With a panel of producers, an international sales agent and a conspicuously absent Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA) president, this session titled ‘It’s All Foreign to Me: Casting across Borders’ was destined to be a slagfest.
Owen Johnston, Productive Executive, SPAA, outlines the history of Australian films importing foreign actors and MEAA having an equally long history in opposing them. The first government intervention was triggered when Meryl Streep was cast in Evil Angels and, as a result, a set of guidelines was drawn up and agreed to by SPAA and MEAA. In 2009, the federal government began a review and has been in consultation with the industry and the union for the past two years. Johnston says that, while SPAA has some grievances with the new proposed guidelines, overall they feel the guidelines have the potential to increase the production level in the industry. In the absence of a MEAA representative, Johnston calmly informs the audience that MEAA has many objections and that the membership of MEAA has voted to take industrial action.
Johnston sums up the current state of play, from SPAA’s point of view, as –
(i) the new guidelines not yet promulgated;
(ii) the union has voted in favour of industrial action against producers;
(iii) SPAA sees this is as a dispute between MEAA and the government, rather than SPAA;
(iv) MEAA should remove the guidelines from the Australian Feature Film Agreement (AFFA);
(v) Government, rather than the union, should decide eligibility for a working visa;
(vi) Government needs to show strong leadership on this issue;
(vii) promulgate the guidelines for a trial period of three years followed by an audit.
Johnston’s mild manner and reasoned presentation shows why he has been one of the chief negotiators for SPAA on this issue. The same cannot be said of other panel and audience members – as will be more than demonstrated later in the proceedings of this highly charged session. So stay tuned.
Next up on the block is the experienced and very reasonable producer Marion McGowan who has experience with foreign actors on Australian productions such as Rage in Placid Lake and co-productions such as . She focuses on the issue of using foreign actors in Australian films and says that neither Ben Lee or Rose Byrne, both in the early stages of their career in Rage in Placid Lake, had a high enough marquee value at the time of the film to enable sufficient finance to be raised. McGowan brought in Miranda Richardson and Clare Danes to obtain the minimum guarantee from international sales agents to complete the financing. She stresses that the most critical aspect in casting is the marquee value of the actor, rather than their ‘foreign-ness’, and it is an actor’s marquee value that allows sales agents to project their sales estimates.
Rosemary Bright, producer of In the Winter Dark, Clubland and The Sapphires, agrees with McGowan. Blight recounts when she first brought Brenda Blethwyn to Australia for In the Winter Dark, she was very naïve and can’t even remember if they went through the formal approval process. When Blethwyn was cast in Clubland, Blight says the character she played was an English character and justified her casting – even though the film had just under the required 30 percent of foreign investment.
By the time she was financing The Sapphires, Blight reminds us that the global film finance market had changed and casting foreign actors was the only way to finance her film. ‘With a fully indigenous cast, and Deborah Mailman in her first lead role in a feature film, there was no way we could raise the money – even with our very close relationship with our UK distributor.’
Blight chose to cast Chris O’Dowd, an Irish actor in the lead role with American Tory Kittles as a supporting actor. ‘Chris definitely triggered the finance’, says Blight, ‘particularly after the huge worldwide box office success of Bridesmaids .’ Bligh reports that MEAA were very helpful because of the cultural significance the project.
With Antony I Ginnane, the departing president of SPAA, the next panel member to speak, the gloves came off. Ginnane uses the ruse of a telling a fairy story to lash out at the ‘union hooligans’ at MEAA and the ‘less-than-civil civil servants’ responsible for administering the guidelines. He claims that ‘no other art form has the level of intervention by government –let alone a union’. He is adamant that MEAA has no right to govern the process of admitting foreign actors. Ginnane’s colourful vitriol is tempered by Johnston who himself intervenes to comment that ‘obviously he will not be taking Ginnane to any negotiations’.
Ginnane then reveals the most recent source of his dispute with MEAA. The low budget feature he is producing, Last Dance with first time director David Pulbrook, had the work visa for lead actor Gena Rowlands cancelled two weeks before the film went into production. A gasp of horror rippled through the room of producers, after which Miller drops in a memorable line – ‘well, that must have been a real turd in the punchbowl.’ I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member to tuck that one in the memory bank for future use.
Shaun Miller, the session moderator, deftly throws the spotlight to Carey Fitzgerald, Managing Director, Highpoint Media group UK and the sales agents for Last Dance. Fitzgerald says that all the projections for Last Dance were based on marquee factor of Gena Rowlands, and with Rowlands out of the picture Highpoint can no longer provide the same level of sales guarantee. She then raises an even more horrifying repercussion – ‘if this is seen as a precedent by international distributors and agents, then no-one will want to be involved in Australian films.’ Fitzgerald hammers home the message that distributors will not put up money for films without a recognizable, known actor.
Vincent Sheehan, a well-known Australian producer who brought in Willem Defoe for his most recent film The Hunter, contributes his more reasonable experience with MEAA. He also reminds the audience that bringing in a foreign actor is not only about the sales figures, it’s also about the integrity of the film. In the case of The Hunter, the character played by Defoe was a foreign stranger coming in and Sheehan notes that ‘Willem was the way in for international audiences into what was a very Australian film.’
Just in case the session was becoming too balanced again, Daniel Scharf announces he is from the extreme ‘Scharf-Shteinman faction’ and supports the proposal of one lead and one supporting foreign actor for films of any budget level, after which he agrees with the proposed guidelines.
Both McGowan and Blight counter by saying they believe producers have to negotiate with MEAA as we need Australian talent as much as we need foreign talent. McGowan has nearly the last word by saying it is a small industry here, we all need each other and it’s important to work together.
The session ended peacefully with audience members both amused and upset by the extreme views expressed by some producers.
Lyn Norfor Lyn Norfor is a producer with factual and drama television projects in development.