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Australia makes movies, but can you tell?

Della Churchill's new runner keeps getting lost.

Ms. Churchill, one of Australia's bright young film-producing talents, is assistant location manager for the "Mission Impossible" sequel. To plan the shots in Sydney, Fox Studios is constructing a scale model of downtown, for which it needs copies of the architectural plans of all the buildings. A courier has been assigned to pick up the plans from building managers around town.

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But she keeps getting lost. And so as Churchill takes a break from work on the big-studio production at a downtown cafe, she keeps getting interrupted by the hapless runner, with whom she communicates via cell phone.

The episode can be seen as a microcosm of the Australian film industry. However lively the local movie production scene is, it's the big foreign productions that keep demanding attention - and paying the bills. Australian filmmakers, eager to tell their own stories and dream their own dreams, struggle to benefit from the opportunities that foreign studios offer while remaining true to their vision.

Statistically, the film industry here is on a roll. A recent Reuters report ranked Australia as No. 16 among the world's top feature-film-producing countries - not bad for a country of only 18 million people. (Australians also have the fourth-highest moviegoing rate in the world, behind Singapore, the United States, and New Zealand.)

For the 1997-98 fiscal year, independent Australian filmmakers turned out 38 productions worth a record total of about $110 million (all figures are in US dollars). But a closer look at this number shows it's largely the result of one film: "Babe: Pig in the City," which cost $57 million. Most US viewers probably didn't even realize it is Australian. (It had American financing.)

Similarly, for the 1996-97 year, the blockbuster (by Australian standards) "Dark City," with William Hurt and Kiefer Sutherland, accounted for a large part of the total.

Projects like "Mission Impossible," and two Star Wars "prequels" to be filmed at Fox Studios Australia, each with a budget of $120 million, generate a lot of interest. But most Australian independents keep cranking out films for less than $6 million.

The Australian government supports the local film industry with everything from grants and loans to a Web site that offers aspiring screenwriters models for screenplays and brisk bits of advice.

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Cathy Robinson, chief executive of the Australian Film Commission, explains that these government efforts at "seeding the territory," as she puts it, grew out of "a sense that we needed the opportunity to tell our own stories."

The challenge is to "tell Australian stories in a way that's accessible to others," she says. With a string of modest-scale hits in recent years, such as "Shine" and "Muriel's Wedding," there are abundant signs that they are succeeding. "These [films] are recognized. We export them the way we export wool and wheat."

Meanwhile, Australia builds its reputation as a good offshore location for foreign film companies, with a "creative and efficient" talent pool, as Ms. Robinson puts it, able to get the job done efficiently enough to offset the costs of traveling to Australia.

But although Australians welcome the opportunities to work on foreign productions, the question of creative control remains sensitive. "We can do 'Mission Impossible,' or 'Mission Possible,' or 'Mission Maybe' till the cows come home," says Shilo McClean, an independent producer, "and it doesn't help us tell our Australian stories."

"For a country, it's no different from what I have to face as an individual," Ms. McClean says. "Do I do what I believe in, or do I contribute to someone else's dream?"

Fox Studios Australia, located on a 60-acre "creative campus" in Sydney, includes sound stages for film and TV production and facilities for editing and special effects. The idea is to provide one-stop shopping for Australian or foreign filmmakers.

"Some take the view that larger productions tend to swamp the independent productions," says chief executive Kim Williams. But it's a "narrow kind of view to see [Hollywood and local productions] as mutually exclusive.

"Nobody is going to be given $20 million just to play with," he says. "Hollywood tends to get a bad rap" on the issue of creative autonomy for filmmakers. The studios "understand that they're investing in the director and his vision."

Australian films bring in bucks

(in US dollars)

Below are figures for the total production value (how much it costs to make the movie) of films made in Australia in recent years (both Australian and foreign):

1994-95 20 films $ 72 million

1995-96 31 films $154 million

1996-97 39 films $159 million

1997-98 41 films $157 million

Source: Australian Film Commission

Top Aussie films

In a 1995 poll, the Australian Film Institute, industry guilds and unions, film critics, and academics chose the 10 most significant Australian films of all time. Their criterion was cultural, aesthetic, or historical significance, rather than popularity or commercial success.

1. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

2. Mad Max (1979)

3. My Brilliant Career (1979)

4. Strictly Ballroom (1992)

5. Breaker Morant (1980)

6. Gallipoli (1981)

7. Sunday Too Far Away (1972)

8. Jedda (1955)

9. The Year My Voice Broke (1987)

10. Newsfront (1978)

*More information about Australian films can be found at the Australian Film Commission's Web site:

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