If Australia's filmmaking ambitions can be encapsulated in a single film, it is writer/director David Caesar's $5m gangster movie Dirty Deeds, which has pulled off a number of investment firsts.

Dirty Deeds is Nine Films & Television's first production commitment, after more than a decade in which there has been no significant feature investment by free-to-air TV channels. As importantly, it introduces the Nine Network, which commands 30% of TV audiences, as a highly ambitious local theatrical distributor.

The film is also the first backed by Macquarie Film Corporation, set up two years ago as a government-sanctioned experiment to grow the industry using private sector finance.

Dirty Deeds producers, Sydney-based Bryan Brown and London-based Debbie Balderstone, have signed international sales rights to Alliance Atlantis, but what clinched the deal was this week's approval by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). The FFC's position as majority investor is the norm for many Australian films but only one or two wholly Australian films per year are worth Dirty Deeds' $5m (A$10m) price tag.

"For the last 30 years a certain budget level has determined the type of movies we can have out in the world," said Brown. "We were there at the beginning of filmmaking so it is in our blood. But our small population meant we could never tell certain stories. The advent of Fox (Studios Australia) and a few others gave us a Moulin Rouge and Babe but only once every five years."

Brown owns New Town Films and will take Dirty Deeds' starring role of a crime world boss forced to take serious action to protect the robust profits he is making from US soldiers in Sydney on R&R during the Vietnam War. Brown, who gave Balderstone the script after being introduced by Working Title's Eric Fellner, describes Nine's involvement as "very, very positive for the industry".

"We hope we can lift the success rate (of Australian films)," said Hugh Marks, joint head of Nine Films & Television with Kris Noble. "One thing is sure. No-one will not have heard of a film we are involved in. Hopefully we will also make some dollars."

"We genuinely believe in film as a class of investment just like infrastructure, shares or property," said Macquarie chair Charles Wheeler. "It is why we are taking our time to select the best projects. All we might have (from this pilot scheme) is our track record. I have my doubts that there will be another ... and if we go back in it could be without the tax advantage."

Momentum will distribute in the UK and Alliance Atlantis in Canada through its own distribution arm in Canada. Alliance Atlantis holds all other rights except for Spain and Italy.

"This is a really gutsy Australian story which promises to be every but as entertaining as Hollywood fare," said Balderstone. It also also the first from Haystack Productions, which Balderstone owns with her old Universal Pictures colleagues Jane Moore and Xavier Marchand, who is executive producing with Noble.

Hoyts Cinemas, like Nine, is part of Kerry Packer's empire. Hoyts distributed some of the biggest hits of the 1980s until that arm was shut down.

Network Ten executive Andy McIntyre confirmed to Screen International that three features are "extremely close" to being financed, two of which are comedies.