Aussie producers say 'livelihood is at stake'

SYDNEY — Australian industryites passionately defended local TV content quotas and film subsidies at a packed meeting on Thursday and warned of the consequences if the U.S. gains greater access to this market in a free trade agreement now being negotiated.

Successive speakers claimed the U.S. sees the treaty — its second with a developed country after one with Canada — as a precedent that would become a model for future agreements.

“If we lose the fight for local content, we will lose our industry,” Screen Producers Assn. of Australia president Stephen Smith said in an industry briefing at a Sydney hotel, hosted by the Australian Film Commission.

Smith stressed that if the local industry were weakened, Oz could not continue to attract big-budget productions from the U.S. and elsewhere, bluntly declaring, “Our livelihood is at stake here.”

Australian Screen Directors Assn. director Richard Harris said, “Our basic fear is that Australia has very little (by way of concessions) to trade in negotiations, and the Americans will bang their fists on the table and say, ‘What are you going to give us on audio-visual?’ “

He suggested the Yanks may extract concessions on the local content quotas for commercials and docus, or regs on permitting nonresidents to work in the Australian entertainment industry.

Negotiations began in March, and the next round is due to start May 19 in Hawaii. President Bush told Prime Minister John Howard last weekend he wants to conclude the FTA deal by the end of this year so he can secure Congress approval in early 2004.

Dr. Milton Churche, Australia’s lead negotiator for services and investment, told the gathering he does not expect his U.S. counterparts to present specific requests in the media and entertainment markets until July.

But he acknowledged, “The U.S. will see this (agreement) as a precedent, and they will try to get the best outcome they can on audiovisual.”

AFC chairman Maureen Barron expressed concerns the U.S. may seek concessions in e-commerce and digital distribution as a way to achieve access “by the back door.”

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