Problems Plague Filmmaking

As if the Aussie production industry wasn’t having enough trouble keeping its head above water thanks to a severe downturn, it’s also plagued by three pressing problems that impinge on the crucial areas of coin-raising, international co-production and available talent.

The importation of foreign actors has dogged the industry for years. In 1988, the producers’ guild, Screen Production Assn. of Australia, signed an agreement with Actors’ Equity limiting the number of imports in films that incorporated government funding.

Late last year SPAA gave AE notice that it was canceling the agreement from Feb. 22, which it did despite government intervention to set up a working party to head off potential clashes (VARIETY, Feb. 25). SPAA stuck to its stance that restrictions put Australian producers at a commercial and creative disadvantage. AE believes the move will create an open-door policy.

At press time, however, SPAA and AE had rejected a government proposal, and AE and government had rejected an SPAA proposal. Working party thus is in abeyance while each camp regroups and an uneasy status quo exists, with production proceeding without any limitations (subject to Immigration Department approval). “And I haven’t noticed Australian producers trying to bring in plane loads of U.S. actors yet,” says SPAA prexy Phil Gerlach.

AE federal secretary Michael Crosby however maintains that current production came under the earlier agreement, so there will be a “pipeline effect” of imports as new productions begin. Although strike action is distasteful in the current downturn, Crosby avers the “utopia” Aussie producers are seeking is not on. “The reality is there’s organization out there called Actors’ Equity that has to represent its members; it’s not about to fall over and die.”

Tied in with the issue of foreign elements are local content regulations. Specifically, official co-productions – thoseconducted with countries Australia has production treaties and understandings with – don’t necessarily rate as local content here under the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal’s obscure local content standards, used by commercial nets since the beginning of 1990 to maintain a minimum amount of local programming.

ABT has maintained its stance even though the major purpose of such co-prods is to trigger the benefits of local content in each participating country. Fifteen official Aussie co-prods have been approved since 1986.

Says Richard Samuels, head of Atlantis Releasing’s Oz operation, “One reason we’re here is to co-produce, but our ability to get involved is limited by these ridiculous rules. The important point that has been neglected is that co-productions will supplement local content, not replace it. Surely any Australian production is better than no production.”

Adds Matt Carroll, of Roadshow Coote & Carroll: “You may as well tear up the co-production agreements. This makes a mockery of the whole thing.”

Such objection to this bureaucratic position finally prompted Transport & Communications Minister Km Beazley earlier this month to ask the ABT to inquire into the effects of co-production treaties on the industry. Its initial brief is to “identify any regulatory constraints which currently affect the operation of the treaties and foreign productions made in Australia.”

But Oz producers won’t be getting a quick solution. ABT has until June 30 to make an initial report; if constraints are found (and they’re not hard to see) Tribunal has until Sept. 30 to report on the “appropriate” means to “balance the need for Australian content… with the development of a competitive and viable… production industry.”

Rules of another government body – corporate watchdog, the Australian Securities Commission – are proving troublesome. Its rules governing fund-raising, in place since Jan. 1, will severely hamper the ability of smaller productions to seek coin from private investors.

Producers will now need a highly detailed prospectus to raise money (including any approach made to the Australian Film Finance Corp.) That’s expensive, and it ladles liability on to normally cautious and potentially unwilling lawyers and auditors. Previously, film investment came under an exemption scheme where prospectuses weren’t required unless the film was over a certain budget.

The aim of the new rules is to protect investors – not just involved in film – but industryites agree the effects will be broader than intended.

ASC has indicated it sees no reason why the film industry should get special treatment. However the FFC, as damage control, has just finished a proposal for a “preferred investor” exemption scheme. This would make prospectuses unnecessary when investors are state governments or legitimate backers like distributors and broadcasters.

The ASC will be asked to consider the proposal urgently, given the end of the fiscal year – June 30, the traditional time for raising coin – is fast approaching.

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