The Big Prawn is a 29-foot, 38-ton prawn statue that towers over the road from Ballina Airport to Byron Bay. It is testimony to a flair for the dramatic in this Australian region that filmmakers like William Gammon want to exploit.
If Gammon’s vision becomes a reality, film production will be the next big thing in Ballina County, where fishing was once a mainstay. With its Byron Studios booked through August, it has carved out a place for itself at the Alstonville Leisure and Entertainment Center.
But the plan is to build an entirely new complex in Ballina for the film and television industry. With Australians holidaying locally and working from home, record low interest rates have driven property prices in Byron Bay up to 37% last year. Short-term vacation rentals, like most resorts, have emptied the town of properties for residents.
The wider region, known as the Northern Rivers, was already touted as an alternative to the big city movie studio options that attracted Matt Damon, Natalie Portman and Liam Neeson. With space in Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast now scarce, Gammon hopes to make Byron Studios Australia’s premier regional film studio. COVID-19 helps.
“When COVID hit, the film industry came to us. There were scouts looking for studio space,” Gammon said. “The foundations were already there. There were a lot of filmmakers here, a lot of celebrities living there, access to film crews, beaches.
Remoteness from major cities hit to varying degrees by the coronavirus is part of the selling point, alongside incentives from the Australian government and proximity to three airports, including Ballina.
At the center of the pitch is Byron Bay, an inlet that runs along Australia’s most easterly point, with long sandy beaches and a laid-back lifestyle that has attracted stars, hippies, Instagram influencers and surfers. Chris Hemsworth lives in Byron Bay, Zac Efron weathered most of the pandemic there and Nicole Kidman chose Byron Bay to film his latest production. Melissa McCarthy stayed there after filming the production of Kidman. Both Hemsworth and Kidman are Australian, and Kidman, who has homes in several cities including Los Angeles, posted photos on her Instagram of herself enjoying Byron Bay while filming.
In July, the Australian government extended a sweetener to film producers blindsided by pandemic lockdowns – $308 million in grants to film in Australia on top of the $106 million already available.
It seems to have worked.
“At one point there was filming of ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’, ‘Eden’ and ‘Bosch & Rockit’ in Byron Bay,” Gammon said. “There were probably more film productions in Byron Bay than anywhere else in the world, in the midst of a pandemic.”
Australian Arts Minister Paul Fletcher said the production boom could last for years. Since July, 12 productions have been announced for Australia, providing more than 4,300 employment opportunities for local cast and crew and generating work for more than 5,500 companies, according to the department.
But the pandemic effect bringing business to the area is also worrying residents of Byron Bay, a seaside town so peculiar in character that it doesn’t even allow a McDonald’s.
Soaring property prices have left nurses, teachers and other locals struggling to find housing. And many Australian filmmakers say the government is not doing enough to focus on domestic film production, which will provide the industry’s long-term foundation once COVID-19 is conquered or cured.
“The forgotten element in this region will be Australian content,” says Liam Connor, who funds his creative work by working on overseas productions. “It’s a Hollywood boom, but we don’t want our whole industry to become mini-Hollywood. Otherwise, the only industry we will have are teams working on foreign productions.
Connor’s short “Time” has just been picked up as part of an online TV series and is in negotiations to make it into a feature film. He hopes production could be done locally rather than overseas.
“A lifestyle advantage”
On the beach, ‘keep your 1.5’ added to Byron Bay’s motto ‘Cheer up, slow down, relax’, reminding people to keep 1.5 meters – almost 5 feet – apart . It’s one of the few signs that a pandemic has swept through the city, albeit fleetingly.
Australia has recorded fewer than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths and around 29,000 cases since January 2020, and its response to the pandemic – a mix of lockdowns, quarantines and international and domestic border closures – has been hailed as one of the most efficient in the world.
An island nation with some of the strictest biosecurity laws in the world, Australia quickly closed its external borders in March 2020. Australians must navigate restrictions set by state authorities if they want to travel to inside the country.
Robyn Kershaw, a freelance film producer, moved her production from Sydney to Byron Bay last year to be closer to the actors who live there, as restrictions made travel more difficult.
“It was such a surprise to see everyone living so normally,” she said. “The region was a bubble – the state border to the north was closed; we did all the protocols, temperature checks. From a location point of view, it was extraordinary; it’s the home of people who work in carnivals, so we could choose a great Elton John impersonator or a fabulous Marilyn Monroe impersonator.
“COVID has focused everyone’s attention on how they don’t need to go to the office and can be effective from home, and now the question is, ‘Where is my home? ‘” Kershaw said. “There’s a lifestyle advantage and a creative advantage to being at Byron.”
Homelessness exploded. Mandy Nolan, who has spent half her life in Byron Bay, lists examples of single mothers living in cars and people in their 80s who have been evicted. The local council is considering limiting short-term holiday rentals to 90 days per year. Nolan is set to run in national elections next year, with the housing issue at the heart of his campaign.
Byron Bay has a limited housing inventory because it’s about what can be built, she said. “Rental stress has been bad for five years. A year ago, it had become terrible. Six months ago, horrible. Last month, diabolical.
Gammon, who moved his young family to Byron Bay a decade ago when Sydney’s property boom pushed him out of the market, says getting the right approach to development is important to avoid public failures , such as the infamous Fyre Festival.
“There’s a good film community in Byron, but nobody was working here because the infrastructure wasn’t there,” he said. “That’s why we’re engaging with Ballina – better accommodation, better transport, a good mix of holiday vibe and city. You don’t want something to happen like the Fyre Festival. You want to do the documentary, not be the center of interest.
It’s not just property prices that are raising the stakes for residents; for Kershaw, producing Australian feature films means competing with American productions to attract local talent.
“I understand the government’s motivations and the need to support our crews,” she said. “They need to work while they can in these trying times. But we try to equip our work with people who are used to much higher rates of American-funded production.
Although the infrastructure being developed with the advent of Hollywood productions is huge, the focus must remain on developing an Australian film industry, she said.
“We need to make sure the Australian government doesn’t lose sight of our own feature films, Australian history,” Kershaw said.
Petrakis is a special envoy.