South Australia has attracted the best global minds to help businesses rise to the challenge of evolving technology, opening doors to future-focused careers.
Home to some of the world’s most innovative leaders in screen industry production, technology and visual effects, it’s no wonder global entertainment companies like Disney and Marvel have South Australia on their speed-dial.
For a small city on the other side of the world from the bright lights of Hollywood, Adelaide really does punch above its weight for screen industry impact.
But what is it about Adelaide that makes it easier for creatives to make their big ideas global?
We spoke to South Australian screen industry entrepreneurs Kirsty Stark, Rory McGregor and Jennie Zeiher about making their mark on the world from the comfort of a life well lived in a new state of mind.
Kirsty Stark, Producer at Epic Films and Founder of CrewHQ
Emmy Award winning producer Kirsty Stark sees herself as an agent of change, and she can’t think of a better place to make a difference than South Australia.
Not only does her screen career include such acclaimed credits as ABC series First Day and Stateless, and feature film A Month of Sundays, but she’s the entrepreneurial energy behind screen industry start-up CrewHQ, and co-chair of Adelaide’s The Mercury, which provides support to emerging South Australian filmmakers.
“My whole career has been here in South Australia and I just don’t think I could have achieved as much anywhere else,” the 40 under 40 success story says.
“I wrote a blog post about why I love working in Adelaide several years ago, and it still rings true. I think it’s the lifestyle that enables us to be creative.
“Starting out I had friends in the industry who moved interstate and they had to work back to back jobs just to pay the rent, while I was living in a share house in Parkside just minutes from the city paying next to nothing – it allowed me to be braver, take bigger risks, and ultimately get more creative.”
Kirsty got into the screen industry after an exchange student trip to Colorado, where she was able to volunteer at the Aspen Film Festival.
“I immediately knew that was what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “After I finished school I enrolled in a Bachelor of Creative Arts at Flinders. I started in the camera department on Oranges and Sunshine and Snowtown, and also started to shoot my own short projects.
“Then I realised that I wanted more input into the types of stories that were being told on screen, so started Epic Films with some friends. That gave me a chance to go from being behind the camera, to production.”
After working on several online series, it was Kirsty’s production work on ABC children’s TV series First Day that took her career to new, global heights.
“First Day was a concept developed by Sydney based writer Julie Kalceff about a twelve year old transgender girl Hannah Bradford as she navigates her first year of high school,” Kirsty said. “Julie and I knew of each other but had never had the chance to work together. She was the writer and director and I was the producer.”
After its initial success as a single episode, First Day received funding from Screen Australia, the South Australian Film Corporation and Australian Children’s Television Foundation funding to be developed as a four part mini-series for ABC TV in 2019. A second series was also funded and released last year.
The series won a string of awards across 2020 and 2021, including a GLAAD Media Award and an International Kids Emmy Award, after gaining attention in the United States following its release on Hulu. Season two, which Kirsty produced with SA producer Kate Butler of KOJO Studios, was nominated for a second Emmy at the inaugural Children’s and Family Emmy Awards in 2022.
“From Wastelander Panda, the very first project I produced for Writer/Director Victoria Cocks, being part of the South Australian film community has always played a big part in my success,” Kirsty says. “The access to other filmmakers, the opportunity to collaborate and the mentorship we got for our projects from other industry people in Adelaide was awesome.
“We get some of the biggest stars working here in Adelaide because we have unique filming locations and a long history of international success. Take Sophie Hyde who won the Best Director award at Sundance before making Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, to Danny and Michael Philippou’s current release Talk To Me, which opened at #5 at the US box-office behind Barbie and Oppenheimer. We really do make waves from here.”
Kirsty’s latest venture, CrewHQ, again grew out of an industry need to connect and celebrate community. CrewHQ is billed as a one stop shop for screen production companies to search for freelance film and television crew across Australia, whilst supporting crew on their career pathways through the industry.
“A film or TV project is a multimillion dollar production and you really have to work hard to track down the right people, find the right crew and get recommendations. It’s a really frustrating process from my own perspective as a producer. There wasn’t a one stop shop for that information in SA. Then I realised that it was something that could be created online and have a national reach.
“We’ve only been live for a few months and we have listings for over 900 crew already.”
In her attempt to support the film industry and community further, Kirsty has been a fierce advocate for the rebirth of South Australian screen industry support organisation the Mercury, which also incorporates the boutique Mercury Cinema. The non-profit organisation is funded by the South Australian Film Corporation to provide support to the emerging screen sector through funding and training programs.
“The Mercury is the only cinema and screen organisation in SA that provides curated film screenings, mentoring, filmmaking equipment and facilities, as well as workshops and a script club.
