Expats unite: H’wood puts on an accent

Group aims to provide networking spot for o'seas talent

At 10 o’clock on a June evening, the monthly Film Expats meeting revs into high gear. The dimly lit backroom of the Formosa Cafe looks like a crowded elevator with a bar. People call out for drinks in a wild cacophony of accents.

“We have members from Australia, Argentina, Germany, Spain, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Singapore, Japan, India and Iceland,” says Susanna Bieger, a German immigrant who is a creative executive with the Radmin Co.

Bieger formed Film Expats two years ago with Lupe Rilova, a story editor at Pretty Pictures. “We wanted to provide a networking opportunity for foreign talent,” she says. “We started with 12 members, we now have 525 from more than 50 different countries. We have composers, editors, agents, managers, directors, actors and production designers.”

Every year, thousands of hopefuls flock to Hollywood from all corners of the world with dreams of writing, directing, producing, or just landing a decent midlevel position in the entertainment biz. Expats from various countries share many commonalities, but just as many differences. What follows are snapshots of three prominent Hollywood communities.

The Aussies

Susie Dobson glances at the red carpet and toppled velvet ropes on the front steps of the Harmony Gold Theater and laughs. It’s 10:45 p.m. and the members of the Los Angeles Australian Film & Television Assn. have spilled out of the lobby, swigging Hahn beer and filling the night with raucous laughter.

Dobson handled the publicity for this evening’s screening of “Standing Room Only,” a short directed by Aussie actress Deborra-Lee Furness, and a new Oz feature, “The Hard Word,” starring Aussies Guy Pearce and Rachel Griffiths.

The red carpet was set up for the benefit of a Channel 9 News crew, but the crowd of Aussies spoiled the staging by stepping around the carpet and over the velvet ropes. “Australians are not into the red carpet,” says Dobson. “There isn’t any of the Hollywood pecking-order stuff.”

Modeled after the British Academy of Film & Television Arts, LAAFTA was founded two years ago and now has about 350 members. “Our membership ranges from Australians who’ve been here 20 years to people who have just arrived,” says association VP Megan Worthy.

LAAFTA throws glitzy Oscar parties at the Australian deputy consul’s residence in Beverly Hills, events that are attended by such big-name Aussies as Nicole Kidman and director Baz Luhrmann. It also holds monthly screenings to promote the work of Oz writers, directors and actors.

One of them, Helen Dallimore, already has an agent, but she certainly wouldn’t mind meeting a director or producer who would give her a job. Dallimore is trying to keep her chin up after a frustrating five months in this country. She graduated from Australia’s prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Arts (its alumnae include Cate Blanchett, Mel Gibson and Geoffrey Rush), and starred in plays with the Sidney Theater Co., three Aussie features, and several TV movies and minis.

What has she done since arriving in Hollywood? “A hell of a lot of auditions!” she says. “It’s a rough transition. You can have a resume as long as your arm and a wonderful show reel, but here you join the queue with everybody else.”

The Aussies have one of the most tight-knit expat communities in L.A., and many find, after the initial rude adjustments, that the Oz network can give them a distinct advantage.

Rob Marsala worked as an assistant at UTA for two years then made the leap to becoming a manager. “The whole expat community has been very helpful to me,” says Marsala. What you’ve got going for you is that Australianism. You might be able to sign an Australian even though another manager might be more prominent or influential, because as Aussies you understand each other.”

There are other informal venues in which Oz expats come together. “Whenever Australian musicians like Kate Ceberano or Colin Hay might be performing at the Key Club, Largo or the Viper Room, everyone trots off to see them,” says Dobson.

And then, of course, there’s rugby.

The Italians

Carmen Piccini was in this country for five years before she finally managed to land an invitation to the Italian Film Commission/Italia Cinema’s annual Academy Awards party. Held at the Pacific Design Center in March, the event was held to celebrate the nominations of production designer Dante Ferretti and producer Alberto Grimaldi for their work on “Gangs of New York.”

