Multi-million dollar film studio at Alstonville will have 'huge' benefits for the Northern Rivers region, creators say

Byron Studios' Will Gammon and Paul Anderson. Photo: Elise Derwin

Byron Studios' Will Gammon and Paul Anderson. Photo: Elise Derwin

THE Northern Rivers region has long been known as a hang out for movie stars, and in recent times, as a location for multiple film productions.

But plans to construct a new multimillion-dollar world class film studio, arts and community complex at Alstonville are set to take the region's reputation as a movie hub to a whole new level.

The team behind the project, Byron Studios, announced last year they were investigating industrial land near Ballina airport as a potential home for the project.

With the support of Ballina Council, they've since found a larger and more suitable site on 24ha of land at Tuckombil Quarry near Alstonville.

The complex is to be built in stages with the first stage to be up and running by the middle of next year.

By 2026, it will include three stages, backlot outdoor sites, production offices, an industry hub, a creative precinct with restaurant and art gallery and a theatre and conference space.

While the Northern Rivers' beauty and locations already attract productions to the area, the film studio infrastructure will enable complete turnkey shooting and delivery.

It will be a game changer for the region, according to Byron Studios founder Will Gammon.

"We think the Northern Rivers could be the new film centre of NSW," he says.

The model works

Late last year, Byron Studios set up a temporary studio at the Alstonville Cultural Centre.

Their first big tenant was Netflix, who used the studios for the Melissa McCarthy series, God's Favourite Idiot.

The temporary studio at Alstonville was used by Netflix earlier this year.

The temporary studio at Alstonville was used by Netflix earlier this year.

Byron Studios' newly appointed CEO Paul Anderson (previously the CEO of Channel 10), says the temporary studio set up is proof Byron Studios' proposed model works.

"Having Netflix come in as the first major tenant was clearly a pretty big test for the studios - and also the local community.

"But the testimonial that we've had from Netflix in terms of working here and using this site was first rate, so that's given us a lot of comfort that we can stand up and shoot a production with one of the biggest production houses in the world and do it as well as anywhere else."

Move to the regions

Anderson says there's been a shift away from needing to be in the city to conduct film projects.

"We're seeing all over the world film studios are popping up in pretty obscure places and there's a realisation that there are actually benefits to not being in a capital city for film locations."

At the same time, there's an ever growing demand for content.

"With all the streamers coming online that is only going to increase at least in the foreseeable future."

Byron Studios estimates the complex at the Tuckombil Quarry site will inject $100 million into the local economy annually and create more than 1000 jobs.

Byron Studios estimates the complex at the Tuckombil Quarry site will inject $100 million into the local economy annually and create more than 1000 jobs.

"Once we're in full flight and we've got multiple productions happening at any one time the job creation is huge," Gammon says.

"On God's Favourite Idiot there were upwards of 300 people employed in that one project - and that's just the shooting side of things.

"Then there's the post production, pre production, external people employed through accommodation and catering, the produce grown for the films that we want to keep as local as possible, there's the pubs and the local restaurants and cafes...the knock on multiplier is massive."

Supporting the creative industries

The Northern Rivers has the highest concentration of creatives outside of the metropolitan areas.

Byron Studios vision is to create a piece of infrastructure that brings the region's creative industry together and provides a platform for them to grow from.

"We're... working towards being more than a film studio and being more than just for the film industry," says Gammon.

"At the moment at Alstonville we've got photography shoots happening, we've got live crosses happening, we've got a super fast internet connection that's enabling us to live streaming... moving forward in the Tuckombil Quarry we want to have support for the film industry, the music industry, the fashion industry as well as catering and all of the support services. This is kind of a hub to invite the creative industries into."

"It's a hugely important thing for me," says Gammon.

"I've got three creative kids, and I want to see them be able to follow their dreams of being actors or artists or architects or musicians and for that to be OK.

"To see kids having an appreciation for the arts and seeing that there's actually tangible jobs in there and that they are able to make a living from it.

"That's the bigger vision."

SKILLING UP THE LOCALS

A flurry of film productions have made their way to the Northern Rivers in recent times. And while locals have picked up some of the work, there could be far more opportunities if people had the right skills according to Screenworks CEO Ken Crouch.

To help fill the gap, the Northern Rivers-based screen industry organisation recently announced a partnership with Netflix and the NSW Government to provide free training for local up-and-coming creatives looking to get their start, and for those with transferable skills who want to transition into the screen industry.

The three year pilot program will be rolled out from next year in Northern NSW.

"Our new program is about getting more locals employed on productions and maximising the economic benefits when productions come to regional Australia," says Crouch.

"It will address skills shortages for a number of key roles in the industry that we are experiencing across Australia, especially in Northern NSW.

"Screenworks will also provide traineeships for young people which otherwise wouldn't exist, especially for those from underrepresented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds."

Screenworks has partnered with Netflix and the NSW Government to help get more locals employed on film and TV productions in the area. Photo: Filming of the series Eden on the Northern Rivers last year.

Screenworks has partnered with Netflix and the NSW Government to help get more locals employed on film and TV productions in the area. Photo: Filming of the series Eden on the Northern Rivers last year.

The program is made up of three key components:

Regional Crew Development Traineeships - 12-month, fully paid and contracted entry-level trainee positions which will include Certificate III in Screen & Media qualifications and practical experience on local productions.

Regional Crew Development Targeted Skill Set Training - A short-form skill set training program delivered in partnership with the NSW Department of Training, which will address identified existing skills gaps in the local screen industry and opportunities linked to in-bound productions. The training will also facilitate transition into the screen industry for workers with transferable skills, and will be delivered to a minimum of 50 candidates.

Locations and Crew Referral Services - Funding of Screenworks' locations and crew referral services in order to increase the number of local practitioners being employed on productions taking place in the Northern New South Wales region as well as more widely across regional Australia.

"We have seen a number of productions come through the Northern NSW region where I believe more jobs should have been filled by local people," Crouch says.

"This has also happened when productions have gone to other regional areas of Australia.

"That's why part of this project will focus on our crew referral service so that it is better resourced to get more locals employed on regional productions. The location attraction service will similarly be better resourced so that we can attract a pipeline of regional productions that will generate the jobs in the first place. Neither of these services have been well funded or resourced in the past - this project will change that."

Netflix has invested $500,000 in the program in order to help service what it calls a 'production boom' in the regions.

Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education Geoff Lee the pilot program was starting in Northern NSW initially to capitalise on the jobs that will be created by the Byron Studios and proposed Pacific Bay Studios in Coffs Harbour.

"This partnership will directly address crewing skills gaps that have been identified in the region including for roles such as camera and light operators, production accountants and location managers," he said.

People in the Northern NSW region interested in the traineeships or skill set training should sign up to the Screenworks newsletter.