Opinions are sharply divided over the government’s subsidy to the $150 million US production and the crew rates and conditions. 
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8 Apr 2013 - 2:14 PM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2013 - 2:14 PM

Producer Tony Buckley has called for a boycott of the Walt Disney Co.'s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo unless the studio agrees to abide by Australian award salaries and conditions.

[ Related: Disney drives hard bargain on 20,000 Leagues ]

Buckley's call has intensified the debate over the Australian government's $21.6 million inducement to persuade Disney to shoot the remake in Oz at a time when employment opportunities for local crews and service companies are scarce.

Members of the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) voted narrowly to accept the terms demanded by Disney, which include paying crews double time after a 12-hour day instead of the standard 10 hours for Australian productions; triple time after 15 hours (usually 12 hours); on-set crew forgoing all night loadings; and non-shooting crew accepting a 10-20 percent night loading. The Hollywood studio also refused the union's plea to provide journey insurance for workers engaged on the production.

“Jobs are important but not at the cost of having to prostitute ourselves to secure them,” Buckley (pictured) says in a (as yet unpublished) letter sent to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. “Is this what we have fought for to have a truly Australian film industry, only to be sold out to offshore fly-in and fly-out Hollywood opportunists? The vote of members of the MEAA to accept Disney's offer was 'narrowly accepted' yet Disney is refusing to agree to a Health and Safety agreement with the union, preferring [to] deal with such issues 'on production.' This must not be allowed.

“If we are serious, this film should be boycotted by crew and suppliers until the Australian government stipulates that the $21 million is conditional on Disney accepting Australian award salaries and conditions. If we don't do it now then we will face being screwed for evermore.”

Mal Tulloch, director of the Entertainment Crew and Sport section of the Alliance, welcomes Buckley's intervention. “The motivation behind Disney's hatchet job on overtime conditions will be exposed if the production enters the fatigue zone,” he says. “At this point in time our members will need to stand up collectively and say they are not prepared to put their lives on the line. The Alliance will be supporting our members' campaign to ensure Health and Safety on this production and ensuring Disney takes safety seriously. That is not unreasonable in a civilised society.

“If the union can achieve this small step, our members will be respected as industry professionals and not have to live on our knees. “

However, Buckley's sentiments are not shared by many technicians. “Offshore productions will not come here if our rates are not competitive,” David Heazlewood, a transport manager who worked on The Wolverine, Baz Luhrmann's Australia and Fool's Gold, told SBS Film.

“While our dollar is at parity or above the US dollar, we have to be prepared to give up overtime concessions to make us more competitive,” he said, adding that after the law changed in NSW last year no one gets workers' compensation cover for travelling from home to work. He spent months working in Taiwan on the set of Life of Pi, employed on flat rates, toiling for up to 17 hours a day for no overtime. He estimates he got 30-50 percent less than he would have received on a major feature in Australia but declares, “I would do it again.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by special effects supervisor Dan Oliver, who's just done Mad Max: Fury Road and The Great Gatsby. He said, “Hourly pay rates on US-funded features are actually quite a lot higher than rates paid on locally funded films. What Disney are asking for [and what we union members voted on] was to lower our overtime rates and some other conditions to be in line with what is paid on similar large feature films around the world. [E.g. US, Canada and the UK.]

“Naturally none of us wanted to get lower overtime rates, but the majority of union members recognised the need for us to be globally competitive to attract these large films to shoot in Australia.”

Filmmaker Tom Broadhurst said, “I doubt very much that Disney would put itself in a position whereby it was actively abusing local OHS rules. I've worked on these big US productions. I don't remember feeling exploited and I'm sure local crews would be happy for the work. The devil is in the detail I suppose.”

But producer Trish Lake has some sympathy for Buckley's stand, opining “If Disney get their way, there will be an outrage, which is not a good thing for industry solidarity right now ahead of a federal election. But if we turn a blind eye to the flouting of health-and-work safety rules, and hard-won awards and conditions unilaterally, then we are in deep trouble as an industry, and where will it end?”

Lake supports calls by Ausfilm and the MEAA to raise the offshore location offset from 16.5 per cent to 30 percent to stimulate the production sector, and the Screen Producers Association of Australia's campaign to raise the producer offset for documentary and high-end TV drama to 40 percent, excluding the broadcasters.

And Lake urges SPAA and the guilds to create a new awards model that recognises lower budgets for independent films to make shooting here more competitive with other countries.

Dominic Case, a former Atlab executive and consultant to the National Film and Sound Archive, takes a pragmatic view, stating, “There's not a lot of work, so a job is a job, and a boycott might struggle to find support unless brilliantly managed. Tony Buckley's call for suppliers to join any boycott seems unlikely to win much favour either: they are big enough to stand up for themselves, and presumably pay their staff on their terms, not Disney's.”

Producer Antony Ginnane derides Buckley's views, contending, “When it is so extraordinarily hard to attract these sorts of high budget productions to Australia, this kind of throwback to 1970s-style anti-American nonsense is just plain crazy.”

Ginnane contends the industry should direct its efforts in the lead up to the September election to persuade the major parties to raise the offsets and aim for industry sustainability, instead of “presenting a profile to the US and rest of world industry that we are a bunch of industrial malcontents and Trotsky recalcitrants”.

Actor Jamie Joseph adds his voice to those who question why the government decided to subsidise a $150 million Hollywood film rather than pump more money into local films, reasoning, “22 x $1 million indie films would create many jobs for cast and crew, would showcase Australia and hopefully propel many Australians into the spotlight of many mainstream filmmakers.”