This article originally appeared in IF Magazine issue #146 (April-May 2012).

Broadcasters, take heed. Science-fiction is no longer just the domain of socially-inept teenage boys and overgrown fans of Dungeons and Dragons.
With shows like The Walking Dead attracting viewers in their millions and HBO developing a series based on Neil Gaiman's best-selling fantasy American Gods, it has never been more acceptable to prefer your entertainment with a touch of nerdiness.

As a television genre, sci-fi has a long history. The grandfather of all American science-fiction programming is Star Trek, while the United Kingdom has spent almost half a century watching the adventures of everyone's favourite timelord in Doctor Who. But try naming a similarly iconic Australian TV series and you'll find yourself struggling.

The science-fiction and fantasy genre has always been enormously popular with younger audiences across all mediums, a factor ABC3 is all too aware of. Last year the channel commissioned alternate-reality series The Lost Boys from Matchbox Pictures, the production company behind the award-winning adult drama The Slap. The series, on which Tony Ayres will act as showrunner, follows the story of four teenage boys who witness an astrological phenomenon while on a school camping trip. When they return, they discover that the universe has changed so dramatically that even their existence has been erased.

The ABC also recently put out a call for sci-fi series aimed at older audiences. Although at a SPAA session in 2009 Seven network script executive Bevan Lee dismissed series like The X Files as being too niche to ever be made in Australia, the implementation of free-to-air (FTA) digital channels has made allowances for such high-concept programming. Channels like Eleven, GEM and 7Mate already screen overseas sci-fi shows that were previously relegated to graveyard timeslots and beset by unreliable scheduling on the larger networks.

“I have noticed a shift among the production companies and networks about their attitude toward the genre,” says screenwriter and AFTRS guest lecturer Luke Devenish. “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there is a very solid audience for it – an international audience will watch overseas stuff because it’s from the genre. It crosses borders very effectively – unlike a family drama like Packed to the Rafters.”

Limelight International producer Grant Bradley has noticed a definite increase in science-fiction pitches. He attributes this to the fact that the definition of the genre has broadened beyond aliens and futuristic technology to include other elements, such as the supernatural. Bradley, who served as executive producer on the Doctor Who-inspired children’s series K9, says the most important part of a pitch is the strength of the story.

“With any script you want to be gripped by the character and the plot and the world that is created,” he says. “I guess we’re always looking for the fresh idea that no-one’s done before. Although sometimes that can be a really good imitation of an idea that someone’s just done.”

Bradley, who has worked on films and shows aimed at both adults and younger audiences, says there is one particularly notable similarity about the preferences of the different demographics: everyone really likes CGI monsters.

When it comes to science-fiction movies in Australia, the country has an excellent record for hosting them (The Matrix TrilogyGhost Rider and the Star Wars prequels were all shot here), but few local films in the genre have emerged in recent years.

Screen Australia’s head of development Martha Coleman says it’s certainly an area filmmakers are interested in.

“It’s about coming up with those high concept great ideas that are going to draw attention to themselves and achieve it within the right budget,” she says.

Coleman is quick to emphasise that science-fiction should be seen as a setting that can be paired with genres like thriller, drama, romance or comedy.

“If you’re working in any genre, you really need to know your stuff and you need to be original and not just copycat Hollywood,” she says. “So it’s really important that the genre element within that science-fiction setting is original and surprising and entertaining.”

Three science-fiction projects which spawned from the 2009 Springboard short film initiative are currently in development: thriller Cargo from Luke Doolan and Drew Bailey, pre-apocalyptic drama These Final Hours from Zak Hilditch and Liz Kearney and Shane Armstrong and Shayne Kraus’s thriller Tremula. Coleman cites low-budget UK film Moon as an example of a well-made science-fiction film.

“It was a really sophisticated and mature film that really stood out in the marketplace,” she says. “If the idea is strong, people just drop everything and respect the film.”

But it’s not just about buyers and investors respecting the films. Iron Sky producer Cathy Overett says that filmmakers need to respect the genre.

“Sci-fi’s an area where there are such die-hard fans and you need to respect them,” says Overett. “You need to understand the genre, there’s such a vast history. It’s daunting to go up against such iconic stuff.”

Overett and her production company New Holland Pictures believe firmly in co-productions. Iron Sky’s $10 million budget was raised by German, Finnish and Australian investors. A portion was also sourced through online crowd funding.

“To make good films, you need to finance them well,” Overett says. “You do need to do co-productions.”

Given the global appeal of Avatar, Devenish says there’s really no reason why Australians shouldn’t be making more sci-fi. “The most successful film of all time was science-fiction, so there’s obviously an audience for it.”

Join the Conversation

17 Comments

  1. I would really like to see more science fiction, and I am tired of the vampire and and other sudo science fiction fantasy things that are on tv these days, I want full blown science fiction.

  2. Watch the skies Amanda – THE 25th REICH is coming soon.
    WORLD PREMIERE @ REVELATION FILM FESTIVAL, Perth, July 6 and releasing in October.

