Op ed: Roy Billing on imported actors

16 September, 2014 by Roy Billing

For nearly 40 years I have had an enjoyable and successful career as an actor. While I hope this will continue, I worry that Actors’ Equity seems to be impeding the growth and development of the Australian film and television sector, where most of my work comes from. I have been an Equity member for all my career.

Until my recent resignation, I was an elected member of the National Performers’ Committee (NPC) of the Equity division of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance trade union.

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The NPC’s regular meetings, chaired by Equity President Simon Burke, are supposed to discuss “leading industrial and professional issues and the best course of action to take to ensure a strong and vibrant entertainment industry and a safe and fair workplace for performers.” As an ex-insider, I am not convinced that the NPC’s interpretation of “the best course of action” is necessarily in the best interests of Australian performers nor the entertainment industry, particularly in the areas of film and television, the two sectors where actors earn the most money.

Equity doesn’t appear to have a “big picture” view of the Australian screen industry and its potential future. Perhaps that reflects the current makeup of the NPC, where not many seem to have pursued ongoing careers in screen. The structure and economics of theatre and musicals are very different from those of film & television production. Sure, Equity representatives tag along with industry delegations to Parliament to lobby on screen industry matters but, I believe, their focus is more one of self-interest than the overall well-being of the industry we work in. A prime example, and one of great concern to those who actually try to make films and TV drama, and possibly one of the the biggest hurdles to growth in our screen sector, is Equity’s stance on the importation of foreign actors.

There are current Government guidelines on the entry into Australia of foreign actors for employment in film and TV productions with Government funding. A producer’s ablity to cast foreign actors is based on the percentage of foreign investment in that production.

http://arts.gov.au/sites/default/files/film-tv/foreign/film-foreign-actors-guidelines.pdf

It is supposed to be about protecting Australian jobs for Australian actors. The guidelines allow for exceptional cases where for example, an actor is required to be of a certain ethnicity or speak a certain language. The NPC is the body that makes decisions on what constitutes exceptional cases, and I have been at meetings where imports have been both refused, and allowed. Having distanced myself from union decision making, my position on this matter has now changed and I wonder whether these guidelines are now appropriate for us as part of a global industry, and whether they still serve the best interests of performers.

Getting a film or TV production financed takes years of hard work. Australian producers typically combine a mix of State and Federal funding with private investment. No two productions are the same, but some private money is almost always essential. Securing private investment from Australian or overseas sources is the hardest part of this difficult exercise. Private investors, while knowing such ventures involve risk, will be more assured if they know some of the cast in a production are well known and “bankable.”

We now have a considerable number of bankable performers native to this country. Not just the Geoffreys and the Cates, but the large number of other Aussie actors who have built their reputations with work in US and UK films and television series. But these people are not always available, nor appropriate for a role. So producers or their investors may want to hire one or two names from overseas. Producers who apply for imports under exceptional cases on financing grounds are often knocked back by the union. A local actor must be cast, but the film may then not have the same commercial viability it would have had with an internationally known actor. Or, another scenario …the film may not go ahead and years of work will be wasted.

A former high ranking MEAA union official once posited the theory that if a Government subsidised film fell over, after private investment was withdrawn due to the producer’s inability to cast a foreign actor, it didn’t matter because the government subsidies would just flow into another film. This is a very naïve position as the private investment will certainly not automatically transfer.

Surely it would be better overall for local actors if there were more productions, especially feature films, happening in Australia than at present. While I know this is a radical notion for performers to get their heads around, imagine what the situation could be if the Guidelines were relaxed to allow more foreign actors to work in Australia. After all Aussies are working all over the world – why be so protective about our own patch? No one is going to cast a small Australian film with an all-foreign cast, as the cost would be prohibitive, and Aussie actors in general have such a great reputation that most roles would go to locals anyway.

We actors need to look past what I consider to be the narrow thinking of our union and its current leadership, and our own selfishness, and consider the added work opportunities that more production would give to crew, production staff, writers, editors, publicists, accountants, designers, composers, directors and that myriad group of workers whose names appear in the credits at the end of a film. We work in a collaborative industry. Why should a small group representing the views of just one sector of that industry, such as the Equity National Performers’ Committee, have the power to potentially kill off a film?

The decision on importing foreign performers could be one that is made collectively by representatives of all industry guilds and organisations. Such decisions could be under the jurisdiction of the Ministry for the Arts, which has an overall perception of what is good for the industry as a whole. Recently, in the wider interests of the industry, I believe the Ministry has overturned some NPC decisions banning foreign imports and allowed the actors into the country anyway.

