IF’s most read news stories, features and op-eds of 2023

New Netflix drama 'Desert King' has begun production. (Image: Tony Mott)

This year feels like it has flown by in a blink of an eye, and yet so much has happened.

From the Federal Government’s National Cultural Policy and confirmation that yes, it will obligate streamers to make Australian content (no, we still don’t know exactly how); to the US writers and actors strikes, whose impacts reverberated far beyond Hollywood; and the NSW’s Government’s axing and then swift reinstating of its key screen incentives (that was an interesting few weeks). A new CEO was appointed at Screen Australia in Deirdre Brennan (though she technically doesn’t start until next month), the Location Offset was finally raised to 30 per cent after a decade of lobbying, and local production continued apace, amid continued debate about how to best bolster capacity. Australian films had strong showings at Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Toronto, and while many struggled in a difficult period at the box office, John Farnham: Finding the Voice and Talk to Me bucked the trend.

We look back at the stories that engaged IF readers most in 2023.

The top 10 news stories of 2023

1. Netflix sets out the realm of the ‘Desert King’ across the Northern Territory and South Australia

It is perhaps fitting that our biggest news story of the year was to do with the production of what is one of the largest projects to ever shoot in the centre of the country. Detail about the Netflix series, produced Easy Tiger and Ronde, still remains fairly scant – the streamer is yet to officially announce any of the cast. Will Desert King be the Australian answer to Yellowstone? Time will tell.

2. BO Report: ‘Finding the Voice’ breaks records at $2.2m, ‘The Little Mermaid’ swims to the top

It has been a difficult year for Australian film at the box office; one of the worst in recent memory. Only three films crossed the $1 million mark – John Farnham: Finding the Voice, Talk to Me and Blueback. Yet those bright spots were very bright: Finding the Voice, which finished at $4.5 million, is officially Australia’s highest grossing feature documentary of all time. It is also the best performing Australian film theatrically this year and the fourth highest grossing feature doc ever released in the Australian market behind US films Michael Jackson’s This Is ItFahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. The debut feature of Poppy Stockell, the film is in contention for the AACTA for Best Feature Documentary in February.

Glenn Wheatley and John Farnham. (Copyright holder: Gaynor Wheatley)

3. Universal’s ‘Apples Never Fall’ to film in Queensland with Annette Bening, Sam Neill

International productions coming to town are always big news, with this Universal series, based on a book by Australian author Liane Moriarty, no exception. However, this year many of them also had to leave town amid the US strikes. While production has of course resumed, the cancellation of Metropolis, and suspension of Apples Never Fall and Mortal Kombat 2 had a significant impact on the local industry. Indeed, in September crew of Apples Never Fall wrote a letter to NBCUniversal/Matchbox Pictures after they were stood down without pay.

Queensland crew of ‘Apples Never Fall’ penned an open letter to producers NBCUniversal and Matchbox.

4. ‘Deeply concerned’ Weinstein victim appeals to Screen Australia regarding Steve Hutensky

Earlier this year, Rowena Chiu, a former assistant to Harvey Weinstein, contacted members of the Federal Government and Screen Australia in relation to the agency’s support of production company Made Up Stories, of which former Miramax executive Steve Hutensky is a principal.

Rowena Chiu.

5. Peter Farrelly’s ‘Ricky Stanicky’ to commence filming in Melbourne with Zac Efron, John Cena

Another big international production to hit our shores earlier this year was Ricky Stanicky, starring continued fan of Australia, Zac Efron. Aussie Paul Currie among the producers of the film, which was lured to Melbourne with the expectation it bring $70 million to the economy and create in excess of 400 jobs for locals.

6. DNEG slams proposed cuts to NSW screen funding

When the NSW Government momentarily decided it would cut its key screen incentives – the $175 million Made in NSW fund, as well as the Post Digital and Visual Effects rebate and the Digital Games Development Rebate Program – there were few individual companies as publicly critical of the decision as visual effects giant DNEG, who called the government’s proposal “baffling” and potentially “devastating”. And no wonder, given the business only just decided to set up shop in Sydney in November 2022, with a plan to grow the studio to 500 artists.

7. NantStudios builds world’s largest LED volume at Docklands

In March, LA-based virtual production house NantStudios announced it had built what was believed to be the largest permanent LED volume in the world at Docklands Studios Melbourne, with support of the Victorian and federal governments. The build consists of two volumes, including with one with a 12.19 metre (40-foot) high radiused wall of 6,000 panels, running 88.1 metres. It is understood that the volume was to be used first on Metropolis, which was cancelled in June amid rising costs and the US writers’ strike (more on that later).

The LED volume at Stage 1 at DSM.

8. NSW Government confirms $60 million cut to screen funding, producers signal projects and businesses to move interstate

When the NSW Government first signaled it would cut the Made in NSW fund and the PDV rebate a week ahead of its state budget, there was hope among industry it would reverse the decision by the time the budget was handed down. It did not, and confirmed it would scrap $60 million from the schemes. Yet, within less than a week – with continued pressure from industry, Screen Producers Australia and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance – it backflipped.

