Rob Lowe in 'Oxford Blues'
Rob Lowe in 'Oxford Blues'

Why Tony Ginnane offered Rob Lowe $1.78m to star in a 1989 Australian blockbuster based on a Joseph Conrad novella

This story is an edited excerpt from the new book ‘Money, art and madness: How the war between bureaucrats & auteurs killed the Australian film industry‘.

Producer Antony Ginnane was churning out successful films until the 1987 stock market crash. It derailed several films and fractured his relationship with the government film agency, the Australian Film Commission, as millions of dollars in contracted distribution advances evaporated.

But the share market crash would have wider consequences, ushering in a new era of direct government film funding via the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) in lieu of ultra generous 10BA personal tax breaks.

“I had a very clear view that my projects were unwelcome at the FFC,” Ginnane says. He had lunch with a high-ranking FFC official to clear the air.

“The purpose of that lunch was to establish whether or not I was going to find myself in difficulty going into the FFC with projects. And what I was told by this guy, in pretty clear language, was that he felt it would be difficult for them to fund me for two or three years as the ruckus over 10BA needed to calm down.”

It would be a devastating blow for most producers, but after two decades in the industry, Ginnane had no plans for a forced retirement. In April 1989, he asked the newly formed FFC to fund his next film project: The Outpost, according to documents released by the National Archives of Australia.

It was based on a Joseph Conrad story, An Outpost of Progress, with one of the biggest stars in the world, Rob Lowe, in the lead role. Conrad’s work had already proved fertile territory for one of the great American directors, Francis Ford Coppola, who a decade earlier had turned Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness into Apocalypse Now. Ginnane’s adaptation would be directed by Tim Burstall, who had overseen the bawdy, big-budget historical drama, Eliza Fraser, following the hit sex-comedies Alvin Purple and Alvin Rides Again.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and An Outpost of Progress shared many similarities, both tracking the moral decline of ‘civilised’ westerners travelling in the African Congo. But where Apocalypse Now moved its story to the Vietnam War, The Outpost would be set in the islands of the Bass Strait between Tasmania and mainland Australia. Ivory trading would be replaced with seal hunting. African natives would become Aboriginal people.

Those changes would make the film ‘Australian’ and eligible for government funding, while an international star would trigger lucrative foreign pre-sales.

By the end of the 80s, Rob Lowe was a huge star, after appearances in films such as Oxford Blues, St. Elmo’s Fire, and About Last Night with his young Brat Pack cohorts. But acting roles had dried up following a sex tape scandal in 1988.

Ginnane set aside $1.78 million of the film’s $6.56 million budget for Lowe to star in The Outpost — one of the highest proposed salaries for a Hollywood star in the National Archives records. “I suspect that was a million-dollar US deal and that would have been Rob Lowe’s price whether he shot in Vancouver or in Australia,” Ginnane says.

The FFC was being asked to fund more than half ($3.76 million) of the film’s total budget, according to its investment funding application. The production company, International Film Entertainment (IFE), planned to borrow its $2.8 million portion of the budget against pre-sales, including $2 million from an unnamed party.

The FFC asked independent marketing consultant, Sandy Lieberson, to assess the project. Lieberson, a respected American producer, thought the script was well-written and that Lowe had “star value”.

Nonetheless, he also felt the project wouldn’t have wide commercial appeal and suggested a contemporary story with Lowe would have a greater chance of success. The US and Canada were forecast to produce just $1.2 million in total returns for the FFC (or 31.9 per cent of its investment), which prompted FFC investment manager Jonathan Shteinman to recommend the board reject Ginnane’s application.

“The truth is, if they’d applied that analysis to any of the films they funded during that first period of the FFC, it’d come up with the same result and arguably, almost certainly, a lesser result than 31 per cent,” Ginnane says.

The funding assessment was stranger still. Shteinman noted his rejection was made “in the context of a reasonably sanguine marketing assessment” and wondered what success could reasonably mean in terms of recoupment.

“Considering the consultant’s fairly positive attitude to the project itself and its star, and that the foreign and Australasian pre-sales were considered reasonable, I put to the consultant [Sandy Lieberson] that if this project could only expect to receive $1.2 million, then one could draw the conclusion that no project from Australia could expect to recoup its budget,” Shteinman wrote in his report.

“He agreed that 50 per cent of a budget is all that can be expected from foreign and Australasia and that 50 per cent of the budget is unlikely to be recouped in the US unless the project had some ‘magic’ element. He was not able to identify a ‘magical’ element in The Outpost but noted that it might be there.”

The Outpost never got up but Ginnane’s frenetic pace of production never slowed. He shifted several of his films to the Philippines over the next few years and made several others, such as Screamers starring Peter Weller and No Contest with Andrew Dice Clay, in Canada. He began making films in Australia again in the 2000s and the FFC’s replacement, Screen Australia, would eventually provide direct funding for several of his films.

Money, art and madness: How the war between bureaucrats & auteurs killed the Australian film industry is available now on Amazon.