies. I worked with crew on Mortal Kombat that I worked with 15 years ago and their skill set has developed to be highly sophisticated. It was a great experience and looking at the final film people are amazed it was made in Adelaide.

"You need more production bases in Australia as it's such an attractive, and now proven to be, a COVID-safe place to shoot," he adds. "While we are all learning to live with the pandemic, the way Australia reacted so decisively in the beginning enabled it to be controlled to a good level. The lifestyle and living environment is so attractive and in a very secure place."

Or as Nine Perfect Strangers star, Melissa McCarthy, who relocated to Byron Bay in northern NSW to shoot the Hulu series described, via social media.

"We're here, (the kids) are back in school - real school - and everyone does all the protocols and we all live within the protocols, but there's no COVID, because they were like, badass about it... It's great."