Australian sci-fi: where is it?
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 Trilogy, Ghost 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.”