What makes an Australian film Australian?

In the good old days, the joke went something along the lines of “Bill Hunter”. The much-loved and recently departed Hunter aside, Australian actors and Australian accents remain the most recognisable and indeed popular aspects of the Australian screen industry. Our nation enjoys some of the world’s best cinematographers, designers, editors, animators and special effects technicians, but it’s our home-grown stars that we know and love.

Now all that is under threat — at least, it is if you believe the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which is mounting a campaign called “Save Spaces for Aussie Faces” in response to a proposal by the government to make a change to the regulations allowing foreign actors to work in Australian productions.

The website, which isn’t the finest example of web design you’ll encounter this year, features big red crosses over the faces of popular  actors in well-known Australian productions. “Imagine Packed to the Rafters without Rebecca Gibney,” it asserts breathlessly, “Offspring without Asher Keddie and Deborah Mailman, Australia without Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, Underbelly without Gyton Grantley, Rake without Richard Roxburgh, Home & Away without Ray Meagher and Ada Nicodemou or The Castle without Michael Caton and Stephen Curry.

“This is the future of Australian film and television if the government has its way.”

And what is this insidious threat to future of Australian film and television? It turns out to be a very minor tweak to the Foreign Actors Certification Scheme, under which foreign actors seeking to work in various types of Australian screen productions have to apply to the government and the union for approval.

Many ordinary Australians will probably be surprised to know that such regulations exist at all — but that’s the Australian screen industry, a strange and cosseted part of the economy in which many productions source nine-tenths of their budget directly or indirectly from the taxpayer. Despite decades of IR deregulation and an Australia-United States Free Tree Agreement, screen actors wishing to work in Australia still have to seek the approval of the relevant union, MEAA, in a modern-day equivalent of the closed shop.

Now the government is proposing to change the scheme slightly in the way it applies to government-subsidised production, to allow foreign productions in receipt of the 40% tax break known as the Producer Offset to employ a overseas lead. A spokesman for arts minister Simon Crean told Crikey that “in many cases, foreign investors want a marquee actor associated with a production”.

MEAA contends that this amounts to an “open door policy” which “would … undermine the Australian nature of free-to-air television as we know it”. But MEAA’s assertions are contradicted by its own data. The Alliance states that “out of 67 applications to the Alliance under this scheme in the past three-and-a-half years, 93% have been supported by the Alliance”. Of the five that were rejected, “three still received a certificate, one entered the country illegally and one successfully engaged an Australian”. In other words, the door is already ajar, and the union has no hard figures to back up its claims that local productions will suddenly start using overseas stars in leading roles.

The campaign has already summoned many well-known actors to put their names to an open letter explaining that they are “shocked, angered and concerned” about the changes. The hyperbole seems like typically poor tactics from a union that only this year managed to get actors in New Zealand marching against it, after disastrously miscalculating in its dispute with Warner Brothers over a secondary boycott of The Hobbit.

A bigger issue is at stake here, which is what “Australian” means in this context in the first place. The success of Australian actors in Hollywood is rightly trumpeted by many in the Australian screen industry, sidestepping the uncomfortable reality that many so-called “Australian” actors live, work and pay taxes in the United States. When an actor such as Anthony LaPaglia returns to star in a local production such as Balibo, this is a boon to a local director such as Robert Connolly. But, as a quick glance at his IMDB entry will confirm, LaPaglia continues to perform the vast majority of his roles in America — and so do Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts, Ryan Kwanten et al.

It could be argued that the real foreign actors in Australian productions are the ex-pats who return here once every few years, not the occasional tourist brought in to help finance a foreign-financed production. It could also be argued that the overwhelmingly white and Anglo-Saxon backgrounds of the signatories to the open letter are not a true reflection of the diversity of “Australian faces” out there in real-life Australia. But don’t expect to hear either argument from MEAA.

For its part, the government maintains that “the revised guidelines will continue to provide Australian performers with a fair chance of securing employment, while building a sustainable film and television industry”. As they say in the classics, watch this space.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Este from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance responds:

Ben Eltham’s piece demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the issues surrounding the Foreign Actor Certification Scheme. This may have arisen from not having picked up the phone to discuss the issue with either a performer or with anyone from Equity.

The proposed changes to the Foreign Actor Certification scheme are far from “a very minor tweak”. The proposed rule changes mean that where Australian TV dramas like Packed to the Rafters or Underbelly would have in the past rarely if ever featured an overseas actor, they would under the proposal be able to hire offshore almost at will. In the subsidised film sector, the rules have been drafted in such a way that any and every application to use an overseas actor in a production could be approved with a rubber stamp.

There is also no contradiction in the data. There has been in place a set of rules for the past 30 years that have worked to ensure Australian performers have ample chance to appear in lead roles in film and television but flexible enough to allow subsidised productions with significant foreign finance to bring in foreign actors. The figures as you quoted demonstrate this. It is clear though with the proposed rules (such as lowering and in some cases removing foreign finance requirements) that productions will be able to give away opportunities for Australian performers to overseas performers.

Australian actors living and working in the US are also not an uncomfortable reality that we are sidestepping. On the contrary, performers and the industry celebrate these successes as a direct result of the current rules in place. Almost every Australian performer has been able to step up and work internationally because they had opportunities to play lead roles in Australian productions in the first place – opportunities guaranteed by the rules. They are now able to come back to Australia and support the local industry – Toni Collette is appearing in PJ Hogan’s latest film, Mental, Geoffrey Rush was in last year’s Bran Nue Dae and Ryan Kwanten was in Griff the Invisible and Red Hill.

As for implying that the lack of diversity on Australian television and film screens are somehow the fault of performers and not, say, broadcasters, producers and casting directors, this is a low blow. While there is clearly a diversity of performers in Australia, Equity has been working hard to ensure that our screens reflect the true diversity of Australia including drafting casting diversity clauses for all our agreements and negotiating with broadcasters to introduce colour blind casting policies.