Op ed: Roy Billing on imported actors
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.
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.
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.