“It was under threat of closing in November last year when a group of us from the industry decided it was too precious to close. I’m one of the Board Co-Chairs now, and we have just launched our new subscription model.”
For just $25 a month filmmakers and film lovers can watch all the films they want and have access to film equipment, production facilities and workshops.
“I’ve always been inclined towards building a community and have done a lot of mentoring and run industry workshops. The Mercury helped me so much as I came up through the ranks, so supporting the next wave of talent in SA is important to me.” Kirsty says.
“I think SA is of a size where you can interact with many different people and many different industry sectors, which feeds a lot of creativity and a lot of purpose.
“The film industry is definitely expanding, it’s a really exciting time to be working in film in SA. When I came out of Uni in 2007 there hadn’t been a locally created feature film made here in years, and now there are so many local writers and directors doing incredible work. We can only build from here.”
Jennie Zeiher, President, Rising Sun Pictures
It’s impossible to have a discussion about the South Australian screen industry without mentioning Rising Sun Pictures (RSP).
The visual effects company, headquartered in Adelaide, was established in 1995 by co-founders Tony Clark, Wayne Lewis and Gail Fuller, who named it after the Rising Sun Inn at Kensington, the site of their first board meeting.
Since then, their client list has become a Hollywood red carpet of big names: Disney, Marvel Studios, Warner Bros., Netflix, 20th Century Studios, Amazon and MGM, among many others.
Jennie Zeiher is Rising Sun Pictures’ President and oversees the day-to-day operations and strategic direction of the business, including locations in Adelaide and Brisbane.
SA born and bred, Jennie went to school locally, studied IT and then short courses at AFTRS before moving to Melbourne to work in production. In 2004, Jennie moved to the US and for the next four years had a successful career in immersive theatre.
Lured back to Adelaide, she returned to work at Rising Sun Pictures, which was gaining a reputation as a major player in the VFX industry.
“I started at RSP as a production coordinator, and I remember a Producer telling me that it was a backward step for me,” she comments. “But I stuck in there and over the last 15 years, I’ve moved from production to sales and marketing and now to President. I’ve learnt to never think a role is beneath you, it’s all valuable experience,” she says.
In 2017 Jennie was awarded a scholarship for an MBA at the University of South Australia, and is also a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD), which led her to also take on a board position at Ausfilm.
Her broader understanding of the film industry and her strategic and methodical approach to management has helped cement the award-winning business as a global visual effects powerhouse and a valued Australian success story.
“Thanks to the experience I gained in my previous roles, I know all the nuances of production and the importance and complexity of securing work. You can’t take your eye off the ball,” she says.
Rising Sun Pictures has tripled its revenue in three years and has a crew of 360 working on as many as 14 different projects at once, and Jennie is quick to point out that this is no small-town picture studio.
“We were the second lead vendor on Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,delivering more than 300 complex visual effects shots for the film over the course of a year,” she says.
“RSP has contributed spectacular images to more than 200 projects, including Thor: Love and Thunder, Elvis, The Flash, Antman & The Wasp: Quantumania, Star Wars: Andor & Ahsoka, Loki season 2, and not yet released The Marvels, Nautilus and One Piece, to name just a few.”
So why is this international film executive living in Adelaide rather than Rodeo Drive?
“I don’t have to deal with LA traffic!” she says. “It only takes me ten minutes to get to work, we are walking distance to the kids’ schools, and we live in a vibrant, culturally rich city that also has a hometown feel.”
Part of the Pitch Black group of companies which is headquartered in Canada, Jennie says the time zone differences with her colleagues and clients can be challenging but the flexibility of her life in Adelaide makes it all worth it.
“I don’t ever want to move from Adelaide. In the past, I’ve been asked to move to Sydney, but it’s not for me. I like having a house with a big yard, where we can have the local kids over and they can ride their bikes around the neighbourhood. In Adelaide, you can have it all.” Jennie says.
“Adelaide is also a hub for innovation, which is in our company’s DNA. It is one of the reasons RSP is so successful.” she says. “And to remain relevant, you must continue to innovate otherwise you will be left behind.”
Five years ago, the state government granted RSP access to two post-doctoral researchers from the Australian Institute of Machine Learning – a collaboration so successful it led to RSP hiring the two post-doctoral researchers, and adding a Machine Learning division to their team.
“We are doing some of the most innovative work in the world. By combining the best of ML technology with first-class creativity, we are producing the highest quality outputs, and as a result, are in high demand by our clients.”
This kind of innovation was born through the support of the state government.
“We have a community where relationships between government and industry are close enough that we can make change happen – it creates a very innovative environment.”
Another example has been RSP’s involvement in structuring visual effects tertiary education. In partnership with the University of South Australia, it delivers undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in visual effects.
