December 2023 – January 2024

The Nation Reviewed

Way out Southwest

By Harry Windsor
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The local debut of the SXSW film, TV, music and tech fair is a sign the road to Hollywood now runs in both directions

Halloween seems to be getting more popular in Australia every year, and with it fears that we’re becoming more American – that the zombie-like march of US culture is overwhelming our own. This October, as if to underline the unease, Halloween was preceded by the arrival of another American institution, South by Southwest (SXSW), an “interactive media” jamboree that takes place annually in Austin, Texas. The inaugural Sydney edition comprised a week of panel discussions, gigs and screenings, and it was appropriate that Australian anxiety about American influence was a talking point.

The film director Phillip Noyce went to Hollywood off the back of his 1989 film Dead Calm, and he spoke entertainingly about the largesse of the studios at their height in the 1990s. The vintage convertibles, the suites at the Chateau Marmont, the generous per diems. It was all very seductive, but the cost, he later realised, was to his family. “Your children don’t have a country,” he said. The panel was moderated by Noyce’s LA-based Australian manager Bec Smith, and she wasn’t having it. “But don’t your children who were born there think of themselves as American?” she asked. Noyce nodded, leaning dolefully into the microphone: “That’s the cost.”

As amusing as they were, film industry luminaries probably weren’t the main attraction. SXSW is a festival pitched at the intersection of film, music and technology, and most of the badge-holders I saw in Sydney were wearing “tech and innovation” lanyards; start-up types eager to hear from the likes of Kate Marsden, Canva’s head of brand partnerships, or Cal Henderson, the co-founder of Slack. Brand “activations” were everywhere. Welcome to Primeville, where you can wander through a room dressed to resemble the diner in the Amazon Prime series Jack Reacher. Here, have some courtesy sliders.

The festival was primarily located around Darling Harbour; attendees could watch the stage in Tumbalong Park from the balcony of the new International Convention Centre, the festival’s hub. The ICC resembles a cruise ship or an airport, and at SXSW you could walk for days, hustling from a talk on exoplanets moderated by an Australian working at NASA to one about the streaming wars. The top floor was occupied by the tech and innovation expo. Exhibitors included the Australian Army’s Robotic and Autonomous Systems Implementation & Coordination Office. One soldier controlled a robotic dog via remote control; another showed off an armoured vehicle that looked like the Batmobile. There were several gaming stations, too. The largest queue I saw was not for any stall, but for a free Monster Energy drink.

As I wrote in these pages in August, SXSW – the Austin mothership – has become a launchpad for big studio horror movies and comedies, and even Oscar winners (Everything Everywhere All at Once debuted there last year). The Australian offshoot mostly screened films that had already premiered elsewhere (Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel) or that were about to hit streaming (Netflix documentary ONEFOUR: Against All Odds). That’s understandable given the newness of the enterprise, and in one sense the presence of streaming titles was true to the festival’s Silicon Valley spirit. Netflix may not sell products like Amazon and Apple do, but it still very much sees itself as a tech company, a disruptor in the land of studio dinosaurs.

The ascendance of these companies was the subject of another conversation with Bec Smith later in the week. Smith has lived in LA for 16 years and witnessed the rise of streaming firsthand. She began her career at Inside Film magazine in the early 2000s, back when it was located behind a laundromat in Darlinghurst. They shared the space with Joel and Nash Edgerton; Baz Luhrmann was next door. Smith produced a short film for another journalist at the magazine, David Michôd, and was trying to get his debut feature (Animal Kingdom) made before she decamped to America, where she landed a job at one of the big Hollywood agencies.

Even though what Smith really wanted was to produce, agenting was a job and one that enabled her to travel the world. Her business card opened all the doors, and her brief was to meet all the players. “The job was basically: learn all about these companies that want to put money into movies, and learn what the parameters for their investment are. And bring that back to the company. And then try to put movies together,” she tells me. “At the same time, if you can identify cool filmmakers when you’re seeing movies at these festivals, you can sign them. So that’s what I started to do.”

Smith now represents some of the country’s most successful filmmakers, everyone from Michôd to Garth Davis (Lion) to Jennifer Peedom, another Inside Film alum and the director of Sherpa. She helped find the financing for Davis’s latest film, Foe, which was released last month. For all her skill and experience, though, Smith admits that the track she followed in America is not the one she’d choose now, if she could do it all again. Does she ever wonder if the filmmakers she represents should have stayed in Australia, telling Australian stories?

“No, I don’t think filmmakers should trap themselves into some jingoistic, I can only ever tell Australian stories kind of prison,” she says. “I think that most of the filmmakers I’ve represented have moved very fluidly between telling stories specific to their culture, and then telling stories from around the world that were interesting to them. And that’s absolutely right.”

Hollywood, meanwhile, has been going the other way, lured here by generous tax rebates and cash grants. This month’s Anyone But You at least features Sydney playing itself; likewise the upcoming The Fall Guy, which shut down the Harbour Bridge in January. But studio blockbusters can make it harder for local, smaller productions to secure crew and studio space, and the jobs they create are temporary. In September, the NSW government announced plans to cut its main production attraction scheme – a decision quickly reversed in the face of lobbying from industry players such as George Miller, whose new film Furiosa benefited from the fund.

The streaming giants have also arrived on these shores, and their presence at SXSW comes at an interesting time, with local content quotas set to be imposed on them by the middle of next year. Unlike the studios, the streamers might yet prove a boon for local creators. One of the festival’s most anticipated guests was Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, whose career offers a case study in how to make the streamers work for you. Not only is the show’s sixth and latest season one of his best, but it also finds Brooker aggressively biting the hand that feeds him, skewering everything from the invasiveness of the Netflix algorithm to the (blood)lust for true-crime stories that the platform has capitalised upon.

Nash Edgerton was turned away from the session with Brooker, he tells me, because it was at capacity. But he made it into the session about the streaming model with Smith, his old officemate, who produced a music video for him back in the day. He even asked her a question from the audience. Edgerton is no stranger to television – he directed three seasons of Mr Inbetween, the best show Australia’s produced in years – and he sees encouraging signs that the new model is helping Australian voices to become part of the furniture internationally.

“Until recently, if there’s been an Australian character in an American show or film, it’s been the cliche version of it,” Edgerton says. “You know, the shrimp on the barbie. Or they have to explain why the Australian is there. And the reality is, Australians live all around the world, like a lot of other nationalities do.” Seeing Murray Bartlett’s character in The White Lotus was, he told me, refreshing. “It was just a well-rounded character who happened to be Australian. I was like, thank you!”

Edgerton points out that somebody at HBO must have signed off on Bartlett’s use of the vernacular. We’ve come a long way since the days when Mel Gibson’s voice was dubbed for the Stateside release of Mad Max, and the popularity of captions among the younger generation has meant that accents (or even other languages) are no longer a barrier to entry. “It sounds small, but I think it’ll help Australian shows and films [to] travel.” And the advent of streamers means that they’ll be available everywhere.

“Obviously at various times there have been grumblings that Australian stories are going to die if we keep consuming American content,” Edgerton says. “But I think it is starting to swing the other way.” As Australian actor Jason Clarke (Oppenheimer) put it on the SXSW mainstage, when quizzed about his reasons for moving to Los Angeles, “I wanted to follow Maximus to Rome.” He conquered it, and the next generation of barbarians is waiting at the gates, ready to invade the living rooms of an unsuspecting nation. They might not even need to leave home to do so.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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