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Oz talent fee caps stir dispute

Ceiling on salaries could deter sky-high budgets

SYDNEY — A proposed cap on fees for U.S. and Australian thesps who star in government-funded films is causing deep divisions in the Oz industry.

The Australian Screen Directors Assn. (ASDA) and some producers are calling for a ceiling on stars’ salaries, fearing a recent spurt in budgets will make many films noncompetitive with U.S. indie pics (Variety Dec. 27- Jan 2).

If adopted, the cap would apply to all films funded by the government’s Film Finance Corp., which invests in the vast majority of the nation’s annual output.

Vet producer Tony Buckley derides the proposed cap as “professionally demeaning, mean-spirited and totally impractical. It would create a two-tier system of budgeting, and thereby create a second-class feature film industry.”

Buckley’s words carry some weight, because he is a member of the FFC’s board, which is due to consider the issue at its Feb. 9 meeting. Initially, Buckley objected to the notion that Oz actors would be subject to a pay limit that wouldn’t apply to U.S. or other overseas thesps cast in the same picture. But the FFC says any ceiling would apply to everyone.

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Producer-director Robert Connolly is in favor of a “respectful” limit, but, like ASDA, he hasn’t yet specified a sum.

“When we’re making fewer films than at any time in the past 20 years, films are costing more than ever and the FFC is investing a higher percentage of budgets than ever before with its new evaluation process, it isn’t inappropriate for the industry to question how much our films should cost,” says Connolly, who is in post-production on the Frances O’Connor/David Wenham starrer “Three Dollars.”

Some producers say the $500,000 max Fox Searchlight forks out to actors is a reasonable benchmark. Alarms were triggered in some circles when Cate Blanchett received roughly $750,000 to appear in Oz drama “Little Fish,” and the budgets of several pics exceeded $7.5 million.

Buckley contends even mid-level U.S. thesps and some Aussies won’t work for lower fees. Connolly disagrees, citing Warner Independent Pictures’ “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” helmed by Aussie John Curran, which cost a reported $3 million and starred Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause.

Actors guild the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance, is adamantly opposed to any ceiling, arguing it would deter successful Aussies who work abroad from returning for local films.

One scheme being bruited is to have a cap on salaries for films funded through the FFC’s evaluation process, but no limit on pics that go through its “marketplace” door; the latter route requires producers to come up with hefty pre-sales or minimum guarantees from local and overseas distribs and sales agents.