There is a new darling of the silver screen, writes Melanie Kembrey. She is versatile in appearance, has less of a pinch on the penny purse than others (no need to name names), her diary is usually free and working with her always makes for a pleasurable and professional experience. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, Parramatta: the next big thing.
The lights, the cameras and the action are all heading to Parramatta.
The number of applications to film in Parramatta is higher than ever before and its increasing each year that passes. If there was a visitor book for television series filmed in the area, the recent signatures would include Cops LAC, Packed to the Rafters, East West 101, At Home With Julia and Hey Hey It's Saturday. Toyota, Woolworths and Volkswagen Australia have all shot commercials that take Parramatta into the lounge room of people around the country. Even the lovable Muriel from the Australian black comedy Muriel's Wedding spoke the momentous line from the movie - "If I can get married, it means I have changed, it means I am a new person" - in our very own neighbourhood. The film awards season may be over, but Sydney's second CBD is having its moment in the spotlight.
The popularity of Parramatta as a filming location has definitely grown over the past few years, says Screen NSW's Paul de Carvalho, who has the task of attracting national and international productions to the state. Mr Carvalho says the city has become a great asset in his location database because of its dynamic versatility. A range of varied locations, such as the Parramatta River foreshore, Parramatta Park and Church Street, enables the city to mean many things to many people. "From the historical to the outdoors to the metropolitan, the city has a broad demographic as well," Mr Carvalho says. "It offers a huge variety of locations and can double for Sydney city and also for cities around the world."
And it is not all location, location, location. Parramatta Council, locally based arts organisation Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE) and friendly local businesses make the job of filmmakers much easier and the city more appealing. "The increase in filming is reflective of the can-do attitude from the top down at Parramatta Council. The city itself wants to promote filming in the area,'' Mr Carvalho says. "In the industry Parramatta is certainly becoming more and more well known as a great place to film. Shooting in Parramatta has really boomed and I think the last year has been a great example of that."
The implementation of state government film-friendly protocols three years ago, designed to cut the red tape and roll out the red carpet, has also played a lead role in increasing the popularity of filming in Parramatta. The introduction of the protocols aimed to streamline procedures to make approvals faster and filming easier. Parramatta Council processes applications in about 48 hours, doesn't require formal approval for filming taking place on private land, provides special concessions for parking large vehicles and closing roads, and has a film officer to liaise with filmmakers. The council also commissioned the creation of Scout! - a simple and straightforward guide to film-making in Parramatta. A council spokesman says the number of applications has increased since the introduction of filming protocols - there have been 35 approvals during the past year. During the past three years, 89 approvals to film have been granted.
If Los Angeles is known as the city of angels, Parramatta is fast becoming the city of Crownies. Last year, you could often spot the cast and crew of the ABC drama series Crownies hard at work on the courtyard and steps of the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriage on Marsden Street, down by the Parramatta River or near the Parramatta Local Court on George Street. Parramatta was used as a principal location during the filming of the show about legal beagles and their dramas in and out of the court room. The series producer, Karl Zwicky, said it was the first show he had worked on where Parramatta was used as a major location. He said the city was chosen not only because of its legal precinct - which includes trial courts, a children's court and a justice building - but because it hasn't been used in film and television before. "For us it doesn't look like the clichéd view of the old Sydney down by the harbour and it could equally be in Melbourne or London. It has an international city look and it is really distinctive,'' Mr Zwicky said. During the 132 days of filming, the show rented the Rio Brazilian BBQ restaurant on Church Street and transformed it into the legal hot spot, Gar's Bar. "That was great. It's a historic building which Parramatta has and it looks distinctive and it was a good contrast to the modern buildings of the justice precinct."
There has also been an increase in requests to film television commercials. Major companies like Toyota, Camry, KFC and Premier Cabs have filmed advertisements in Parramatta. Volkswagen Group Australia advertising specialist Loren Elsegood said the company chose to film its television advertisement in Parramatta last year because the location had "the CBD look and feel without being too busy". Woolworths also filmed an advertisement at Parramatta train station. "What made Parramatta station so ideal was its clean and modern design coupled with the fact that it’s easy for staff to get to,'' the company's media relations manager Benedict Brook said. "Woolworths national support office is located in the adjacent local government area to Parramatta and it's this proximity as well as a spread of modern and refurbished stores and lots of staff which makes filming in the area so attractive."
Parramatta Council has collected less than $1000 in revenue from filming permits in the past year but the financial benefit to businesses and the city's economy - as production teams spend money on catering and parking or renting local bars -and the promotion of the area on a national and international scale is invaluable. There is also the sense of shared identity that can be fostered through the representation of the area in film. People like to see places they know, and visit, in films. Parramatta Chamber of Commerce president Trevor Oldfield said films were providing a new medium to market the city. "You need to spread out your reach as wide as you can. Film is just a fantastic opportunity to reach a market that we wouldn't usually meet,'' Mr Oldfield said. "It is a great opportunity to put Parramatta at the forefront of people's minds and to showcase the city and what it has to offer. It's something we haven't been able to do in this way before." As Screen NSW Paul de Carvalho's points out, when the camera lenses focus on Parramatta, the benefits are far-reaching. "It's great for the economy and jobs. The more people and productions we have coming to Parramatta the more they spend in the local area. It's great for us, and for the NSW and I hope the Parramatta community sees it as great for Parramatta."
A new opportunity for filming in the area has opened-up with the closure of Australia's longest serving jail, the Parramatta Correctional Centre, at the end of last year. From convicts to celebrities, the jail will become the set of a new feature film for two weeks in June. Guildford resident George Basha will go behind bars to shoot the film, The Convict, about the experiences of being an inmate. Mr Basha believes it will be the first feature film to be set almost entirely in the jail. "I wanted to use Parramatta jail as a set because it is one of the oldest jails in the country and to be able to get that on the screen is phenomenal,'' he said. "You can walk through the jail and you can sense the history of the place and it's that feeling that I want to bring into the film." Mr Basha is not the first person to use the jail as a set for the silver screen. The television series Home and Away shot episodes in the jail in January and it has appeared in other shows, including Underbelly. Parramatta MP Geoff Lee said the jail can provide excellent opportunities for adaptive re-use, such as an authentic filming location.
Mr Basha's feature drama The Combination, about relationships between Lebanese Australians and Anglo-Australians in western Sydney, was also filmed in Parramatta. He says more productions, like the movie Cedar Boys, have parked their equipment vans in our streets since the release of the film in 2009. "I think it got people thinking that Parramatta is a fantastic set and I've always tried to push that filming here is great,'' Mr Basha says. "Parramatta has the best looking places for film. People watch Australian films and they are always thinking of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House and that's so overdone. They are beautiful but they are just a small part of Australia. Parramatta has the old buildings and the new buildings - the costs aren't high and the council is easy to deal with."
As well as The Convict, the Australian drama series Brothers in Arms is set to be filmed here in the coming months. And the jewel in Parramatta's crown of television appearances so far, Crownies, is also expected to return to the city later this year to film a second series. The curtains are drawn, the lights are up and Parramatta has taken centre stage.