lights, camera, action in ballina shire
Northern Rivers has long been a hub for film makers and a popular backdrop for film and television productions. But there has been one thing missing to tie it all together. And then Byron studios came along.
General manager Charlotte Brigel says Byron Studios brings an essential element to the under-served creative community, with studio infrastructure to house, support and develop filmmaking talent.
“A lot of productions come here for the beautiful scenery and now there is also a studio facility to work from,” Charlotte says. “This is a great opportunity for the region.”
In late 2020 in Alstonville, the business upgraded two studio stages across 1400 square metres, with a 20-metre-wide green screen, plus all the technical backing. And suddenly the pressure was on.
“Our first big client was Netflix for a series called God’s Favorite Idiot written by [American actor and comedian] Melissa McCarthy and her husband,” Charlotte says. “We couldn’t have had a bigger test project.”
Melissa McCarthy discovered Byron Studios while she was living in the area filming Nine Perfect Strangers with Nicole Kidman, and was keen to roll straight into her own project.
The studios required a speedy turnaround and significant investment to get the facilities sound-proofed, air-conditioned and film-ready for such a large-scale production. And it’s been all systems go ever since.
Byron Studios officially began with two small studios in Byron Bay, as a joint project between Cumulus Visual Effects head William Gammon and entrepreneur Mark Holden. The two founders sought out Steve Mitchell in July 2020 for his technical expertise, and Steve introduced them to his partner Charlotte, who had recently resigned as vice president of global talent management agency Endeavor/IMG. Charlotte then brought former Network 10 CEO, Paul Anderson, to the team.
The first challenge for the enlarged team was to find a space to build a bigger studio, and after considering various sites, Ballina Council offered the Alstonville cultural centre as a temporary spot, and development began.
It was a rapid escalation, with the team facing community concern about what it would mean for the village, and a view that Hollywood was taking over the town.
“We moved quickly to meet these fears by informing residents of what we’re about, and that we’re all locals who run the studios, and the minimal impact the operation will have,” says Charlotte. “We created an online forum to keep locals in the loop and we have regular community updates.”
The team also employed Alstonville local, Stephen Bocking, as operations manager, engaged Alstonville businesses for everything from catering to cleaning to building, and bought hundreds of tonnes of wood and gravel from suppliers in the village.
Another challenge for the team has been the lack of government funding. “Films get funding. Production companies get funding. But studios don’t,” Charlotte says. “We provide the base for people to be employed, and this provides lots of job opportunities and business for the local economy, but we fall through the cracks left, right and centre for funding.”
Byron Studios has so far been funded by a small group of shareholders, and is working on raising private equity. Though while it is a for-profit business run by leaders in the industry, it has a philanthropic community-based vision at its heart.
“We want to create job opportunities and new career paths for the next generation in our area,” Charlotte says.
The studio ran a careers day in Lennox Head for more than 200 16-year-olds to generate interest in film and television industry careers. Local film group Screenworks, and educational institutions TAFE and SAE were part of the day, and are collaborating on building this vision.
Charlotte says the Netflix production employed more than 300 crew – everything from camera assistants, to riggers, set builders, producers, costume designers, makeup and hair, location scouts and painters, and there will be more opportunities in the future.
In 2022 Byron Studios is planning to construct its permanent space in the Ballina Shire to further expand its stage capacity. The future is lights, camera, action.