More films of scale are emerging, thanks to the 40% producer offset, and they are making an impact locally and abroad, delegates were told at the SPAA conference, although the jury is still out on their profitability.

Prominent critic Margaret Pomeranz bemoaned Australia’s inability to make many films that deliver emotional thump or engage well with sex and intimacy — and blamed the country’s British heritage — but the overall message delivered at the annual producers’ talkfest was that features are in good shape.

More films of scale are emerging, thanks to the 40% producer offset, and they are making an impact locally and abroad, delegates were told, although the jury is still out on their profitability.

“It has become an industry,” pronounced producer Chris Brown, during today’s final feature session of the three-day Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) conference. “It is the first year I have been able to say that …. and I came to this country in 1989.”

His vampire film Daybreakers didn’t impress locally but it has grossed A$60 million worldwide and he is now in production on Bait, a high concept film about people trapped in a shopping mall with a pack of sharks. The co-production with Singapore is for Arclight Films.

Earlier in the day, the local chiefs of three of the US studios talked about their upcoming Australian films: Sony with Red Hill (November 25); Paramount with Wasted On The Young (March 3) and a queue of others including Bait and Fred Schepisi’s The Eye Of The Storm; and Universal with Alister Grierson’s Sanctum (February 3).

It was a significant sign of the times because in the last few years Australian films have principally been released by Australian-owned distributors, most of which have less grunt.

Universal is also attached to PJ Hogan’s comedy Mental, which is likely to go into production in mid-2010. It is set in the same milieu as his 1994 breakout hit Muriel’s Wedding and will also star Toni Collette.

“We think it is one of the most incredible scripts,” said Mike Baard, managing director of Universal Pictures International of Australasia. “Of the 400 scripts I have read in the last four years it is the best without a doubt.”

Baard also revealed that the studio was also about to sign off on a major production partnership but stopped short of saying which company name was written on the contracts.

The most celebrated film of the conference was local box office hit Tomorrow, When The War Began, produced by Andrew Mason and Michael Boughen. It earned executive producer Christopher Mapp, managing director of the service, production and technology company Omnilab Media, the award for independent producer of the year.

Porchlight Films, won the feature category of the independent producer awards for Animal Kingdom, and producer/director Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen won the SPAArtan Award for Little Sparrows. This award is for films made on digital equipment without taxpayers funding for the shoot.

In other awards, long-time supporter of Australian films, distributor Alan Finney, accepted the Maura Fay Award for services to the industry, and producers Anthony Buckley and Tom Jeffrey were awarded SPAA life membership.

There was despair expressed at the conference too, in particular the suffering caused by the withdrawal of offshore production due to the strength of the Australian dollar.

When Australian head of Panavision, Martin Cayzer, went on stage to accept the services and facilities sector award he told delegates that he’d put the Panalux lighting company on the market the day before.

Other issues included the lack of development finance, the lack of focus on audiences, the tough international marketplace, and the difficulty of cracking the US market.