The right for Australian actors to take lead roles in Australian film and television productions was hard won.

As the film and TV industry grew dramatically in the 1980s it became obvious that if actors were to secure lead roles in local productions some regulations would be required.

We had to balance what at the time were largely ineffective Department of Immigration rules that failed to see that producing cultural content was different to producing chocolate bars.

The producers and actors nutted out guidelines that were introduced in 1985 and renegotiated in 1988. In 1990 SPA withdrew from the guidelines.

Negotiations between the producers, actors and government followed and resulted in the import guidelines that are in place to this day.

Administered by the Department of the Arts, the guidelines balance the needs of producers with those of actors. They also reflect the role taxpayer funds play in underpinning Australia’s feature film industry and the responsibilities of broadcasters who use publicly owned spectrum. Importantly, Equity’s role is consultative, not determinative.

It is remarkable that a country with a comparatively small domestic market has the number of internationally recognised actors that we do. This is testimony to the skills and talent of our actors but the role of the guidelines in allowing them to establish their credentials at home should not be forgotten. These same guidelines will allow the Cates, Geoffreys and Russells of the future to first forge a career at home.

Some say the industry has changed so much that it is time the guidelines were relaxed, that it is very tough to finance productions, that our industry is part of a global industry.

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.

The guidelines have served the industry well and continue to do so. Of course, they should be reviewed from time to time and on that point I believe Roy Billing and I stand on common ground.

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  1. I’m a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild, and I propose that we should be able to shut down any Australian production where the screenplay was not written by an Australian. So there!

  2. This was a response…!! Reciting historical policy outcomes and then concluding that on a “general” point she agrees with me?
    By the way, that statement about the “Cates, Geoffreys and Russells of the future” is irrelevant. More production means more work for local actors whichever way you look at it.(And for others in the industry as well.) The actor’s path to Hollywood success used to be to get a good role in an Aussie feature that was seen in the US and get offered work via that. Nowadays young actors are far more proactive and go over to LA themselves and attend casting sessions…and have a great success rate. Ask any agent. Also, appearing alongside an international star in a locally produced movie that gets reasonable overseas distribution is surely going to get far more exposure for an actor than a small art house Oz movie with limited distribution and unknown actors.
    Let’s be realistic about this. The landscape has changed since 1988. MEAA/Equity is mired in the past!

  3. I am with Roy on this. 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.

    Les Hill

  4. I’m with you, Roy! Australian films with thoughtfully cast overseas actors can be very successful. Have a look at the top 100 Australian box office list, here’s the link,, and it’s clear that more than half of the 25 top-grossing films had an overseas actor as one of the cast members, alongside Australian actors who have achieved success both here and internationally. The top 25 includes BABE, RED DOG, THE SAPPHIRES – very Australian films that Australian audiences supported and enjoyed. The films have told Australian stories and have provided employment and professional opportunities for thousands of key creatives, actors and technicians. The cold hard facts are (1) theatrical distribution is a pre-requisite of “tax-payer funded ” films; (2) distributors want name cast who will attract audiences; (3) producers deserve the freedom to find the cast that allows them to get the film into production – and hire actors and crew.

  5. Totally with Mr. Billing and Mr. Hill on this and most people who know me know my position for over a decade on this. I’m fiercely Australian in promoting business here and turning this occasionally barren field but lushly rich field into a eco system of film and TV production that will rival any other place on the planet. And that day is coming. (though much slower than I wish…) but for things to change people must change and MEAA/Equity is regrettably waiting for the steam tractor to come back, along with Holden, Toyota, Alcoa, and Ford to all say “just kidding!” and gear up again…

    The more work there is here, the better it is. And if it takes a bankable foreign actor to green light every single project here that’s a zillion more jobs for everyone here.

    It’s that simple… but then again, so are most solutions when you look at them logically…

  6. Well said Roy !!!

    MEAA is living in the “dark ages” if it thinks that Australian films don’t have to compete in an already flooded international market.

    The days of “film” are gone.

    Every man / woman and his next dog can make a “digital” movie, and the truth of the matter is – they do.

    Whereas there used to be a “few” thousand new films each year on the international film market circuit – there and now “hundreds of thousands” of digital movies.

    In order for any sales agent or distributor to bother to take notice and take the time to look at and then possibly pick up a completed movie, there needs to be something in that movie that will “sell” internationally.

    Unknown Aussie talent “does NOT get seen” unless it has the backing of international name talent – Australian or otherwise, to pique sales agent or distributor interest.

    Look at how many local movies our local distributors backed in the last few years. Generally they are ones they are producing themselves, or ones with international name talent attached.

    In such a flooded market, it’s already difficult in the extreme to get a movie financed, let alone with a budget where cast and crew can actually get paid enough to eat/pay rent.

