The vision splendid of a movie-making palace on the mouth of the Swan River has been shattered with Mark McGowan’s announcement that his government would not deliver on its election promise. Mark Naglazas investigates.
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It was one of the galvanising moments of the last state election – Premier Mark McGowan standing on Fremantle Harbour alongside a glittering trio of Western Australian entertainment industry talent and announcing that a Labor government would spend a $100 million on a movie studio and that it would be located where the announcement was being made.
“This is where our plan for a film and television studio will happen, right here on Victoria Quay and create thousands of jobs for Western Australians. It’s taking film and television, which is growing here in Western Australia, to the next level. It’s a great project for WA,” said Mr McGowan in front of his all-star backing band of Tim Minchin, Ben Elton and Kate Walsh, the recent Hollywood import who was fast becoming the face of our global film ambitions.
It was such an audacious plan – film studios are usually located in industrial dead zones or rural backwaters and not in the heart of working port and a heritage precinct – and there was so much excitement about the prospect of movie stars hanging out on the Cappuccino Strip that even the Governor, The Honourable Kim Beazley, jumped on board, hosting a glamorous screen industry function at Government House.
That dream of a world-class filmmaking facility that would integrate with the Fremantle creative community and become the hub for the Western Australian film and television community was shattered last week when broadcaster Mark Gibson broke the news on his Saturday afternoon show on 6PR that the government had pulled the plug on Victoria Quay as the site for the studio.
Unfeasible site no surprise
Gibson reported that the reason for the about-face was a massive budget blow-out. According to Gibson the winner of the bid to build and manage the studio, Home Fire Creative Industries, had wildly underestimated how much it would cost to construct the facility in the middle of a working port.
Gibson’s scoop was confirmed the next day at the tail end of the premier’s COVID-19 update when he admitted that the site was unfeasible. McGowan did reassure the film industry that the movie studio was not lost (the government is still in stage three of the Market-Led Proposal under which the facility is being financed) however the proposed four sound stages would not be located on Victoria Quay.
Local screen industry figures were quick to express disappointment that they would not be getting a studio anytime in the near future. As was said at the time, the film and television industries are amidst a global boom as streamers devour content, with movie studios popping up across Australia and the world.
However, it would be almost impossible to find a member of the film and television community who would be surprised that the plan for a studio on the Freo docks fell over well before the first construction crews and cranes were due to appear on Victoria Quay.
From the moment it was announced that the location would be Victoria Quay and that Home Fire Creative Industries (a consortium of businessmen and filmmakers lead by local property developers Adrian Fini and Ben Lisle) was selected as the preferred provider in the Market-Led Process, much of the screen community thought it was bound to fail.
“It is a terrible idea,” a Queensland-based studio construction consultant told me last year. “You cannot build a studio so close to where ships dock and where there is so much traffic and a train line nearby. The vibrations and the noise will make filming there a nightmare.”
This view was echoed by celebrated Perth production designer Herbert Pinter during a walk around the area last year. “A movie studio is not simply a soundstage. You need space. Often you have to build something outside of the soundstage because the scene calls for natural light. You couldn’t do it in [this] area,” said Pinter.
Secrets and dollars
Many are wondering how the idea for a studio on the docks got so far, claiming it was a waste of time and money. “Millions of dollars and a year has been spent on trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” a prominent member of the film industry told me. “The proponents should not have put up Victoria Quay as a site without doing their groundwork to see if that was appropriate.
“It would not have taken all that much research to work out that putting a facility normally built in out-of-the-way places in the middle of a busy working port would cause all kinds of complications. And that is even before you get to the heritage issues. It’s four big boxes in a place that will disrupt community access.”
My source chose to remain anonymous over concerns that it may compromise his future dealings with government, which may be one of the reasons the doomed Victoria Quay plan got as far as it did. Quite simply, the Market-Led Proposal process is so secretive that it cannot draw upon the wisdom of the industry it is seeking to serve.
“For the past year we have been asking for updates and nothing has been forthcoming. There were certain people in the industry who were co-opted by the government to give advice but they all had to sign NDAs. So we have been completely in the dark. It’s now clear the government could have used our help.”
One of the several bidders who failed to get to stage one of the Market-Led Proposal process is angry about what has unfolded as he only undertook the expense of putting together a proposal because he felt the highest-profile candidate, Home Fire Creative Industries, was so wide of the mark they would never get selected.
“One of the criteria for the tender was that it would be a cost-efficient studio that would be up and running as soon as possible. It is what we offered with our bid. What they selected was a hugely expensive facility fraught with difficulties which we are learning has blown out by tens of millions of dollars,” said the bidder, who again chose to remain anonymous.
Now that Victoria Quay has been mothballed what are the next steps? None of this is clear, which is a source of further frustration for the industry.
“Rather than making a formal announcement and talking about the way forward the government has been caught out by a leak and have once again chosen to hide behind the veil of secrecy that is the Market-Led Process. Who is going to be taking the idea for a studio forward? Surely not the mob who have just wasted a year of our time proposing something that so many in the community were saying was inappropriate,” argued my industry source.
The other two short-listed proponents – one of which is connected to Andrew Forrest – have been told that their bids are still in play, he said. “However, both bidders have signed NDAs so they cannot make public what the government turned down when they chose Victoria Quay.”
Whichever way the Market-Led Proposal process turns out, Fremantle is likely to have a stake in whatever emerges out of the debacle of Victoria Quay. There are even indications that a more manageable aspect of a film hub could be located on Victoria Quay.
The newly elected mayor of Fremantle, Hannah Fitzhardinge, believes that the failure to activate Victoria Quay will not stop the port city’s emergence as WA’s movie mecca. “The concentration of screen industry people and companies mean that Fremantle will remain the natural home for film in Western Australia regardless of the studio,” said Ms Fitzhardinge.
“We are no better informed than anyone else about where this is going because of the nature of the Market-Led Proposal process. However, we have made it clear to the government that at some stage Fremantle will need to have to its own studio to support, at a minimum, our local industry. Whether it happens on Victoria Quay won’t determine the future of film in Fremantle.”
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