Australian film industry celebrates best year in two decades amid brawl over foreign actors’ visas

By Adrian Raschella

The Australian film industry has done a roaring trade at the local box office this year, with 2015 shaping up to be the best year in two decades.

Blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road has led the charge, taking more than $21 million at the cinema, placing it at ninth spot in the all-time top ten Australian films.

The Water Diviner, starring Russell Crowe, earned more than $15 million in Australia, and the low budget family film Paper Planes was a surprise hit raking in more than $10 million.

But Australians are a fickle lot when it comes to supporting the home-grown product at the cinema.

2014 ended up as the second worst year for box office takings in four decades.

This year’s bumper business coincides with a push by producers for a major change in the way foreign actors and crew are granted visas to work in Australia.

Currently the union representing actors — the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance — has to sign off on any visa granted to a foreigner to work on a production that has any subsidy from the Australian taxpayer.

Many Australian films receive some of their funding from Screen Australia or the various state-based film financing bodies, along with tax breaks

The Screen Producers Association wants the union to be taken out of the equation.

“For everyone that comes into the country, the union is involved in the decision that is made,” said Matthew Deaner, executive director at SPA.

“The question is why does that happen, and is there any other industry in Australia that does that, or is there any other industry globally that does that? And the answer to both of those questions is no.”

The SPA argues the process is costly, time-consuming, and an added layer of red tape.

But actors who support the status quo say it is a system that developed decades ago to ensure Australians tell their own stories, especially when funded by the taxpayers.

Actor Geoff Morrell, who has been one of the faces of the union campaign against change, said the current rules were what had helped create a true Australian film industry.

“I think we’re really putting at risk the future of our industry, for maybe some short-term gain,” he said.

Morrell fears removing the union from the equation could lead to complete deregulation, and the end of limits on foreigners working on Australian productions.

Under the rules for films with taxpayer support, at least 50 per cent of lead roles and 75 per cent of support roles must be filled by Australian performers.

Call to embrace ‘global concept’ of film-making

Geoff Morrell said this year’s impressive Australian box office belied the true fragility of the local industry.

“The crisis in our industry, and it’s a recognised crisis, is that Australian films, even with international stars in them, are lucky to make $100,000 in their season,” he said.

“So is the answer to make more of those, or is the answer to look at the industry and say, ‘How do we make a film that is going to speak both to us and to an international audience?’.

“I believe the answer is not by allowing the free importing of as many actors as they wish. I just personally do not believe that is the answer, and it could cause more long-term damage than a lot of people suspect.”

But not all actors feel the same way.

Roy Billing believes the Australian industry has matured and there are already enough checks and balances carried out by funding bodies to make sure the foreign worker restrictions were upheld.

“Well, I’m all in favour of deregulation, I think the union should be taken out of it completely,” he said.

Billing said the current system did not recognise the reality of modern film-making.

“I’m saying it is broken… it’s old fashioned protectionism that’s served its purpose and now we need to embrace the whole global concept of filmmaking,” he said

“There are so many people competing for finance around the world and people who are investing in screen productions understandably want some reassurance that they’re going to have a chance of getting their money back.

“Part of that is having bankable stars, and if one of our bankable stars isn’t available or suitable for the role I think producers should have the option of bringing in whoever they like.”

A Federal Government review of the system is expected to report its findings later this year.

Australia Wide’s report on the film industry in the fight of its life will air on August 1 at 11:30am on ABC News 24.

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