9. AppleTV+’s ‘Metropolis’ scrapped amid rising costs, writers’ strike

AppleTV+’s Metropolis was due to be one of the largest series to ever shoot in Victoria. Unfortunately, in June, Universal Content Productions, which was producing with Esmail Corp, confirmed the series would be shelved, citing rising costs and uncertainty relating to the US Writers’ Strike. The project had been expected to inject $188 million to the economy, and create jobs for 700 cast and crew and a further 2,500 employees. Another 700 local businesses and service providers were also expected to benefit.

10. Netflix adds more ‘Heartbreak High’ attachments for season two

The industry continues to grapple with growing capacity amid a skills shortage, but for new faces in the industry, cutting your teeth, and getting the powers that be to take a risk on you, remains no easy feat. If there’s any indication of the hunger of people out there, look no further than the popularity of this story about Netflix opening an attachment scheme on Heartbreak High season 2 in production accounting, editing, locations, costumes, and hair and makeup, and directing.

IF’s 10 most read features and op-eds

1. Check out IF’s Rising Talent list for 2023

Okay, to be fair, our most read feature of 2023 isn’t exactly a feature. Rather, it was the free digital gift of our full Rising Talent issue, which featured more than 60 names across 12 categories – actors, cinematographers, costume designers, composers, directors, editors, hair and makeup, producers, production designers, sound, VFX and animation and writers – who we feel the industry should take notice of. We had hundreds of entries for the list through our public call out; the list is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of this industry’s talent. We will release our Rising Talent list for 2024 early next year – keep your eyes peeled!

Some of our Rising Talent from 2023.

2. Opinion: In Australia, we have already gone from ‘mini-rooms’ to ‘micro-rooms’ 

In the first few weeks of the US writers strike, writer and script producer Blake Ayshford wrote a piece for us reflecting on both the parallel and different issues facing writers working in Australia, arguing our system means small rooms, short weeks for plotting and narrow career paths for newer writers are already the norm.

3. ABC and SBS look to emerging voices to hit public broadcasting ‘sweet spot’ in 2023

Every year at the beginning of the year, we ask leading creatives and decision makers about how they see the landscape. No article was as popular as this one with our public broadcasters, who both argued they would be prioritising works from fresh voices in their commissioning, as they looked to emphasise their point of difference in the era of streaming.

4. ‘Guts, creativity and a lot of resilience’: What it takes to be an independent producer in 2023

Another from our 2023 outlook series early in the year, talking to both Bunya Productions and Goalpost Pictures about how they see the landscape for local producers. Both companies have an interesting perspective; both independent, and both working across both TV and film.

Producers David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin with director Dylan River and actor Mark Coles Smith on the set of ‘Mystery Road: Origin’. (Photo: David Dare Parker)

5. Financing and recoupment: A refresher guide

Emma Madison, head of commercial and industry services at Screenrights, kindly wrote this overview for us about financing structures and how they operate. As she points out – it’s complicated – but she hopes to get you thinking about how the initial financing puzzle impacts long tail returns to the producer, investors and other revenue participants.

6. ‘They shot the lights out and now we’re in the dark’: Writer Cleon Prineas reflects on the children’s TV landscape

In the midst of the US Writer’s Strike, scribe Cleon Prineas wrote a piece for us about the disruption faced by writers working in children’s television since the scrapping of sub-quotas on commercial free-to-air TV in 2020.

7. John Collee talks ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ and mentoring emerging writers

Can you tell a story in the pub? Then you can write a screenplay, according to one of Australia’s leading writers, John Collee. He also talks to us about his upcoming series, Netflix’s Boy Swallows Universe (out January 11), describing it, at its heart, as being about “parents fucking up”.

John Collee.

8. Closer Productions ready to take development slate further with Enterprise funding, new co-productions

South Australia’s Closer Productions continues to evolve, this year bringing on Richard Harris as an executive producer. While its ambitions may be expanding – aided by Screen Australia Enterprise funding – producer Rebecca Summerton tells us its focus remains on “creatively-led, authored” work.

9. Looking back at IF’s Rising Talent list from 2023: Part 1

As we put together our Rising Talent list for 2024, we shone a spotlight on some of those we featured this year. This was part one in our interview series – and you can also read part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.

10. Producers, distributors and programmers ponder the theatrical future of Australian documentary

This year was a relatively good year for local documentary at the box office, with John Farnham: Finding the Voice‘s record performance and strong showings for The Giants and Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story. However, 2022 was dire, with only nine of the 33 Australian docos released in cinemas making over $100,000, and none over $350,000. At AIDC in March, a group of producers, distributors and festival programmers discussed the future of docs on the big screen, and we took a deep dive into the discussion and stats presented. Just how to get bums on seats in cinemas for Aussie films – docos or not – in what is a tricky time for exhibition, is no doubt something we’ll continue to discuss going forward.

Thank you, as always, for reading. See you next year.