by Michael Simms
“It’s our job to get out there and shoot them down.” These were the words of producer Antony Ginnane as he took center stage at the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) conference last November. After stepping down from a three-year term as SPAA’s president, Mr Ginnane was ready to open fire, taking direct aim at the actors’ union, Equity.
In February 2011, Antony Ginnane had cast American screen veteran Gena Rowlands in the lead role of the Australian thriller Last Dance. Equity disputed the casting decision and two weeks before cameras were set to roll, the Government revoked Ms Rowland’s visa.
In an attempt to rally troops at the SPAA conference, Mr Ginnane referred to Equity as “a bunch of hooligans” who had resorted to “running for the hills”. His comments were indicative of a complex and longstanding battle between the union and producers, one which, 10 months later, has almost reached ceasefire. Almost.
The history of foreign actors working on Australian films has been fraught with controversy, raising sticky questions about the role of a national cinema. Should a largely Government-funded industry be using international performers to generate growth and become self-sustaining? Or should it be focused on providing employment for locals?
Last year there was a wave of foreign performers starring in Australian films – Josh Lucas in Red Dog, Charlotte Rampling in The Eye of the Storm, Matthew Goode in Burning Man, and Willem Dafoe in The Hunter ,to name a few. But the most publicly recognised case dates back to 1988, when Meryl Streep was cast as Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels. At the time, the union’s guidelines stipulated that all actors in an Australian film must be Australian unless a suitable national could not be found.
The decision to cast Meryl Streep was met with uproar. A clause for “extraordinary circumstances” (such as the casting of a talent like Streep) was introduced by the Government, and in 1991, the ‘Guidelines on the Entry of Foreign Artists’ were implemented. These guidelines, which are administered by the Department of the Arts, have seen various iterations, but major reform has only begun in the past few years. The Government presented the proposed changes to the industry for comment last year.
“The existing guidelines are very difficult to work with,” says Geoff Brown, the current Executive Director of SPAA. “We live in a different reality, and the proposed changes reflect a new transition in the industry.” Citing a shift in the global economical climate, he argues that flexible casting guidelines are essential in the contemporary film industry.
The current guidelines specify that a local production must attract at least 30 per cent foreign investment in order to cast a foreign actor. SPAA wants this lowered to 20. It also wants greater flexibility in the case of low-budget films (such as Antony Ginnane’s Last Dance). Though Geoff Brown believes the guidelines are out of date, he also points the finger at Equity as a problematic body to work alongside. “It was more about their approval than consultation – although they will deny that.”
Sue McCreadie, the current president of Equity, does indeed deny this accusation, but also acknowledges that a review of the guidelines was “long overdue”.
When the review did eventually come, members and officials at Equity were outraged by the shift towards deregulation. The proposition lowers the foreign investment thresholds significantly, essentially in line with SPAA’s wishes. In retaliation, Equity petitioned the Government to abandon the proposed guidelines with a forceful campaign titled ‘Save Space for Aussie Faces’.
“The membership were completely mobilised, and felt very strongly about this issue,” says Ms McCreadie. The online campaign, which featured photographs of Australian actors in iconic Australian roles with their faces crossed out, linked supporters to a petition directed to the Minister for the Arts. The petition stated that the proposed changes “would destroy the livelihood and careers of Australian performers and erode the uniqueness of Australian films”, as well as allowing “Australian producers to bring in overseas performers on any and every screen production”.
South Australian-based actress Elena Carapetis has been a member of Equity for over 15 years, first signing up as a student at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA). She is concerned about the potential implications of the proposed changes. “It’s a challenging industry to work in. Employment opportunities in The Arts have been eroding due to a lack of government investment, so when a policy comes along that makes it harder to get work as an actor in this country, you have to do something.”
Though Elena Carapetis has had an illustrious career (she is perhaps best known for her role as Jackie Kassis on the ABC series Heartbreak High but has appeared in various local films such as Look Both Ways, Burning Man and the upcoming adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas novel Dead Europe) she acknowledges the frustrating realities of working in the field. “The Arts is often seen as a passion industry instead of a real occupation. Actors are lowest in the food chain, and there is sometimes an expectation that you are to work for little or no money.”
For Ms Carapetis, it is Equity’s strict regulation that has allowed Australian actors to build the foundations of their careers locally, tackling roles that eventually gain international recognition.
“Ryan Kwanten, Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush…we knew how brilliant they were before the rest of the world did,” she says. “Major lead roles are typically challenging and complex and these opportunities supply the actor with the necessary chops to successfully tackle great roles as they get older.
“We aren’t against actors from overseas working in Australian film and television, it is just that we want to make sure that we get to work with the best from overseas and that we still have some access to roles here as well,” she says.
Back at SPAA, Geoff Brown offers some assurance that producers aren’t planning on destroying the careers of Australian performers as suggested on the ‘Save Spaces for Aussie Faces’ website. “We have a good understanding of what the issues are for actors, and the campaign has reinforced the importance of Australian actors in Australian films.”
Nonetheless, SPAA stands its ground that foreign actors are good for business, using the recent success of The Sapphires as a case study. Geoff Brown argues that the casting of the English actor Chris O’Dowd was a “brilliant move” on the part of producers.
“It has certainly increased international interest in the film, particularly in France and Germany, and hopefully in Britain.” The Sapphires has been a roaring success here in Australia grossing over $10 million in just four weeks, as well as being picked up for international distribution by the renowned Weinstein Company.
“Would it have attracted the interest of the Weinsteins without O’Dowd?” asks Geoff Brown.
With such differing attitudes between the two bodies, in July this year the Government announced a lack of confidence in moving forward with the proposed changes, urging stakeholders to go back to the negotiating table to develop an industry wide agreement. These negotiations began in August.
“I have to be very cautious about what I say. It is at a very delicate stage,” says Geoff Brown. “The aim is for us to find common ground – 80 per cent each – and if that can’t be agreed, it will go back to the Minister.”
While Equity remains just as coy on where negotiations are at, Sue McCreadie reveals that SPAA initially “went in for everything they could. Some of their requests were reasonable and some weren’t”.
She also offers some balance, emphasising that Equity isn’t fundamentally against foreign actors working on Australian films, but “it’s not open slather. It’s important that we have rules and rules that are supported by both performers and producers”.
On Antony Ginnane’s assessment of Equity as a “bunch of hooligans”, Sue McCreadie refuses to fuel the fire, remaining matter of fact and forthright. “He didn’t meet the current guidelines and he clearly didn’t convince the Government.”
Australian actress Julia Blake eventually stepped into Gena Rowlands’ shoes, and Last Dance had its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival this August.
“Antony is very proud of the film and Julia Blake’s extraordinary performance,” Geoff Brown says. “But whether Last Dance will still have the same level of international appeal as it would have with Rowlands attached…well, that I’m not so sure about.”