“It was a scene out of ‘La Dolce Vita’!,” says Piccini. “Getting invited to that event is like a pronouncement that you’ve arrived.”

Invitations are coveted, in part, because Italian expats have no central organization that draws the community together. The Italian Cultural Institute occasionally sponsors screenings of Italo pics, but they are too few and far between to act as a cohesive force. This makes it tough for newcomers to network with their fellow countrymen, as Piccini discovered when she first arrived.

“It was hard finding my way in L.A.,” she says. “I didn’t know anybody. I tried to meet all of the Italians working in film here. But it’s not really easy to find them. They’re scattered.”

Piccini finally decided to create her own break by producing and directing “The Magic of Fellini,” a well-received documentary that recently played at the Cannes Film Festival to mark the 10th anniversary of Fellini’s death. It also won her an invitation to the Oscar party.

Spinotti did not have to hustle jobs when he moved to L.A. six years ago. He’d already been traveling back and forth to America for 16 years to work on feature films, and was nominated for an Oscar for his cinematography on “L.A. Confidential.”

Spinotti counts a number of Italian expats as close friends, but says, “I wouldn’t call our community tight-knit. Everybody goes about his or her own business. I don’t really use my Italian friends as a support network, nor do I go to them with problems that I wouldn’t take to my American friends.”

Why don’t Italians band together like the Aussies and Brits? “Intuitively, I think it’s the language,” says Cecilia Miniucchi, who has directed documentaries and musicvideos, and is about to helm indie feature “Pluck,” starring Harvey Keitel.

“The Australians, and the Brits can penetrate this culture because they speak the language, and constitute a working group parallel to what goes on in Hollywood. For us, you either integrate or you’re out. The mindset is completely different in America. I don’t think there is any other nation as dedicated as this one is to working.”

The Mexicans

If the Italo expat community seems to lack a center, the Mexican community hardly seems to exist at all. The Mexican Consulate sponsors few events for expats in the entertainment industry, nor do Mexicans congregate at informal hangouts or socialize as a group, and many are not interested in doing so.

“I came here to assimilate,” says Eduardo Verastegui, who was a Mexican soap opera and pop music star before he came to the U.S. to play the leads in a pair of features, “Chasing Papi” and “My Gardner.” “I didn’t come here to hang out and work with only Mexicans. What is beautiful about this place is that there are so many cultures, from Asians to Americans to Latinos — they’re all here and everybody becomes American.

In recent years, many Mexican expats have made it onto the Hollywood A-list: directors Alfonso Cuaron, helming the next “Harry Potter” pic, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Amores perros”), who recently finished directing Sean Penn in “21 Grams.” The group also includes cinematographers Rodrigo Prieto (“8 Mile,” “25th Hour” and “Frida”) and Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked with Cuaron on “Great Expectations” and “Y tu mama tambien” as well as Tim Burton (“Sleepy Hollow”) and Michael Mann (“Ali”).

“It’s an unusual time where there’s a coming of age of a population that is American, but still close to its cultural roots,” says Sergio Aguero, who produced “Y tu mama,” and recently formed Apuesta Pictures with Mexican entrepreneur Jorge Vergara to produce mainstream film and TV productions with a Latino sensibility.

“All of the Hollywood Mexicans are truly bicultural,” he says. “They’re Mexican, and yet they speak perfect English and know how to create and do business in an American way. Most of them are from an upper-middle-class background and they’ve traveled.”

Aguero, who was born in Spain and has worked on a number of European productions, believes that Mexicans are better equipped to succeed in America than many Europeans. “The Spaniards, Italians and French have more of a cultural gap to bridge,” he says. “It’s easier for Mexicans to understand the American business culture and the creative pacing than it is for Southern Europeans that come from an auteur perspective.

“Many Europeans come from government-financed film industries and their practices are less free market. The cultures are older; life is very pleasurable in Spain, Italy and France. And if you succeed in that kind of environment, then from a business point of view coming here is brutal. But Mexicans know how to come here and dance the dance.”

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