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Last Cab To Darwin’s producers Greg Duffy and Lisa Duff get frank about the film’s budget.

Why a budget of $3.993m

LISA DUFF: “Our first budget, back in 2007, was more than $8 million. The investors, both private and government, wanted it to be less. Jeremy (director/co-writer Jeremy Sims) said: “I’ve got a good feeling about $ 6.7 million” so I got it down to that. Screen Australia thought if the film was budgeted at more than $4 million we wouldn’t be able to finance it. By carefully working out what could be compromised, I brought it down to just below $4 million. It was hard work and we were left with a skeleton crew on the road and lots of multitasking of roles, including Greg, the writer Reg Cribb and I doing traffic control all the way from Broken Hill to Darwin. Our largest ticket item was travel: accommodation, airfares, petrol, mileage on the small trucks we hired from Adelaide. We had to get a large number of people from Sydney to Broken Hill – and Rex airlines, the only airline that flies into Broken Hill is very expensive – then to Darwin and home again. Our first recce was in 2012: a group of us drove from Broken Hill to Darwin. What I’m most happy about, in terms of getting the budget down to $4 million, is that something will go back to our investors.”

Last Ca to Darwin

Producer Offset ($1.289m of the budget)

The Producer Offset (PO) is a tax rebate on the cost of production, payable once a film is finished. As such, it is a form of indirect government funding for features and television. For features the PO is set at 40% of “qualifying” Australian expenditure. On Last Cab to Darwin the PO equated to 32% of the budget because it can’t be claimed on some expenditure items – financing costs, for example.

<h6>Lisa Duff</h6><p>Producer</p>
Lisa Duff


LISA DUFF: “When Australian producers sit down to begin the task of financing features they know they have up to 40% of their budget on the table already thanks to the PO. That money is their equity and it gives them a seat at the recoupment table. According to the rules, at least 90% of the (anticipated) PO must be cash flowed into the finance plan, leaving 10% as the producers’ margin. It’s the producer’s little piece of the pie. We offered a portion of our margin of the Producers Offset to our private investors to sweeten the deal. Instead of having to wait they got it as soon as we got our rebate from the offset. It meant they could start recouping their investment probably a year earlier.”

ANZ and ROW distribution guarantees ($280K)

Besides the distribution guarantee (DG) of $200K from Icon Film Distributors against Australia and New Zealand there was an $80K DG against the rest of world (ROW) from Films Distribution. These amounts have to be repaid from sales and are cash flowed into the budget.

GREG DUFFY: “I was confident that if I could get people to read the final script we’d get a sales agent. We had two offers but some of the financiers thought Swedish company Eyewell was too new to the market and therefore didn’t have enough of a track record. We went with Films Boutique initially but were bumped upstairs to parent company Films Distribution.

LISA DUFF: “It was a struggle to get a sales agent at script stage. We approached about 15 and only got one bite that was acceptable to the investors. Originally Films Boutique said it would put in a DG of A$75K. They later agreed to show their commitment to the film by increasing the DG to US$75K. Films Boutique decided it was more commercial in nature and therefore more suitable for the larger company. Whilst the Australian distributor has been able to find a large audience relatively easily, the ROW sales agent has found it more difficult. They say this is largely because it sits between being arthouse and commercial. It’s not a straight pitch as either. And they believe that some of the colloquial language is a difficult sell in the territories they usually deal with. Screen Australia insists on having a ROW sales agent that is willing to put up a DG as a condition of their financing. It’s safer to get the money up front – as we did – but for some films, finding a ROW sales agent that suits the film once it has been finished and has achieved a degree of local box office success, could mean more choice and bargaining power.”

Direct government investment ($1.418m)

Screen Australia invested $1.1 million, representing 27.55% of the budget; ScreenNSW $250K; and the South Australian Film Corporation $68K. The film had champions in all the agencies at that time: Martha Coleman and Susan Boehm in Screen Australia’s development department; Megan Simpson-Huberman at ScreenNSW, who gave Last Cab its first development money in 2009 when she was at the now defunct Australian Film Commission; and Richard Harris, whom Greg Duffy, with his lawyer hat on, had dealt with when Harris was executive director at the Australian Directors Guild. All these people have moved on to other places now.