    It requires “sellable” elements.

    The UK model of two international “allowed” imported actors, without penalty, is so much more realistic in today’s difficult post-GFC market.

    MEAA should give our Aussie actors a chance.

    MEAA should let the have plenty of supporting roles along stars, so they will get noticed, and become stars themselves.

    Instead of relegating them to a life of no jobs, and unlivable actor annual wages.

    MEAA should not be making it hard for offshore productions to make movies in Australia.

    More work – means growing and developing a solid talent base.

    It means post houses stay up and running.

    It means equipment suppliers can afford to keep latest gear availabile for hire.

    It means Australia stays competitive on a technical and creative talent level.

    What we are seeing is “potential” Australian productions, choosing to go to “easy / no red tape” production countries like South Africa and NZ.

    This is why NZ is booming and AU production is failing.

    Time for MEAA and the AU Qualifying Funding Guidelines to get a reality check, and adapt to today’s international market conditions.

    The funding guidelines require “international sales agent attachement”.

    Otherwise we will never be a true industy – just some shackled hobby cottage industry – and a dying one at that.

    Investors, banks, sales agents and distributors etc require some hope that the movie they are backing financially will break even, and at least make their money back.

    If investors, sales agents and distributors etc can’t break even – then there is no industry.

    About half of the sales agents and distributors that attend major markets when belly up post GFC.
    The ones that are still there, are taking a “low/no risk” approach to business.

    It’s time MEAA took a basic lesson in economics and finance, and stop obstructing Australian filmmakers from getting their movies financed.

    Only then will we (cast, crew and creatives) be banking pay cheques.


  7. 100% agree with Roy and Les. We applaud loudly when Cate plays the Queen of England or Mel plays a Scottish folk hero or Russell plays a Roman Gladiator or Nicole plays Grace of Monaco or Naomi plays Princess Di or Chris plays a British F1 champion… and the list goes on. We applaud loudly and so we should. They are all terrific achievements and a credit to the strength of the Australian industry.
    But how, then, can we then justify placing an embargo on overseas actors coming to Australia to participate in reverse? This is not-only hypocritical, but more critically, self-defeating. Many producers are busting their humps to attract overseas financing as part of their finance plans for Australian films. This can only be a good thing – international money flowing into the Australian economy. But it is almost always dependent on the involvement of an actor of international stature. And if Cate, Mel, Russell, Nicole, Naomi, Chris etc are not right for the role, why not include a foreign actor who raises the overall value of the production? Especially when this translates into value for the other local cast and crew members (as the film is more likely to garner a bigger international audience). What’s more, if the film is partly funded by the Australian taxpayer then casting someone international audiences know and like to watch means the film is MORE likely to recoup that investment, not LESS. Surely that’s part of the goal…?
    Bottom line: whichever way you look at it the entertainment landscape has changed dramatically since 1988. If we want to continue to be a respected part of that global industry we need to start behaving like it.

  8. I couldn’t agree more with Roy and Les. Until Australian distributors and sales agent willing to support local films with unknown Australian actors as leads (I cannot see this happening), it is largely unworkable for producers and directors to finance any film with decent a budget, effectively minimising work opportunities for the majority of Australian actors they try to serve and protect. Low or no-budget films with unknown actors no matter how great they are, it will have no budget for promotion or secure a decent distribution, and thus fulfil the industry prophecy that Australian audience are not that interested in Australian films. I believe the number of Australian production continue to be low and the industry remains slow in growth, it is largely due to lack of commercial elements attached to the project to be competitive and attractive in the world market (bankable names are one of the most important elements that can get a project up or not). Australian production and co-production guidelines are notorious for being among most restrictive and difficult in the world, it’s time we ask ourselves why, and if this approach really working for us.

  9. Only India and America sustain screen industries that can survive without international sales. They can do it because of size. If Australia had 300 million people and a unique language and culture (as India does) or the biggest economy in the world, we would not be having this debate. But it does not. Ask an actor if he or she would like two or three supporting roles in a production with a $10 or $20 million budget and they will all say ‘yes’. Then ask if such a budget can be supported by Australian sales alone and you know the answer. To achieve such budgets there has to be a viable finance plan and that means a product that can sell. That means names that will bring audiences. Actors at all levels are aware of that. The stars will support the newcomers most of the time and all productions expand the opportunities for Australian actors and crew. We need more production. There is nothing more important if we are to move beyond the sheltered workshop of exclusive dependency on taxpayer subsidy. Would any of the advocates of closed borders and restrictive practice’s put their money into a film that planned to lose it? I suggest they would not and yet they propose that taxpayer funds and private equity should be used to provide welfare for actors rather than give them a chance to show their talent on a world stage. We have world class talent here. It does not happen without opportunity. Protectionism kills opportunity.

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