“It’s important that we continue to train and develop the next generation of VFX artists who can be retained both in SA and nationally. It’s imperative for a healthy industry to have a constant source of new talent, it not only helps grow our capacity and capability locally, but it also fuels innovation,” Jennie says.
“Due to the demand, we recently expanded our VFX offerings by adding three additional programs. The new Bachelor of Visual Effects degree is one of the only university-delivered programs where students train onsite at a world-class studio, gain practical skills and receive mentoring and career advice.
There’s also a financial incentive for the film industry to do business in SA.
“Australian projects receive an enticing 30% federal rebate and the South Australian Government provides an additional 10% state rebate on top of that, managed by the South Australian Film Corporation, which really helps us secure work and continue to make South Australia a state that produces world class visual effects,” Jennie says.
“Filmmakers look for decent rebates and a good exchange rate and they’ve usually made up their mind when they come to us. South Australia just makes sense financially, technically and creatively. We used to have to go and source the work and now they’re coming to us.
“It’s in my entrepreneurial nature to always be on the cutting edge, I don’t want to fall behind, I want to be ahead of the wave and Adelaide is certainly the best place to do that.”
Rory McGregor, CEO Cospective
Rising Sun Pictures isn’t just a place where films are plaited and polished – it has a long history of fermenting ideas into world class technology.
Rory McGregor is the CEO of Cospective, a start-up that grew out of RSP to now be lauded as makers of the most innovative remote collaboration software for the global film industry.
“I started my career in audio, initially working with bands, but quickly switching to film,” Rory says. “I began as an assistant at the South Australian Film Corporation helping to manage the sound mixing facility, and ended up as Head of Studio Services, while working as a sound engineer on a range of film and TV productions.
“At the same time, I remained close with a group of friends from high school, who ended up at Rising Sun Pictures. They had started developing some tools for enabling remote collaboration and were starting to commercialise them through a sister company Rising Sun Research.
“I joined Rising Sun Research to help commercialise a product called cineSync, which synchronises playback of high quality media in multiple locations at the same time. It’s essentially a tool for the remote review and approval of work in progress, and it’s since become an industry standard in high end VFX and post production – so much so that we’ve won both an Emmy and Academy Award for cineSync’s contribution to film and TV worldwide.”
Since then, cineSync has gone on to become the industry standard for remote collaboration and the review of visual effects, used in hundreds of film and TV productions from Christopher Nolan sci-fi features Inception and Interstellar, to Marvel blockbusters like Thor: Ragnarok and Iron Man, and HBO hit Game of Thrones.
“We’ve worked with Marvel on the very first Iron Man film, and cineSync has been used on every Marvel production since,” Rory said.
“We’ve developed some specific features for Marvel productions and have a good relationship with a number of their key personnel. cineSync was even featured in a Microsoft Surface commercial with Marvel senior executive Victoria Alonso.
“cineSync was also used extensively on Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul and a wide range of TV productions. Christopher Nolan (Oppenheimer, Inception, The Dark Knight) used cineSync heavily on all his films, and was one of the industry members who recommended cineSync for the Academy Award.
“Probably my favourite moment was when David Lynch – an absolute cinematic hero of mine – bought a cineSync account on his personal credit card for the most recent Twin Peaks TV series.”
Rising Sun Research changed its name to Cospective in 2013 and Rory took over as CEO. They soon merged with a Swedish software company called ftrack, and were then acquired by a US company called Backlight, which has enabled Cospective to expand the Australian team and push into new markets, while retaining its base in Adelaide.
“Adelaide’s such a great base, it’s a very liveable city, with good infrastructure. We’re surrounded by film makers and companies focusing on production and post production technologies, so there’s always an energy and sense of collaboration,” he says.
“Adelaide is a long way from the centre of Hollywood and sometimes it’s easy to forget just how many folks in Los Angeles (and Vancouver, Montreal, London and so on) rely on our technology.
“If there was a major positive out of the pandemic, it was the breaking down of all barriers to international collaboration.”
“Location is no longer a real issue for employment or opportunity – now it’s a question of lifestyle. If we can work “in Hollywood” without having to deal with LA traffic, then that’s ideal! Adelaide has great weather, great wine districts, the Adelaide Hills are beautiful and the city is easy to navigate. I feel like Adelaide is starting to lose its conservative image and events like the Festival and Fringe have really helped drive that new creative vibe.”
Rory says he’s also seen a shift in recent years, with the SA film industry becoming bolder and more self-assured.
“SA – and Australia in general – has arguably had a history of feeling overwhelmed by Hollywood. How can our little films compete? We now have South Australian-based productions like Mortal Kombat opening at Number One at the US box office. Now they have to compete with us,” he says.
“If we can maintain that boldness – and I definitely think we can – and maintain our momentum through remaining bold, then there’s really no limit for us.“