Nobody in the industry would dispute that we want more film production, creating more work for all. With Government funding to the screen sector decreasing, film makers are relying more and more on private investment, so everything possible needs to be done to encourage this. Including relaxing restrictions on the importation of foreign actors.

We work in a global industry. Maybe it is high time that Australian performers acknowledged that with pride, sloughed off old ways of thinking, and started to help build a much larger local screen industry.

Appendix…(from MEAA website) Current NPC membership and stated aims

NATIONAL PERFORMERS COMMITTEE


The National Performers Committee comprises professional performers from Australia and New Zealand. Selected by members of Actors' Equity in a secret ballot, the National Performers Committee represents their fellow performers on the issues affecting their industry. At regular meetings the Committee discusses leading industrial and professional issues and the best course of action to take to ensure a strong and vibrant entertainment industry and a safe and fair workplace for performers. The current committee follows.
Patricia Amphlett (MEAA federal president), Simon Burke (Equity federal president), Monica Main (federal vice president), Corinne Grant (federal vice president), Jennifer Ward-Lealand (NZ president), Tina Bursill (NSW president), Abbe Holmes (VIC president), Patrick Frost (SA/NT president), Stuart Halusz (WA president) , Chloe Dallimore (NSW vice president), Bert Labonte (VIC vice president), Kerith Atkinson (QLD vice president) , Robyn Arthur, Amanda Bishop, Mitchell Butel, Helen Dallimore, Matt Day, Alan Fletcher, Elizabeth Hay, Glenn Hazeldine, Jeff Szusterman, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Robert Jago, Jason Klarwein, Lorna Lesley, Liam McIlwain, Jonathan Mill, Geoff Morrell, Gus Murray and Fiona Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Phil Avalon

    What a breath of fresh air.
    Roy in his letter absolutely understands how difficult it is to finance a film.
    He is right, we need to look at the BIG PICTURE, if casting a NAME that is non Australian but is a necessary part of the finance, why would there be an issue?
    CASTING is often the key to the financing of a film.
    Our actors are now working globally, its a global industry. The big picture is, the more films shot here give all our talent – in front & behind the lens, work.
    As Roy says, a low budget Australian movie isn’t going to cast Brad Pitt – who would be taking the role that could be played by an OZ actor. Its common sense. The production couldn’t afford him.
    Well said Roy, I hope people in the right places are listening.

  • denise roberts

    Maybe the guidelines should be relaxed. We need to join the global market and think outside the square. It’s called Showbusiness for a reason. What’s the point of making films if no-one’s going to distribute them or watch them.

  • Alison Telford

    Well said Roy. This is a very relevant discussion that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Your points are all very valid and real.

  • Nick Hamon

    So bloody well said Roy Billing. Yes. I also hope that the right people are listening.

  • Roger Lanser

    The distributors want faces on posters and names in magazines which puts bums on seats. Roy has said it really, an Aussie as James Bond,an Aussie as Peter Sellers,an Aussie as Kathrine Hepburn, an Aussie as Noah for gods sake but not an American as Peter Lalor or James Packer or Germaine Greer.

  • DR

    Well said Roy!

    I’m an Australian expat with a good career working in Los Angeles in film and TV. Part of the reason I’m here and not in Sydney (my favorite city in the world) is the sort of small minded, tall poppy, local thinking that Roy is talking about.

    I’ve been in a position to bring numerous productions back to Australia over the last few years and (with few exceptions) have found this negative attitude from Australian film makers and vendors to be a prime reason why it remains difficult to do so.

    I’ve often wanted to say “wake up Australia!” but felt like no one was listening. In LA in particular, there is so much choice and (as a result) exemplary customer service in all parts of the film making process for film makers. When compared to the lazy (government hand out driven attitude) Australian way of thinking, LA looks easier every time. What a shame.

  • DR

    Well said Roy!

    I’m an Australian expat with a good career working in Los Angeles in film and TV. Part of the reason I’m here and not in Sydney (my favorite city in the world) is the sort of small minded, tall poppy, local thinking that Roy is talking about.

    I’ve been in a position to bring numerous productions back to Australia over the last few years and (with few exceptions) have found this negative attitude from Australian film makers and vendors to be a prime reason why it remains difficult to do so.

    I’ve often wanted to say “wake up Australia!” but felt like no one was listening. In LA in particular, there is so much choice and (as a result) exemplary customer service in all parts of the film making process for film makers. When compared to the lazy (government hand out driven attitude) Australian way of thinking, LA looks easier every time. What a shame.

  • Tracey Robertson

    So beautifully said Roy – I cannot agree more with you. We are working in LA right now and getting a very good understanding of the international business. We are trying very hard to bring production back to Australia and one of my biggest fears, is that this will not work if we do not allow the studios we are working with to have a level of comfort by allowing the actors they want to cast. Believe me, Australian talent is hot on the lips of everyone internationally. It is so important, if we are to grow our business in Australia by encouraging international production, that we look at these issues now and become a lot more in tune with the marketplace.

  • Steve Jacobs

    Totally agree Roy! I was the victim of this unfair and subjective process that has no understanding of the way certain films have to be financed. I had a project which Equity forced me to go through an absurd national acting search to find an Australian to play the lead because I wanted to bring in an overseas actor who I knew was right for the role and would complete the finance. The search cost money and wasted the time of the poor actors auditioning and the filmmakers. As I predicted I found no one the investors would support. I then resubmitted my overseas choice and was told the actor I wanted wasn’t considered good enough to be allowed in. The film folded. The actor’s name was – Rik Mayall.

    At around the same time a couple of other Australian films got Equity approval to bring in some B grade actors from America. There was no hassle, no fuss and no national acting search was required.

    I resigned from the union.

  • Richie

    Interesting that Roy only had this epiphany after he left his position at Equity. He accuses the NPC of being self-serving but I suspect Roy has his own agenda here. As for the issue, the guidelines set the amount of private finance that is required before a producer can cast overseas talent. Certainly the level at which this threshold is set should be discussed by industry stakeholders. But I don’t see why a film that is primarily funded by taxpayer money (as most Australian films are) should not be required to employ Australian actors in the lead roles. The Government does not invest in film because they want to be film moguls – they invest in order to encourage a local industry of directors, designers, writer and ACTORS. Yes, actors have as much right to benefit from that taxpayer money as the producers do. It makes me laugh when Australian film producers portray themselves as private entrepreneurs who are being hamstrung by Equity. Reality check: most Australian films are made entirely with “government handouts”. When a film has a significant amount of private investment, you will suddenly find that you are a lot freer to cast overseas talent. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AUSTRALIAN FILMS AND US FILMS IS THAT US FILMS ARE MADE ENTIRELY WITH PRIVATE MONEY, NOT TAXPAYERS’ MONEY.

  • Richie

    Indulge me one more point: I’d like to point out that Roy’s long career as a jobbing actor has been underpinned by these guidelines that mandate Australian actors in fully taxpayer funded films and in television shows that make up the Australian production quota. The guidelines enable actors to live and work in Australia and have the added bonus of creating local stars for producers to cast. Without the guidelines, I imagine international jobbing actors like Timothy Spall and Bob Hoskins would have relished many of Roy’s roles and perhaps he never would have gained the Underbelly fame which now seems to make him feel comfortable enough to scrap the guidelines for the next generation.

  • Richie

    My bad – I have one more thing to say. This whole issue is such a furphy anyway. Australian films don’t fail at the box office because there aren’t enough American stars in them. December Boys had Harry Potter in it and you couldn’t give tickets away. Let’s take a recent example: Animal Kingdom had an all Australian cast and killed it at the box office. Michod’s follow up film, The Rover, had an international Twilight movie star in it and has been a box office dud. WHY? IT’S THE SCRIPT. Australian producers should spend more time and money developing their scripts and less time trying to spend taxpayer money on b-grade international actors.

  • Mark

    Interesting that Richie chooses to suggest that Roy is doing this as retaliation after he left equity. Care to elaborate what reason would that be? Because I don’t see Sue McCreadies name mentioned in his Op-ed so… it’s gotta be something else, right??

    Sorry Richie, but you forget that there is also such as thing as having the humility and wisdom to learn from ones errors of judgement in the past. A quality any person of intelligence would posses. Having met Roy in person a few times, I assure you that my first impression of him was that he is indeed an intelligent and open-minded gentleman. Everyone here would agree to that, even the NPC. Small mindedness nor agendas don’t seem to be his cup of tea

  • Reality check

    “Reality check: most Australian films are made entirely with “government handouts” “……… Do you have stats on that Richie?