If I was asked to choose a highlight from the past twenty-four years in Bowen I mightn’t end up picking the six weeks or so in 2007 when Baz Luhrmann, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and almost every Australian actor of any significance were in town, along with somewhere between ten and thirty thousand visitors over a six-week period, but it’s not the sort of thing you’d immediately rule out of contention.
We’ll never really know exactly how many visitors there were, since the methods that were used to get an indication of numbers were haphazard to say the least, and on what was probably the busiest day there was only one person on hand to try to count the visitors.
The fact that the movie was being shot made a lot of people turn off the highway or plan day trips to the set and they brought a hell of a lot of money into the town on top of the millions spent by the film crew.
Admittedly, where the money landed was far from uniform, and quite a bit of it probably went straight out of town again, but the catering bill alone would have been staggering and there were all sorts of other items of expenditure down to Ms Kidman’s evening fish and chips.
More particularly, particularly in the first couple of days, the filming generated the sort of publicity that money can’t buy.
If you were to look for a reason for the whole thing, you wouldn’t need to go too far past the fact that Baz Luhrmann found about three hectares of open space beside a wharf when all he’d been looking for was a jetty.
Of course, there were other factors involved, but if the vacant land hadn’t been there the bits that were supposed to represent downtown Darwin in the late thirties and early forties would probably have been constructed on a sound stage at Fox Studios in Sydney.
That more or less explains why it happened, but what lessons can be drawn from the experience?
For a start, if one particular building project had gone ahead it wouldn’t have happened at all because there would have been a block of units on top of the land that was used for the cattle yards.
That’s not to suggest that we should avoid construction projects because we might get movie sets instead. Far from it. As far as anyone can tell, what happened on that block at the bottom of Herbert Street is something unique in the history of the Australian film industry, and it’s something that, more than likely, will never be repeated.
On the other hand it does suggest that once you put a building on a block of land it becomes a commercial, industrial or residential site. Up until that happens, the block of land could, temporarily, be anything.
It has been suggested that there’s are plenty of people in the local community who regard a vacant block of land as wasted until it has been sold to somebody and a building has been erected on it. Around Bowen there is a lot of vacant land that people would like to put buildings on.
On the other hand, if substantial chunks of that land are kept vacant there just might, at some time in the future, be a previously-unforeseen temporary usage that could turn out to be very rewarding.