Aussie Actors May Strike Over Import Of Thesps

A showdown is looming between Australian producers and Actors’ Equity over the use of imported actors in local film and tv production following the scrapping of a proposed temporary treaty.

Producers’ guild the Screen Production Assn. of Australia disclosed late last year that it would terminate on Feb. 22 the agreement setting importation restrictions (VARIETY, Dec. 3). Work continued uninterrupted through Feb. 22, but the threat of a stoppage looms.

Agreement, in effect for a couple of years, limits the number of foreign actors, determined by budget and source of finance. It principally affects productions that are aided by government money, which are the bulk of production in Oz. The agreement does not govern foreign productions shooting in Oz.

Since the agreement went into effect, AE is quick to point out, a record 166 foreign artists have gained entry for 63 productions; 51 have played in 36 government-subsidized productions.

As no negotiation was taking place between the two camps, Arts Tourism & Territories Minister David Simmons convened an 11th-hour meeting Feb. 18, where it was proposed that a working party look at the issue.

SPAA’s delegation agreed to recommend to its council that the importation rules stay in place at least until Simmons and Immigration Minister Gerry Hand had a chance to respond to the working party’s report, due March 31. Simmons’ office announced the decision the same day.

However, SPAA’s council, made up of reps from different areas of production, decided Feb. 20 to terminate the pact.

“There was really no good reason put forward at the minister’s meeting why the council should change its previous unanimous decision,” says industrial officer Margaret Hill. SPAA did not attend to negotiate. “We came to discuss our differences,” she says.

However, SPAA council at the same time “enthusiastically” embraced the proposal for a working party. That doesn’t mean SPAA will abide by its findings, Hill says, but that it’s willing to listen and participate in any talks of new arrangements.

A spokesperson for Simmons at presstime said SPAA’s decision was “disappointing” and that Simmons hoped negotiations would see SPAA change its stance.

AE Federal Secretary Michael Crosby says SPAA’s turnaround is “another indication of how difficult it is to deal with SPAA. They appear to have an inability to negotiate seriously.” He says AE will continue to push for a negotiated settlement “satisfactory to both parties.”

Given the current downturn in production here, Equity is pushing for a negotiated settlement rather than direct strike action. But, warns Federal Secretary Michael Crosby, “if SPAA continues to demand an open-door policy, Australia’s actors are determined to resist.” Bottom line for AE, he adds, is to “protect its members’ future interests.”

Hill says strike action is “quite unnecessary and would hinder negotiations.”

Timing of the dispute is particularly bad with Location Expo at the end of the week. This year, for the first time, the Aussie Expo contingent will include SPAA and AE reps. And although they’re quick to point out that foreign productions shooting in Oz aren’t affected, any unrest will add to the negative perception some foreign players have of Australia as a place to do business.

Public awareness in Oz is also growing over the issue. Thesps Bryan Brown and John Hargreaves attended the Simmons’ meeting and are doing the media circuit; Mel Gibson has apparently backed down on pro-producer comments made during a “Hamlet” press conference; and 100 noted actors have signed a letter of protest alerting colleagues.

In film and tv only one working day has been lost through Equity industrial action in the last eight years.

Ironically production activity this month is on the upswing. Two large miniseries went into production this week. Features Olympia Dukakis-headliner “Round The Bend” starts shooting Feb. 25, and “The Last Days Of Chez Nous,” with Bruno Ganz, is two weeks into production.

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