Wave upon wave from surfers' paradise

May 2, 1997

Australian films have achieved success around the world since the first wave of filmmakers broke through in the 1970s. Hits such as Mad Max and Picnic at Hanging Rock paved the way for recent efforts such as Muriel's Wedding and Shine.

Australia has a good infrastructure for developing careers in film and television, according to Stuart Cunningham, professor of the school of media at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane and a commissioner with the Australian Film Commission. At the pinnacle is the Sydney-based Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), established in 1973 to promote cultural activity and expand arts and media training. A testament of its success is a graduate employment rate of 95 per cent with alumni including directors Jane Campion who won international acclaim for The Piano, and Phil Noyce (Dead Calm).

The AFTRS's main rival is the school of film and television at the Victorian College of the Arts - a University of Melbourne affiliate. The school has a reputation for being slightly less conventional than its Sydney counterpart. One famous graduate is Gillian Armstrong who made My Brilliant Career. Jenny Sabine, dean of VCA, says the emphasis is on creativity: "Every student has to write, direct and edit a production every year, so it's pushing people to develop ideas." As well as the two major film schools, several universities - generally the former institutes of technology - have strong film and television departments.

Some young Australian filmmakers begin as trainees with production companies or theatres. Baz Luhrmann is one who has moved from stage to big screen; the brash visual style of his debut feature Strictly Ballroom and the current Romeo and Juliet reflect his theatrical heritage.

While the industry is as healthy as it has been for some time, Cunningham notes that unemployment remains high, the industry is very pyramidal in structure and only a small number of independent producers and directors are consistently successful. The success rate for Australian feature films, Cunningham says, is comparable with Hollywood, where about one in every nine movies breaks even - a rate British filmmakers can only dream of.

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