The future of the Australian digital production company behind Happy Feet 2 – Dr D Studios – is uncertain after the departure of almost 600 staff.
The majority of staff were on contracts expected to end after Happy Feet 2 was completed, however a number of senior employees have also left as part of a restructure. The latest round of departures will occur in early-December.
A large number of employees were also offered positions at a new company that KMM plans to set up early next year.
Almost 700 crew were recently working on Happy Feet 2, which was released in the US on November 18.
There are suggestions that the relationship between KMM and Omnilab has become frayed.
Another source said Omnilab staff were recently refused access to the facility while trying to survey the assets of the company.
Omnilab Media managing director Christopher Mapp said he was not aware of that and Omnilab remained fully committed to the Dr D joint venture now that it had finished Happy Feet 2.
“We’ve finished the film and now the shareholders have to sit back and work out the best way forward,” he said.
George Miller’s assistant and Dr D head of production Brett Feeney did not respond to email questions.
KMM’s Doug Mitchell recently said the business had been restructured as it faced a production gap between Happy Feet 2 and the fourth Mad Max film, Fury Road. He opened the possibility that the joint partnership between KMM and Omnilab may be dissolved or that the Dr D business may continue in its current form.
The uncertainty about the company’s future follows Miller’s decision to also move the long-delayed shoot for Fury Road from Broken Hill to Namibia, which was first reported by IF magazine in August. Fury Road is also a Dr D production.
The moves call into question the NSW government’s generous subsidies to lure such businesses to set up in the state.
The joint venture between Kennedy Miller Mitchell (KMM) and Omnilab Media, which was first announced in November 2007, was intended to rival Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital in New Zealand as a home for high-end effects and digital feature film production.
In 2009, KMM to set up at North Eveleigh’s CarriageWorks, where it used bays 22-24 and part of bay 25 for motion capture work on Happy Feet 2 and development work on Fury Road. A government source said the deal was with KMM rather than the Dr D joint venture and the lease – effectively at cost – was renewed last year. KMM was described as one of the toughest negotiators the government has dealt with.
The filmmaking business is notoriously volatile and major productions are typically filmed in the countries which are cheapest or offer the highest tax rebates.
In mid-2009, the NSW Labor government announced that Warner Bros’ film, Green Lantern, would be shot in the state, however, just months later the production was shifted offshore as the value of the Australian dollar climbed.
The rising dollar has forced many local crew and post-production staff to abandon the industry or relocate overseas. Earlier this year, a number of Australian crew flew to Taiwan to work on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.
After the global success of Miller’s Happy Feet in 2006-07, the filmmaker lamented the “brain-drain” that has often occurred in the Australian industry.
“I had found it heart-breaking to watch the home-grown talent pool that emerged in Australian cinema go overseas because there was no continuity of high-end work in this country,” he said. “KMM's partnership with Omnilab Media and the Mapp family is our attempt to stop history repeating itself and reversing this Australian brain drain.”