  3. Great article and I agree that science fiction is the go.I was devouring Asimov etc books fifty years ago and still love SF. Interesting that the Speilberg production Terra Nova wasnt mentioned. It was last year produced on the Gold Coast,was developing a great storyline but pulled just as people were getting interested.The production was making money and had the potential to develop into something like the “StarGate” series.Very disappointed Steven.

  4. ATTENTION: Martha Coleman (Head of Development – Screen Australia)
    I read your comments in the above article in IF eletter re: “film makers are interested in Sci Fi. I have two FEATURE LENGTH screenplays (possible mini series?) (sci fi/Fantasy genres) strong story lines, strong characters, based in Australian locations (Port Stephens/Bondi/ Lake Eyre/

    TO SAVE A THOUSAND BEES – is adapted from my novel, 10,000 YEARS (details on MySpace/Val Maudson/10,000 YEARS. Scroll down to slideshow. Basically a Contemporary Flying Dutchman myth, inspired by my visit to Bolzano’s 4,000 Year Old Iceman, Oetzi and his link with a mysterious Australian Sydney to Hobart sailor. Do they both carry the Methuselah gene?

    INTO SILENCE – also a feature length screenplay (rather like UK Moon film, but set in Outback on a Mission to Mars site. Storyline: Travellers lost in dust storm in Outback of Australia stumble into what they assume is a film set, but all is not as it seems. They have each been selected years earlier for a very special purpose by an eccentric Director. With only two extreme choices, their clock is already ticking.

    Both may be possible mini series or stand alone feature films. Interested? Please contact my email address above.

  5. Multiple reasons, but primarily an outdated and narrow minded idea of what defines ‘culturally relevant’ and ‘high minded’ and thus deserving of funding..

    Instead we are stuck in a morass of ‘aussie bogan gangster’ films and earnest dramas that are not actually representative of the tastes of a vast number of Australians who are very worldly in their media consumption.

    Intelligent and fun sci-fi can be done on a modest budget and Australia has abundant talent for producing precisely this kind of genre film.

    We’ve already shown we are able to make taut, inventive horror films it’s about time we made our own sci-fi.

    Re-watching Pitch Black (shot here in the outback) would be a bloody good reminder of how to do it..

  6. Great to read an article about the local industry and possibly the most complex and puzzling genre of them all. I guess it’s a hard sell in our territory, especially when for so long it’s a genre that has required VFX,SFX and any other X that requires a large amount of money. Add to the that the risk when the tried and true paradigm of this country’s industry has been like stated above – Bogan Gangster, meandering Artsy film or low brow comedy and you have a genre that is ready to explode.

    No more so than here where we are just getting started on the good stuff.

    Myself and my team are in post production on a Sci Fi Drama (Sci Rama) that has just been shot in Melbourne although in a way to hopefully give it a universal feel and makes best use of the city and it’s unexplored locations. Super talented and eclectic cast that represents the entire cultural spectrum of this country and a concept to boot.

    An alien interfacer has one day to rid himself of his gift before succumbing to it’s debilitating side effects.

    Should be doing the festival run later this year, already overseas interest check it out!

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Vessel/285079641549546

  7. With some very clever & thoughtful writing, the film Exit could be developed into something extra special. The foundation is there, the core elements are concrete in their story. If this concept was taken further, we could see a great sci-fi type story carry on over enough episodes to justify it becoming a successfully series. But once again it must be said its the writing that has to shine. I really believe Exit had paved the way for an incredible series. Everything is already there in the core story and themes. If star trek was primarily about adventures in space, then an Exit theme based series is already written. And how perfectly fitting a series title: Exit. I’ll take it on if no one else believes in it.

  8. I checked out that OMEGA film above. Very Cool. Awesome to see this sort of stuff happening in Brisbane! They’re fundraising right now so check it out.

  9. There have been a few Aussie Sci-Fi series. Farscape was an Australia-USA co-production, there were also ABC teen/kid series like Ocean Girl, CyberGirl and I seem to remember one about a space ship which was going to take multiple generations to reach it’s destination, crewed largely by teenagers, and another about a paralell universe…

  10. There is a team in Sydney doing a film based on all the old Aussie sci-fi from the 60’s that looks promising. It has space travel, history, Australian outback and leans heavily on science fact.

  11. Just a few from memory. Phoenix Five which was the third in a trilogy of ABC scifi series. Evil Touch both sci fi and horror anthology series. Andria another ABC series. Two other series where Escape from Jupiter & Return to Jupiter. I think I read in a Starlog article that the first Aussie scifi was The Stranger in the early 60’s. Also there was a futuristic social science fiction call Timelapse. I think the series that Michael Weathers was talking about was Silver Sun. Their have been numerous other children’s scifi series such as The Girl from Tomorrow to Thunderstone and Spellbinder. An early late 60’s early 70’s semi scifi was The Barrier Reef. This is just from memory. I hope it helps with the discussion!

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