Oz industry scrambles to ward off U.S. threat

Next round of trade talks begins May 19

SYDNEY — Film agencies, producers and state governments are stepping up the campaign to persuade the federal government to protect local TV quotas and film subsidies from the threat of further Hollywood domination.

The next round of talks for a U.S.-Australia free-trade agreement is due to begin May 19 in Hawaii, and producers fear the government’s refusal to exempt local content regs from negotiations may indicate a willingness to trade off cultural support against greater U.S. access to lucrative industries such as sugar producers.

“We want (TV regs and film incentives) taken off the table,” says Screen Producers Assn. of Australia exec director Geoff Brown. The org’s board has instructed him to go to Hawaii to press the case either this month or in July for the following round of talks, depending on when the audiovisual sector is on the agenda.

SPAA’s alarm over the U.S.’ intentions was sparked when Brown met U.S. chief trade negotiator Ralph Ives in Canberra in March. Brown says the U.S. view is “there should be no limits or restrictions” on access to TV screens, film subsidies and media ownership.

Last week the premiers of New South Wales and Queensland called on the federal government to protect the film and TV industries after U.S. President George Bush told Prime Minister John Howard he wants to conclude the FTA deal by the end of this year. He hopes to secure Congress approval in early 2004.

Australian Film Commission chairman Maureen Barron told industry briefings last week it appears the U.S. has shifted its focus in the parallel World Trade Organization talks and now wants Australia to keep existing cultural measures without any ability to alter these in future.

“The Australian position is to retain the right to determine, alter and potentially strengthen cultural regulation,” she says.

Brown declares, “As a sovereign nation we should have the right to extend subsidies, for example, to distribution and exhibition as the U.K. has done.”

Australian trade negotiators say they don’t expect the audiovisual sector to be raised by the Americans until July, after a U.S. Intl. Trade Commission report analyzing the potential impact of FTA measures is presented to its government.

“We will put forward our view on why we have these cultural policies and why they are important,” says one Oz trade source. “We have a good case to argue, (but) we are not saying to the Americans, ‘We are not going to listen to you’.”

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