Films are a mix of commerce versus culture, making the issue difficult for Australian filmmakers.
3 Feb 2012 - 4:17 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:10 PM

There have been angry outbursts and much frantic lobbying by stakeholders in the last few months since proposed new guidelines were issued by the Australian Government relating to how many foreign actors can appear in Australia films and under what circumstances.

In very general terms, producers can argue the case for casting a foreign actor under the new guidelines if Australians have been considered but can't satisfy ethnic or special requirements, or if there is foreign investment in the project or if the industry will benefit overall. If adopted, the effect could be a matter of degree or, if the industry experiences a growth spurt, very significant.

For decades, the issue of foreign actors in Australian films has been one of the most divisive. Since 2007, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has formally objected to casting foreign actors in eight cases, it says. It has also had an influence, including on the latest series of Underbelly, by advising they would be likely to object.

Foreign actors in last year's batch of films included Josh Lucas in Red Dog, Matthew Goode in Burning Man, Charlotte Rampling in The Eye of the Storm, Emily Watson in the UK/Australian co-production Oranges and Sunshine, Brendan Gleeson in The Cup, and (the unsuccessfully challenged) Willem Dafoe in The Hunter. The filmmakers behind Sleeping Beauty were prevented from casting Watson as the madam and Rachael Blake subsequently secured the role.

[ Watch interview with The Eye of the Storm director Fred Schepisi ]
[ Watch interview with William Dafoe and Daniel Netthiem for The Hunter ]

Disputes involving individual films are rarely made public, but at the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) conference in November producer Antony I. Ginnane expressed extreme bitterness over veteran US actor Gena Rowlands being blocked from playing a holocaust survivor in Last Dance, which recently went into production with Julia Blake in the role instead.

Ginnane and UK-based High Point managing director Carey Fitzgerald, who will be handling worldwide sales, emphasised the saleability of the film with 81-year-old Rowlands (pictured) on board. Her absence, says Fitzgerald, changed the project from being “a really interesting theatrical movie to a small Australian film with no names”. She implied she would probably not have signed on without Rowlands. Without a sales agent attached, the biggest single investor in Australian films, government agency Screen Australia, will not invest.

But Australian films are not just about commerce but also about culture, which is usually the basis of MEAA's objections, although sometimes the concerns are over casting procedures. A public campaign – “Save spaces for Aussie faces” – is underway and members have voted to take industrial action if circumstances warrant it.

“Where the Australian Government is investing large amounts of taxpayer money either through Screen Australia, SBS or ABC, or requiring the television networks to show Australian content, there should be valid reasons why any foreign actors are cast,” says MEAA's Actors Equity director Simon Whipp. “It should not be about overseas sales. The funding is so the Australian population see its culture on screen.”

And as well as commerce and culture, film is also about art too, and the best art can stir emotions and influence beliefs. Should artists be censored? Most would say probably not. And what of reciprocity? If Cate Blanchett played Queen Elizabeth I of England in two films, why can't foreigners play iconic Australians as Mick Jagger did in the 1970 version of Ned Kelly, and Meryl Streep – as Lindy Chamberlain – did in the 1988 film Evil Angels. After all, actors act. But few would want Australians to rarely feature in Australian films surely.

Watch the original Movie Show's review of Evil Angels ]
Watch interview with Evil Angels producer Verity Lambert and writer/director Fred Schepisi ]
Watch footage from the premiere of Evil Angels ]

The new 21-page draft guidelines, up from 8, set out the circumstances under which producers can make a case to the Arts Minister (or a representative) to secure a certificate and subsequently a temporary work visa for a foreign actor. They can't be summarised in a few paragraphs but the rules applying to films with direct government subsidy continue to allow MEAA to object to, but not independently block, an application, and stipulate that at least 50 per cent of lead and 75 per cent of supporting roles must be Australian, that casting must “accurately reflect” Australian characters and that Australians must perform “traditional” Australian characters.

But, if adopted, they will also make it easier to hire foreign actors and the first hint of this comes in the introduction, which refers to Australians getting a “fair chance” of securing employment and “ensuring Australian voices are heard in Australian productions,” but also includes a new reference to “building a commercially sustainable … industry”.

It would be a bit tedious to explain exactly why it will be easier, but it is to do with the different rules applying to different levels of foreign investment and different sized budget. Here is an example: if a film costs $4-$12 million and 20 per cent comes from abroad, then the employment of one foreign lead and one supporting role “may be appropriate,” whereas the producer would need 30 per cent foreign finance under the current rules and the budget bands have been altered to their advantage.

“The guidelines need to change to reflect the current complex financing and distribution mechanisms used and to allow the industry to grow by increasing the range, size and kind of films Australia makes,” says the producer of The Hunter, Vincent Sheehan. He is adamant that the Tasmanian story is “undeniably Australian in its story, world, characters and accent”, and that casting Dafoe was both true to the “outsider” nature of his character and helped secure distributors in the UK, Canada, Japan and the US.

“A diverse range of films is the key and lower-budget and edgy Australian films will still exist. Animal Kingdom (also produced by Sheehan's company and with an all-Australian cast) launched the international careers of a number of Aussie actors.”

Where the proposed rules could bring in the biggest increase in foreign actors is on a new category of Australian films that are lightly regulated because they only access indirect government subsidy (via a relatively new tax rebate on the cost of production). Examples are Tomorrow, When the War Began, Knowing, Happy Feet and, most probably, The Great Gatsby, all very ambitious projects with substantial US or private investors – although very low budget films that don't find their way into cinemas may also grow up around this rebate. The introduction of the rebate was to help the industry grow beyond its “cottage industry” status, so perhaps this is appropriate.

These films have to pass a different “significant Australian content” test, which takes into account the nationality of the cast. Asked why the union should also be deciding on Australianness, Whipp says: “The rules are not being adhered to strongly enough or administered closely enough to ensure projects are genuinely Australian.”

It is a challenge to apply blanket rules to wildly diverse films, and the dichotomy between commerce and culture enables both sides to put legitimate, convincing arguments. The ball remains in the bureaucrats' court; no wonder they are having trouble reaching a consensus.

The current guidelines around the importation foreign actors can be found here.

Guidance on what “significant Australian content” means can be found here.