Sarah Spillane’s low-budget Australian feature aims to give key cast and crew a share of the profits.
18 Jun 2012 - 11:33 AM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 6:33 PM

Would you take a job on a project for a minimum wage and the prospect that you'd get a piece of the profits, if any? Maybe not, but persuading actors and key technical crew to work for scale and a share of the upside could prove to be a viable way of financing low-budget films in Australia.

Variations of that model have been tried before, by Rolf de Heer among others, and each year around five-or-six micro-budget films, or 'credit card' movies, are produced. It's widely used to finance independent films in the US but has rarely been applied to Australian films backed by government funding and where award rates usually prevail.

Producer Brian Rosen is keen to find out if that mechanism works on his film Around the Block, the first feature from writer-director Sarah Spillane, which started shooting today. In the vein of Dangerous Minds, the film stars Christina Ricci (pictured) as an American drama teacher who reaches out to a troubled Aboriginal teenager in inner-city Redfern during rioting by the Aboriginal residents.

The president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, Rosen tells SBS Film, “We have to rethink the way we make low-budget films if we want to be competitive with the US and give a return to investors. Our films cost $4 million-$5 million, government funding often covers no more than 70 per cent, so you need private investment for the rest. The pre-sale market for our kind of films has dried up.”

Hunter Page-Lochard, 19, whose credits include The Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae, plays the teen who is pressured to take part in a revenge killing to satisfy family honour. Page-Lochard, the son of Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page, is doing a screenwriting course at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and Rosen predicts he'll be a star.

Jack Thompson, who has been a mentor to Spillane and serves as an executive producer, plays the school principal. Damian Walshe-Howling is cast as a teacher who clashes with Ricci's character, an outsider by virtue of being American and using unconventional teaching methods such as using rap to teach Shakespeare.

The producers are Spillane's Kick Pictures and Rosen and Su Armstrong's Tree Films. Arclight Films has worldwide sales rights. Rosen said the producers will apply for funding from Screen Australia and Screen NSW as well as using the 40% producer offset. It's the first producing credit for Rosen, who stepped down as head of the Film Finance Corp., Screen Australia's predecessor, in 2008, since 1998's Fern Gully II: The Magical Rescue.

Rolf de Heer has used a similar funding model for some of his films but says his arrangements with cast and crew are always made informally. “I never write it into a contract but if the film makes money everyone is entitled to a share of it,” says the writer-director whose black comedy The King Is Dead! opens on July 12.

De Heer next hopes to make another film with David Gulpilil, with whom he collaborated on The Tracker. For years he was almost a lone hand in making films that tackled indigenous themes, typified by The Tracker and Ten Canoes.

Among upcoming films from indigenous filmmakers are Catriona McKenzie's Satellite Boy, which is in post, and Ivan Sen's Mystery Road, which rolls on June 28. De Heer is delighted at this trend and he gives due credit to initiatives by the Australian Film Commission and other agencies that helped indigenous people tell their own stories, which resulted in films such as Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah.