The chorus of voices calling for a review of the process for approving imported actors in Australian taxpayer-funded film and TV productions is growing louder.

Actor Roy Billing reignited the debate in his Op Ed piece for IF when he asked his union Actors’ Equity to ease the restrictions on foreign actors.

Billing argued that allowing more overseas actors to work here would boost production, creating more work for actors, crew, directors and writers. He suggested decisions on importing actors should be made collectively by representatives of all industry guilds and organisations.

Today Billing went even further, telling IF, “I think that Equity and their NPC (national performers committee) should be completely taken out of any decision-making regarding the importation of foreign actors."

The actor describes the support he has received from all sectors of the industry – producers, directors, casting agents, government film bureaucrats and even actors- as overwhelming.

“As I said in my piece the NPC is thin on the ground in terms of members with ongoing, current screen experience,” he said. “They are out of touch with screen industry concerns. The ineptness of their decision-making regarding foreign imports is becoming increasingly evident as more and more of their judgments refusing the employment of foreign actors are being overturned by the Ministry for the Arts. As a result, film and TV productions that might not have happened are creating work for all of us.”

In response to Billing’s opinion piece, Equity director Zoe Angus wrote an Op Ed, defending the guidelines as balancing the needs of producers with those of actors as well as reflecting the role taxpayer funds play in underpinning Australia’s film industry and the responsibilities of broadcasters.

Those guidelines "will allow the Cates, Geoffreys and Russells of the future to first forge a career at home," she said, adding, “Importantly, Equity’s role is consultative, not determinative.”

Angus said, “It has never been easy to finance productions that are unlikely to recoup their budgets in their home market. We understand and sympathise with this, but allowing the importation of more foreign actors isn’t a magic bullet.”

Those arguments do not wash with Billing, who said, “If the guidelines are relaxed this doesn't mean that Oz actors won't get lead roles. As any agent will tell you actors are much more proactive these days and the new path to Hollywood success is for actors to go to the US and audition for roles. The success rate is obvious to anyone who knows what is going on.”

Among the actors who support Billing, Les Hill said, “The protectionist attitude is smothering our industry. Equity is in danger of choking itself to death, and indeed the future of young (and not so young) performers chances to work on many more productions.

“There is no reason why productions should not be able to enhance their co-production opportunities by using well known international performers, and as such create a job that wouldn't exist otherwise. It is time to work with SPA to find a more suitable, and balanced approach to international performers' ratio on productions.””

Actor Steve Kearney, who was one half of the Australian comedy duo Los Trios Ringbarkus and is a lifetime Equity member, labelled Angus’ response as “sad union dogma."

Kearney said, “It would be great to hear some smart, commonsense solutions from the MEAA and not this vague head in the sand desperation, at least from time to time.“

Australian Directors Guild executive director Kingston Anderson called for more flexibility in the system of approving imported actors. He told IF, “Directors will always look first at casting top-line Australian actors but most are very busy and hard to get. If it means a project would fall over otherwise, directors should be allowed to cast a foreign actor.”

Producer Sue Milliken said, “I and my producer colleagues have spent a lifetime fighting for Australians to play the leads in Australian films. Only an idiot would go to the expense and aggravation of importing a foreign actor unnecessarily, and even more importantly we have the passion to want to build an industry for the people who live here and wish to work here and which reflects ourselves to the world.

"Sadly I have also spent a lifetime dealing with a long line of union representatives who bitter experience led me to believe were determined to make producers' lives as difficult as possible irrespective of the reality of the financing.

“Does any other industry have the same requirements for union approval of a short-term visa for an individual whose presence will guarantee millions of dollars to be spent in Australia on Australians? Commonsense has to prevail and it's time this perennial argument was resolved in a way that benefits, not inhibits, the local industry. I applaud Roy Billing's efforts to do."

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6 Comments

  1. Born free, that great song from the movie Born Free, sums it up. ‘Life is only worth living if you’re born free.’
    This includes a ‘free’ market for talent.
    Actors are called ‘stars’. They belong to the universe. Let them shine. Live and let be.

  2. WTF is wrong with you Aussies? You think you can impose “rules” on every situation, all while you’re economy is in free-fall and you government has no credibility anywhere.

    Maybe Hollywood should start “managing” the number of Aussie actors in US productions? If people like russell Crowe (yes, I know, a Kiwi) and others would work for reasonable rates, you could get more Aussies movies made.

    Not that anyone anywhere watches the shit you produce.

  3. Australian producers are keen to cast foreign actors in lead rolls in taxpayer funded films. Well, as an actor, I would be keen to allow foreign producers to apply for Screen Australia funding. Hollywood films have a much higher success rate than Australian films, surely it would be a benefit to our industry if experienced US producers were able to access our taxpayer funding directly and bring with them experienced and successful US directors and writers. These US producers would surely hire some local line producers and other such roles which would give valuable experience to Australian producers. I presume SPA would be on board?

  4. Duncan, Hollywood already does “manage” Aussies working in US productions. In order to work in Hollywood, Australians have to get a visa. In order to get a visa many hoops have to be jumped through, including getting a “Letter of non-objection” from the Actor’s Union, SAG-AFTRA.

    Anyway, Australian films are almost all entirely funded by the taxpayer which is why there are obligations attached to the money that Australian actors should be employed. US films are funded by private companies and so they have more leeway to cast any actor they choose.

  5. Im an actress and I have had two 3 year 01 American Visas and I didn’t have much trouble getting them at all. I also have many actor friends working in LA.

    To think that Australian films are almost entirely funded by the taxpayer is naive.
    State and Federal funding is only part of the investment mix in an Australian film. Private investment from producers and investors is always required. Anyone with any real knowledge of the screen industry here would know that, surely!

    And as an Australian taxpayer I want return for my money, as indeed the state and federal governments I would hope would want so too. If relaxing these guidelines will open the doors to private investment and international distribution it can only be a good thing for all the thousands of aussie actors out of work.

  6. Where you stand upon any issue tends to reflect where you sit. If a film producer has doubts about the quality and future success of the film that he/she is about to produce, then the idea of a big name(a money name)will allay two fears at once. It excites producers and gives your project a lustre of celebrity. It also has the side effect of enhancing one’s CV, and boosting one’s ego when next at dinner, talking about the funny thing that happened once when you were directing Tom Hanks. There may be another plus in the opportunity to learn something from a person who has greater film experience than oneself.

    Duncan Porter’s comment above says it all from an outsider’s point of view. Arrogant and rude though his comments may be, they contain a grain of truth.

    This argument about imported actors is nothing new to Australia. I started in this business 48 years ago, and the subject was hot then, as it was in the 70s the 80s and the 90s. It has been a pain in the side for film makers of all walks for many years, and guess what? Equity, Film Makers, actors, politicians all paid it lip service but did nothing about it, and here we are today singing the same old chorus.

    We still talk about world’s best practice, we look to Hollywood for the light on the hill, the bench mark of excellence, and we suck up British comedy and drama, art directors and actors, with the same breath that we use to condemn them for being colonial masters and class conscious snobs.

    We need to look inward and cure our own illnesses, start to make films with good theatrical content via good theatrical practices. Start recognising script writing as an art form, rather than a vehicle for a story to become banal dialogue in a mish mash of action. Produce good films with good stories via the tried and proven processes of theatre. Before you know it, we will have an industry of our own which will exchange international actors and directors…..Or maybe it won’t need to do that.

    Just as a matter of interest, has anyone ever argued for bringing in international crews?

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