Filmmakers seek lower talent fees

Sky's the limit for Oz actors

SYDNEY — When Australia’s internationally renowned thesps come back to star in Oz films, should there be a cap on their fees? Yes, according to some producers and directors, who worry local budgets can’t justify upfront salaries of A$1 million ($750,000) or more.

No, comes the emphatic response from the local actors’ guild and some agents, who contend any ceiling is unfair and could deter actors from returning to work Down Under.

The Australian Screen Directors Assn. and some producers are calling on funding body Film Finance Corp. Australia to set a limit on actors’ fees. If adopted, it would apply to the vast majority of Aussie films, since few projects can proceed without FFC coin.

ASDA has not proposed a precise dollar ceiling, but as a possible model it cites Fox Searchlight, which reportedly pays its thesps a max of $500,000 (but also rewards them with a slice of first-dollar grosses).

“Fees for directors, writers and producers effectively have been capped for many years,” says ASDA exec director Richard Harris. “The FFC has taken a position on how much directors, writers and producers can earn, so why not for actors?

“As an independent industry we have to remain competitive with the budgets of U.S. indie films. We can’t afford to spend big money on cast, not even for our international stars.”

The industry began to focus on the issue after Cate Blanchett returned to Sydney to topline “Little Fish” for a reported $750,000. Around the same time, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman were signed for Fox Searchlight’s Oz pic “Eucalyptus.”

Producer Emile Sherman was delighted when Heath Ledger agreed to star alongside Abbie Cornish in “Candy,” a saga of drug-addicted lovers, but he supports the idea of a cap.

“The FFC should take the lead in setting limits and deciding what (salaries) are appropriate,” says Sherman, who’s producing “Candy,” which rolls in March, with Margaret Fink. “We have to keep fees and budgets at a reasonable level, especially for films with a difficult subject, so we can take risks and make interesting movies that will attract our internationally known actors.”

The Screen Producers Assn. of Australia is wary of imposing any limit. although it’s concerned that top-dollar fees are putting pressure on budgets. “We recognize that marquee names can provide leverage we would not otherwise have,” says SPAA exec director Geoff Brown.

He adds, however, that his org does not want to set the precedent of giving thesps a percentage of first-dollar grosses after fighting over that issue this year with the Media, Arts & Entertainment Alliance.

Simon Whipp, MEAA’s national Equity director, contends thesps who come back to work in Aussie films already accept fees that are significantly lower than they normally receive. “If fees are reduced to a level that’s no longer attractive, we may find the trend of performers returning to work in their own industry is short-lived,” Whipp adds. “That would be short-sighted and small-minded.”

FFC chief exec Brian Rosen is continuing to consult with talent agents and other sectors of the industry and he plans to present a paper to the FFC board early next year, so it can determine its policy on actors’ compensation.

“We have to look at what’s sustainable and whether there should be a limit on the cash component of their fees, with the rest deferred from films’ recoupment, in which they would participate pari passu with other investors,” Rosen says.

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