Making sense of Australia’s foreign actor visa dispute – SMH – 6 Mar.15

Proposed changes to the restrictions on foreign actors in Australian film and television will either spur a production boom or kill the industry, apparently. What’s the truth?

Meryl Streep (with Sam Neill in Evil Angels) would be welcome back to film in Australia. All her mates? Not so much.

If Meryl Streep were to come to Australia to make another film with Fred Schepisi, as she did in 1988 with Evil Angels (based on the Lindy Chamberlain story), there would be few complaints. Even if the production benefited from government subsidies, it would still be an Australian story, with an Australian director, mostly Australian cast and crew, and filmed in Australia – all of it made that bit more sellable to the world thanks to the presence of a bona fide international star.

What’s not to love about that?
Sarah Snook delivered a career-making performance in Predestination, opposite American actor Ethan Hawke. But if there had been no limits on foreign actors, would she even have landed the role?
Sarah Snook delivered a career-making performance in Predestination, opposite American actor Ethan Hawke. But if there had been no limits on foreign actors, would she even have landed the role?
But if Meryl Streep were to make the same film here with a bunch of other Americans in the lead roles, it would be a different story. Opportunities for our talent to shine would have been lost – or, if you prefer, stolen – and many people would rightly question the value of throwing taxpayer dollars at such a project.
But that is precisely the sort of scenario that has been predicted by some in the wake of a government review of the so-called foreign actor visa.

Why is this a hot topic right now?
In a discussion paper released in January, the government flagged its desire to simplify the Temporary Work (Entertainment) visa (Subclass 420), in line with its commitment to “reducing the burden and cost of unnecessary or inefficient regulation”.
It called for submissions, and the likes of Foxtel, FreeTV (representing the free-to-air networks) and Screen Producers Australia responded by largely parroting the government’s own suggestions.
The union representing actors and crew, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, opposed the mooted changes, arguing that “taxpayer funds should not go towards paying foreign stars” and that “it is an important cultural objective to tell Australian stories with Australian faces and voices on screen”.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon agreed. “If these regulations are removed it would probably be the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, because that’s the effect it will have on Australian actors and crew,” he said.

How does it work now?
As it stands, the ability of a producer to import foreign actors is strictly limited. The bigger the budget and the greater the proportion of it raised from overseas the more leeway there is, but generally speaking it is extremely hard to make a case for more than one lead role, one supporting role and one cameo going to overseas actors in any film receiving government subsidies.
Crucially, the union must be consulted on any proposed imports, a condition that does not apply to any other class of visa (but one justified, the union says, on the grounds of the cultural significance of the sector).

What changes are being proposed?
The key changes being considered are that ministerial sign-off would no longer be needed and that the union would no longer be consulted.
Removing the need for ministerial approval would, all parties agree, effectively end the cap on the number of foreign actors allowed into the country to work on a production.
The union says that will mean fewer opportunities for Australian actors. The producers say it will make it easier to raise finance from overseas, that more content will be made, and that as a result there will be more jobs for Australian actors.
Some actors agree with them too: Roy Billing has written “we actors need to look past 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 … that myriad group of workers whose names appear in the credits at the end of a film”.

Who is right?
It’s hard to say because so much of this is about trying to predict the unpredictable. Clearly, though, there are vested interests on both sides. The union doesn’t want to be dealt out of its position of influence, and it does have legitimate concerns about the erosion of the cultural imperative that underpins government support of the sector (and if the cultural argument is weakened, it’s not a massive stretch to see a government – especially this government – concluding that subsidies can no longer be justified).
It’s worth noting that the union does not have a right of veto, despite the impression some on the other side have tried to create; it can only make recommendations in support of or against an application.
In 2013-14, the Arts Minister issued certificates for 114 foreign actors (the visas themselves are granted by the Immigration Minister). MEAA director Zoe Angus says the union raised concerns on “maybe half a dozen occasions” (including applications for crew, for whom more than 2000 visas were issued), and says it objected to just one application for a foreign actor. “And that was rolled by the minister.”
But the other side has a point too: producers object to having to pay the MEAA a consultation fee ($550 an application) and to the 14-day turnaround to process it. “Putting a deal together to make a film, it all has to come together in a lightning moment,” says SPA chief Matthew Deaner. “Producers often feel that if you can’t nail it down straight away, you’re just better moving on to some place that can.”

Is there a middle ground?
Maybe, but no one has raised it yet.
It’s possible to envisage a scheme that grants a little more flexibility to producers but still imposes limits on the number of foreign actors a production can employ. It might no longer need the Arts Minister to sign off on deals. It might be administered by a new or existing agency or by the Immigration Department instead.

The union might need to concede some ground, too. Foxtel suggested in its submission that “the union could be involved in periodic reviews (perhaps every three years) of the use of overseas talent in Australian productions”. That’s unlikely to wash with the MEAA or with those concerned that the floodgates are about to open, but it’s hard to see a way forward without some sort of compromise.
Of course, it could all just fall by the wayside, like it did the last time this issue raised its head in 2011. Back then, producer Antony Ginnane, whose three-year term as president of the Screen Producers Association had just ended, claimed the actors’ union was “frightened, heading for the hills, and it’s our job to get out there and shoot them down”.

There might be some in the government’s ranks who hold the same view, but the best outcome for the industry is likely to come from a rather more considered position than that.

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