Byron Backdrop Blues

October 4th, 2021

Last year Byron hosted quite a few film and TV shoots.  Last month I wrote on how some of these productions were now available on the platforms and ready for viewing. There were some issues and occasional problems with these shoots but in general, people seemed to be OK with it. The mood and level of tolerance changed last month when a crew member on a reality TV show shut down the Byron and Tweed shires because of not following Covid protocols.

REAL FILM OR REALITY TV

The number of reality TV shows basing themselves here is daunting.  The first one was the Netflix show about the influencers – Byron Baes. The flack over that show forced the production company, and its screening platform Netflix,  to shoot mainly in Ballina. Channel 9’s primetime series The Block, about teams of couples competing over renovations, is set to start shooting episodes in Sunrise Beach. There is also Love Island shooting in Federal, as well as Byron Buys about the crazy real estate market, also for Ch 9, in the pipeline.

Then we had the lockdown debacle. Byron, Tweed and Kyogle shires were shut down in September. A crew member from the Reality TV show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, which films outside Murwillumbah, went off-script. The 31-year-old make-up artist breached public health orders and went drinking and cruising with friends before testing positive for Covid. The woman has been charged and will face Tweed Heads court in November.

Recrimination Island

The fallout came close to derailing another reality program about to start. The filming of Love Island, a dating show hosted by Sophie Monk, was delayed a week but is now going to air. It is being filmed outside of Federal in a luxury home that had a specially built set on site. Interim Mayor Michael Lyon tried to pull the approval of the shoot.

As if that was not enough drama, another reality TV show was about to go into production called Byron Buys, about real estate agents and rich, entitled property buyers, maneuvering in “the crazy Byron real estate market.” It will be featuring Sydney agents from a previous show called Luxe Listings Sydney. A few locals agents I have talked to were approached about but wanted nothing to do with it.

FINDING BALANCE

Before becoming a property buyer’s agent, I spent over 20 years in the film and TV industry. I was a documentary producer/director and made many hours of international programming for ABC, SBS, commercial and international networks. I still have a toe in the industry when I am called on to do location search work.

Whenever I do location search work I am surprised by the degree of animosity towards the film industry. Of course, there are many people thrilled with the idea of having their home or venue immortalised on digital or celluloid. Most people who have already had any experience with a film shoot usually don’t want to do it again. Basically, the glitter and stardust wear off pretty fast.

No Control

It looks like the local film industry does not want to face the issue of pushback by local residents. The reality is local council has next to zero ability to control or regulate film and TV shoots. The industry prefers to make hay while the sun shines which is understandable. There would be plenty of other LGAs that are prepared to open their venues and locations and benefit from the injection of funds it creates.

This area has the highest number of cast and crew professionals outside of Sydney and Melbourne. Screenworks is a local arts organisation set up to support and encourage the local film and TV industry. I am a member and it is a very successful organisation and operates completely independent of any government grants.  However, I think it is ignoring a growing negative sentiment within the wider community at its peril.

The statewide policy is for local councils to generally allow and approve filming.  A local council only has authority when production requires road closures, parking or it has an environmental impact – as can be seen here in the local BSC guidelines. In reality, there is very little a local council to do to veto or influence these productions. However, if it is longer than 30 days, it then needs the approval of the NSW Planning Minister. The minister has said it would not allow filming if it did not have the support of the council but that is yet to be seen in reality. The full NSW Filming Protocols can be seen here.

Bashing the Brand

The main problem is there are two different kinds of productions. Creative film and TV shoots that are scripted, have long schedules, employ a large number of local people and bring a big bonus to the economy. Nicole Kidman’s Nine Perfect Strangers had a $100 mil budget for example. Then we have the reality TV programs that just us as a backdrop, have FIFO crews and cast and are generally just using Byron as a flashy backdrop.

There is no doubt that the Byron Bay brand is being exploited by these reality TV productions. It would be great to be able to encourage long-form drama while discouraging docu-soaps but unfortunately, there is no mechanism to distinguish between the two. There is also no ability to patent or copyright a place like Byron so it can be protected or at least provide royalties. This is being done with many products or foodstuffs like what France has done with patenting the term “champagne”. This cannot be done with places.

Overall, this is another symptom of Byron’s global fame and popularity. In a survey, well before Covid and the Hemsworths, Byron Bay registered third on incoming tourists place recognition – only being beaten by the Opera House and Uluru. Being used as a location backdrop is just another factor we have to manage. We are no longer a sleepy little surfy town and there is no going back.

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