In 2005, acclaimed Australian film director Baz Luhrmann donned an Akubra (that’s a kind of Aussie slouch hat) and drizabone (and that’s Aussie for riding coat) and saddled up for The Great Australian Cattle Drive, joining a team of drovers and enthusiastic city slickers to push 500 head of cattle down South Australia’s dusty Birdsville Track. The golden sunrises, the stark saltbush plains and the crack of the stockwhip clearly worked its magic—inspired by the experience, Luhrmann returned to his Sydney base to pen a new script, simply entitled "Australia".
Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman and set for worldwide release in November 2008, this epic Outback romance—the most expensive Australian movie ever made—is also the most anticipated local film in history, what Luhrmann himself calls “the Olympics of cinema.”
It’s an appropriate metaphor on many levels—in fact, Tourism Australia is pinning a whole marketing campaign on the film’s release, anticipating that it will capture what was last achieved during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games: global attention.
“The film industry has an amazing capacity to stimulate visitation," says Tourism Australia’s managing director Geoff Buckley. “You only have to look at movies like "Crocodile Dundee" here in Australia, "Lord of the Rings" in New Zealand, even "Harry Potter". Regardless of whether it succeeds at the box office, we’re anticipating that "Australia" will act as a catalyst, motivating people to travel here and experience it for themselves. You’ve seen the movie, now see the country—that’s what we believe will happen.”
Luhrmann’s film could not have come at a better time for the local tourism industry. Despite a record year in 2007, with 5.6 million visitors making their way Down Under, the sector has showed signs of stagnation in the first half of 2008, slowed by a booming Australian dollar, rising fuel costs and a downturn in the aviation industry.
Initial pessimism, however, appears to be passing: The controversial “where the bloody hell are you?” advertising campaign of 2007 (deemed a “rolled gold disaster” by Australia's Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd) has been dumped, replaced by a new $50 million global tourism campaign directed by none other than Baz Luhrmann, and aimed at evoking the spirit he felt while on location in the Kimberley wilderness during the making of the movie.
“Because I had to be on set early, I said I’ll stay one night,” Luhrmann said during the announcement of the campaign in July. “They put the van out and I never left for all of the five weeks we were there ... I remember thinking, no matter what the outcome of the film, this is what I’m looking for. I am still in this moment, that’s what this place can do for you.”
Of course, the Kimberley—located in the remote northeast corner of Western Australia—is a long way from anywhere, dictated by the seasons, expensive to get to and requiring a commitment of time. Most international visitors treat it either as a self-contained destination, or tack it onto a dedicated, longer-than-usual trip that includes visits to Sydney, the Red Centre, the Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland coast.
“Australia is a vast continent the size of America, and many people fail to understand that they can’t cover it all in one visit,” says Tourism Australia’s Geoff Buckley. “We’re trying to spread the message that visitors need to stay longer, or come back several times."
Beyond the tourism must-do's of Sydney, Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef, there are several amazing experiences that require the luxury of time: sailing in the Whitsundays, for instance, walking the Overland Track in Tasmania or cruising along the Great Ocean Road in a convertible, soaking up the views and contemplating the drama of the terrain.
“The beauty of Australia is that most of the essential experiences are not about destination—stunning though they may be—but about the emotional journey, about experiences that last beyond the moment and memories that last for a lifetime,” Buckley says.
It’s that sense of the grandeur of nature, the spirituality of distance and place that Luhrmann hopes to capture in his movie and the subsequent tourism campaign.
“The film is not didactically about this country, " he told journalists when announcing the movie’s title. "The title represents the main character’s journey, her state of mind… When you say "Casablanca" or "Oklahoma!" it means big. It means vast ... I’m not saying this film is Australia. It’s a metaphor for a state of mind, for the faraway.”