Government grants ($200K)

An additional $100K in regional filming grant monies came from ScreenNSW and $100K from the Northern Territory Government, under various schemes. As it does not have to be paid back it becomes part of the producers’ equity in the film, in that the recoupment/copyright share attached to the grant is given to the producer. “We hit a wall in mid-2013. Always in Australian films you end up with a gap of 10-25% in the budget after pulling in government money, a lender to cash flow the PO and marketplace attachments. Two things would not come together for us: we couldn’t get an international sales agent and we had a gap of 20%. The gap was the real problem. Last Cab is a (Northern) Territory story. Although we fictionalised it, it was the first place in Australia to have the guts to pass euthanasia laws. We wanted the state to have skin in the game. Other government agencies were in but we couldn’t get anyone in NT excited about the film.”

Screen Territory only has limited funds for individual films -and only for local NT films – and it had spent its total annual grants pool of about $300K anyway. Nevertheless, Screen Territory director Penny McDonald was keen to help.

<h6>Greg Duffy</h6><p>Producer. Director Jeremy Sims (pictured, right) was a producer on the film as well.</p>
Greg Duffy

Producer. Director Jeremy Sims (pictured, right) was a producer on the film as well.

GREG DUFFY: “She said ‘you’ve got to come up and meet people face to face’. One of our friends, and an actor in the film, Jeremy Cumpston, was working up there as a doctor and he had a friend with a restaurant who was willing to put on an event for us. The restaurant is opposite Parliament House and the upper house estimates committee was in session and quite a few members of the government were happy to cross the road to meet Michael Caton. Some were conservative politicians who had tried to drive through the right-to-die legislation and they were excited about getting some traction on the debate again. By the end of the night we’d arranged meetings at Parliament House and by next morning we had $100K cash and probably another $100K worth of logistical support, including vehicles, access to (crown) land, accommodation and office space. The greatest thing they did for us was to loan us eight 4WDs that were bullet proof. These vehicles meant that we could actually do the drive up the Oodnadatta Track through Marree, William Creek and Oodnadatta with the cast and crew.

“A script reading at the Dungog Film Festival in 2011, at which Michael Caton read the lead part, was a key event in the development of the film: the Q&A afterwards sparked a lot of script changes, Michael got very excited about the film and we thought ‘we’ve got our guy’. We could then go to distributors saying ‘This is our cast’. Jacki Weaver was involved in the original play and she stuck with us right through although was probably being advised by her US people not to. We could not have got Last Cab financed without Michael and Jacki. Because we couldn’t pay them what they would normally be paid we built in kickers for both of them if the box office reached $3.5 million, then $5 million. This is stipulated in the distribution agreements not the recoupment schedule.

Private investment (the rest)

GREG DUFFY: “We still had a gap of 15-17% but we felt confident about approaching people in the private sector whom we’d been introduced to personally over the years. Jeremy helped significantly with this. Most had been involved in film and television investment. Those who hadn’t were brought to the table by those that had. Our executive producers helped enormously: Ned Lander, Edward Simpson, Ian Darling, Mark Nelson and Andrew Myer. We bounced proposals off them all the time about the financing. Other EPs came in later: Michael Burton from Cutting Edge, Chris and Natasha Cuffe, Jon Adgemis and Prue McLeod. They loved the script and were excited by our passion ­particularly Jeremy’s – to tell the story and thought it was a great Australian yarn.”

LISA DUFF: “In finding ways to fill the gap in the finance plan we set about to find a post-production company to invest. Many post-production companies offer deals, but we really needed a bona fide cash investment – not a discount on services but money in the bank up front. Some already had funds tied up in other films. It was a relief when we went to Cutting Edge and they agreed. Jeremy had recorded voice-overs at Nylon Studios, a music and sound production house. They were excited about the prospect of working on a feature film. They both invested and looked after all of our sound post production. In the final stages of financing and contracting, we did the sums and still had a gap of $10K, which Jeremy’s production company put up. It’s not uncommon for producers to invest their own funds to meet a shortfall.”

Last Cab to Darwin cast and crew setting up shot in Tennant Creek

The wash up

GREG DUFFY: “Before the film was released nearly every exhibitor was saying to us: ‘You bring that film and Michael Caton to my cinema and you’ll double the takings’. We knew that the film would work on word of mouth so we sat down with Icon and said ‘We need to get this film out to the audience’. Thankfully they agreed, planned the talent tour all over the country and then threw their hearts and souls into it.

“We do what we do because we love to tell stories. It’s why we took a haircut on our share to give the private investors a sweetener because we want to keep making films with the help of our private investors. The rough rule of thumb is that you have to make three or four times the budget of the film before everyone recoups all of their investment. In our case, that would be at least $12 million. However, for our private investors, because we have given them an accelerated recoupment, they will probably fully recoup when the film reaches $10 million. That may happen if it does well in ancillary markets and if it does well internationally, especially if it is released theatrically in some territories.”