Imported actors issue generates more heat

22 September, 2014 by Don Groves

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."