Greg Basser: Film Production Architect

December 4, 2019
We sat down with the former CEO of Village Roadshow Pictures and now CEO of Gentle Giant Media at Screen Producers Australia’s Screen Forever conference.

For nearly two decades, as co-founder of Village Roadshow Entertainment Group, Greg Basser oversaw Australian-produced films including The Matrix movies, Happy Feet, Happy Feet 2, The Great Gatsby and Mad Max: Fury Road – amongst 101 films produced during his tenure which grossed $19 billion globally.

A noted advocate for brining filming and productions down under during his time, Melbourne-born, LA-based Basser has maintained a focus on giving back to the industry, and supporting the next wave of Aussies, introducing multiple scholarships for local filmmakers (Onbass AFI Scholarship, Onbass Giant Steps AFTRS scholarship, and Animal Logic Internships); as well as educational philanthropic endeavours with his wife Kiera O’Neill.

In 2019, the renowned screen entrepreneur, who comes from a medical family, set up Gentle Giant Media – an entity designed to utilise Basser’s industry experience to support the next wave of Australian filmmakers, and local filming, through philanthropic endeavours and co-productions.

The group’s first film, the Victoria-shot Australian-Chinese co-production The Whistleblower, which was filmed in Victoria, will be released in theatres globally from December 6.

We spoke to the former Roadshow chief and current Gentle Giant CEO about the importance of supporting the next wave of local film talent, incentives, and his ideas for placing Australia on the global stage.

You’ve been a noted backer of filming in Australia throughout your tenure at Roadshow, and in your own endeavours. How important is it to secure filming in Australia for the next generation of Aussie talent?

If you’re standing and holding the door on a set – let’s say you’re the first AD or the second AD unit. There is going to be some great director, a Hollywood or credentialed director, sometimes it could be a Baz or a George but it could be a Spielberg or it could be a James Wan or any of those guys. Just being there gives you credit. And having a credit on Ready Player One, one of the Roadshow films, the Spielberg movie… you work with Spielberg. He only has great people working with him. You’ll learn from working for nine months in this industry. That will give you enough money to spend the next three months doing your own stuff. Making projects rather than struggling all the way wondering where your next paycheck is going to come from. The minute you create an industry you are providing a path for the future professionals in the industry. Creating more professionals in the industry, but also creating high demand. They say that for every dollar you invest in film in an economy creates between $5 and $10 of economic activity. That’s five jobs. If it’s sustainable jobs obviously. For every sustainable smart job you create in the community, you create five other jobs in the general community. If you look at the UK, $4 billion of production happens there annually. I think it’s where the most money is spent in any one place on production. It’s probably well more than $4 billion when you think about what the streamers are spending.

South Australia and Queensland have taken a very proactive approach to filming and creativity by saying, it is the arts, but it’s an industry. Industry, commerce development, innovation, as opposed to where it’s always viewed politically. When Mortal Kombat went to South Australia, there are so many opportunities both for already skilled professionals to come across and live in Adelaide, and to train up the locals. We want the follow-on so that we train those skills and retain them. That’s really important. Our goal ought to be to create a smart economy that keeps people working in Australia.

One of the key focuses in your career has been on filming incentives and location offsets. What do you think of the current incentives in place?

Australia is where I’m from. In our presentations to the government, at Village, (former Village CEO) Graham Burke and I said, “we invest in films that spend between $1 and $1.2 billion a year in production”, because that was the capability we had. These films are going to be made. From a purely fiscal and philosophical perspective, if we weren’t Australian, we wouldn’t care where they were made. We get around 30% of what we spent on production in rebates from other countries. Australia just isn’t competitive with that. When we made San Andreas, it was going to be made in Louisiana. San Andreas wasn’t made with a subsidy; it was a rebate of stuff already gone in. The only way we can compete with other countries is to get the offset to 20 to 25 or 30%. We’ve got to get people thinking that what this is about is jobs and a smart economy. This is about turning yourself from being just a service provider into the architect. People will come to me if I’m an architect because I’ve designed great things. If I’m a great builder, that’s fine. But if my price is too much, they won’t come to me.

You’ve established scholarships at AFI in the US, and at AFTRS. Supporting Australian talent and local emerging filmmakers is a passion of yours and your wife Kiera O’Neill. One of Gentle Giant’s aims is to give back to the industry you came from. Can you tell us about why that’s important to you?

I’ve been doing that for years. We’ve got a scholarship at AFI, a scholarship at AFTRS and at Village Roadshow we always had internships. And when I moved to America, we started an intern program first for Screen Australia, and then through Australians In Film to have an Australian working at our offices. Yesterday, I met a young man who came to see me and said, “I just want to thank you for helping me get into the film industry. I was an intern at Village Roadshow Pictures in early 2012. I saw you a couple of times, but you were always away”. He said, “I was at AFTRS. I got the internship via Screen Australia”. And this guy’s now at a production company that’s done some really cool stuff. That’s part of my own, and my wife’s whole philosophy in life. It has always been “X percent has to go back into the community”, and we focused on education. We ran a program at Museum Victoria that brought in 6000 kids into the museum that couldn’t otherwise get there because they couldn’t afford the bus fare from school. And a few other programs like that. So, it’s great being able to take that philosophy and marry it with the skills that you have and the contacts that you have, or the reputation you build up, and put it back in a holistic manner. It’s paying it forward. You do what you can.

How has the business changed in the time you started your almost two-decade run as co-founder of Village Roadshow Entertainment Group?  

We made The Matrix here in 1998. Apart from the fact that you saw the Westpac tower in Sydney in the film, which only Australians would notice, it could have been anywhere in the world. We made The Great Gatsby here in Sydney. And there wasn’t a single frame shot outside of Sydney. It was Baz and his team at the Fox Studios. And mainly, but not completely, it was Animal Logic creating the mansion. Although stars help get audiences to films, what has changed is, stories have become much, much more key to the success of films.

Because of the immediacy of the internet, you know today, not on a Monday morning anymore, whether the movie was any good. Not even on the Saturday morning. In America we release on a Friday, which means a lot of films are released at 7:00 or 7:30pm on the Thursday night, in limited runs. If the session starts at seven, you know how well it’ll do by half past seven. It’s much more important to have a storyline in marketing. But cinema is not dead. Cinema is well and truly alive. I was telling someone today; I think this year will be the third best year at the box office in the US ever. It’s top five. And it’ll go up and down every year depending on the product. Yes, it’s much more binary than it used to be. A film works, or it doesn’t work, but you’ve got to pay much more attention to what audiences want. You’ve got to make content that audiences want to consume if you want them to consume it in the theatres. You’ve got to make the sort of product that they want to go to see. Look at The Joker. The Joker, in our wildest imagination when we greenlit that film, if someone had said to me, “Greg, that will do $400 million globally”. I would have gone “buy me out now”. And it wasn’t that we didn’t have any confidence in it. It’s going to do over a billion dollars, it is going to be the biggest R-rated movie of all time. That’s because they ended up making a movie that everybody wanted to see. And they want to see it because of the quality of the movie. Because it was that different. Today, there are so many platforms. It’s fantastic. It means we’re catering for every taste. And people are consuming more. And they’re prepared to pay for it.

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