Last month a new 408 temporary activity visa replaced several temporary work visas, including the 420 entertainment visa for actors, musicians, entertainers and crew.
The new framework is designed to make the process of applying for a temporary visa simpler for business, industry and individuals. This is a result of the skilled migration and temporary activity review, which the Department of Immigration and Border Protection launched in December 2014.
It’s a welcome step forward, but the entertainment industry, including the screen sector, still will be at an unfair disadvantage. That’s because of a legislative requirement in the migration regulations for compulsory union consultation over temporary visa applications.
Our industry is the only one in the country with such a requirement. What’s more, we have to pay consultation fees to the union, on top of visa application fees charged by the department.
The process that the actors union, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, helped establish more than 20 years ago for screen industry consultation requires paying a fee and the lodging of commercially sensitive documentation. This information goes far beyond the reasons for importing overseas talent. As well as the script and details of local cast and crew, MEAA must get the finance plan. The fees MEAA has received for this compulsory process, across the entertainment industry, totalled $467,355 in 2013-14 and $421,712 in 2014-15.
The screen industry increasingly is worried that private finance, necessary to trigger production subsidies, is drying up. Investors are naturally more comfortable about getting their money back when a marquee actor is cast. If one of our own stars is unavailable or unsuitable for a role, producers must have the option to cast an overseas name that can attract investors. More private finance means more and bigger productions, translating to more work for everyone in the industry. The visa process has been a real barrier to that happening. The statistics support that concern.
The government screen funding body, Screen Australia, reveals that private investment in subsidised screen production has halved in the past 10 years. A recent survey confirmed that the screen sector supports more than 46,600 full-time jobs. Actors, and the relatively small proportion of film crew who are MEAA members, make up a minority of these jobs. Think about the credits at the end of a film … they are still rolling long after the cast list. It’s not just about actors.
Last year the government called for submissions for a review into the possibility of simplifying the application process for temporary visas for the screen industry. Throughout that process it was clear that a whole range of people and organisations supported sensible reform — from fellow actors such as John Jarratt, independent producers such as Helen Leake and Antony I. Ginnane, directors, cinematographers, composers, writers, distributors and sales agents such as Odin’s Eye, television networks, casting directors and actors’ agents, screen production companies such as See Saw Films, through to the main screen business association, Screen Producers Australia.
It is really only the union that opposes any changes to the compulsory consultation process and I wonder whether this is mainly to do with the prospect of losing the substantial income from the consultation fees it charges. It certainly does not seem to have a genuine desire to see more work opportunities created for its members. Last year MEAA ran a disingenuous campaign called Save Our Stories in which it made unsubstantiated claims that if the union were taken out of the visa consultation process, government-subsidised screen productions would somehow be cast and crewed by Americans and not tell Australian stories.
This has no basis in fact. All taxpayer subsidised productions must pass the significant Australian content test, which means Screen Australia must be satisfied that the project has a significant level of Australian content and satisfies Australian cultural aspirations. The SAC test was signed off by all screen industry stakeholders including MEAA.
The Australian taxpayer is not going to fund American car chase movies cast with B-grade American actors.
MEAA also claims that roles in Australian productions should be kept for Australians to support their career growth. That’s old-school thinking. We are long past the 1980s. Now, with so many Australians playing roles in offshore productions, there is no need to score a lead role in an Aussie film to be discovered. Our reputation is such that our actors are very successful in getting international work, some going straight to the US after graduating from acting school. A list, compiled by Ausfilm, of actors who have recently worked, or are working, in the US runs to four pages and is growing.
I can’t see that the ability for producers to cast name foreign actors in some roles in government-subsidised productions should be of concern. More productions will mean more work for everyone. If Cate or Geoffrey can play American or British characters in offshore films, I, for one, have no problems with working in Australian films alongside actors who are American, Indian, British, Chinese, whatever.
It’s time for our industry to be a 21st-century player in the global world of screen production and the government should do everything it can to stop a trade union enforcing protectionism that is preventing Australian screen producers from tapping into global sources of screen production investment.