Brain drain: The point of no return

How many Australian practitioners are there working around the worldAustralia’s screen professionals must be free to practice their skills anywhere in the world, but how do we stop this healthy career development from becoming a dangerous brain drain? Miguel Gonzalez reports.

If we were to make a list of all the Australian screen practitioners who have made it overseas, it would be a very long list indeed. It would probably start with the A-list creatives everybody knows, followed by the more anonymous and numerous executives, directors, producers, editors, cinematographers, VFX artists and technicians working all over the world.

While it is to be expected that many – if not all – industry practitioners would seek to expand their horizons and work internationally at some point in their careers to reach other markets, work in other systems and cultures and develop new skills, leaving Australia should not be an act of professional desperation.

The historical fluctuation in the volume of international productions shooting in Australia has become a prolonged draught, intensified by an Australian dollar that has reached historical heights against its US counterpart. Add the difficulty in getting local projects up and running, and the result is an industry suffering from a constant brain drain it may never recover from.

Encore asked Screen Australia, Ausfilm and AFTRS whether they had any statistics about screen industry professionals working overseas or leaving the industry. They don’t, but even if there are no exact figures, the problem is still very real.

These migrants range from experienced creatives seeking better opportunities, to disillusioned recent graduates that are packing their things before even getting started here- they simply don’t see the point in even trying. They’re homegrown skilled talent that other countries, the US in particular, will benefit from. If in the future they don’t find an environment that will allow them to return and work here again, they might be gone forever.

In her keynote at last year’s SPAA Conference, renowned film critic Margaret Pomeranz lamented the industry’s brain drain and talked about a case that is very close to her heart, that of data wrangler Felix Pomeranz – her own son.

“The reason for my roaming ways was not so much out of choice but more out of necessity. The difficulty in finding work here was 100 percent behind my decision to try and get more work overseas. I had a great flat, a girlfriend and all my family were in Sydney, but if I wanted to keep going with my chosen career path, there were just not a lot of movies going on in Australia that I could work on. Luckily, it got to the point where people that had heard of me were from LA, so I started getting offers for jobs overseas,” explained Felix.

First it was the first Narnia film in New Zealand, followed by Night at the Museum in Vancouver, The Golden Compass in the UK and many others in different destinations, leading up to his current job on The Life of Pi in Taiwan.

Felix never officially ‘moved’ overseas, always coming back home between projects, but he is now trying to base himself in the UK “because that’s where the work is”. His highlights are “the travels and the people”; having been able to not just travel but to live in places he never even expected to visit.

“It’s about getting the opportunity to experience different cultures and seeing how international crews operate, and different ideas in how to approach problems,” he explained. “The learning curve for me was massive, and being able to compare it to my Australian knowledge has been invaluable.” These years of living on the move have come at a high price, beyond the practical inconveniences of constant relocation.

“One of the toughest issues is leading two lives; I still have certain financial commitments in Sydney and I pay all my tax there even though I spend so little time here. I’m close to making the move overseas to ease the burden.

“And while I was doing Prince Caspian in the Czech Republic, my father was very ill and I always remember hating not having the option of coming home at that time. My family are constantly trying to figure out how to get me home.”

Older brother Josh took on the responsibility of running Spectrum Films after the death of his father (“I had trained for that with him and it was a natural succession”).

“I like living in Australia and despite the frustrations of recent times, I like the challenges offered in this country. Felix is lucky to be involved in work that he loves, but there’s a downside to his life; he lives most of the time out of a suitcase in hotel rooms, and the fact that he hasn’t had the opportunity to work here for the past 2.5 years has been disappointing for all of us,” said Josh.

“When you have developed a high degree of skill and there is no possibility of employment in your home country, but opportunities beckon elsewhere, I’d say there is very little choice in the matter,” he said. “You need to maintain your skill base, expand it at every opportunity, or go drive a cab, wait on tables or opt for a tree-change. It’s significant that talent like Elissa Down or Ben Lucas are already in LA. Who knows where David Michôd will make his next film?”

Josh Pomeranz’s experience with the industry’s brain drain goes beyond his brother; the company has also suffered the loss of a number of editors to the US over the years, as well as the impact of the lack of international productions coming to Australia.

“Being a location business at Fox Studios, we are reliant on throughput from studio work, but this has been non-existent so we have survived through our local TV and feature slate. If post facilities like ourselves (with The Waiting City and Sleeping Beauty, for example), Deluxe, Omnilab and Animal Logic hadn’t invested in features, the situation would be even more dire. The loyalty of filmmakers like Peter Weir, who may shoot overseas but return to do post in Australia, has also been significant.”


Just months after the release of his first feature Summer Coda, director Richard Gray relocated to the US. His film was scheduled to play at Palm Springs in January, followed by screenings in LA and Florida, as well as the upcoming Seattle Film Festival, so moving made sense for him.

One of his next projects, the thriller Done Deal (written by his wife Michele and starring Rachael Taylor and Josh Lawson) is conveniently set in LA. Gray recently shot a short film/trailer for the project, and he’s also followed up the contacts made at Australian initiatives such as MIFF’s 37 South Market.

“The combination of a festival circuit and shooting upon arrival has not only kept us busy, but given us great things to discuss and promote in meetings. We’re currently pitching a slate of five pictures, all different genres. It hasn’t been difficult to arrange meetings and put some financing structures in place. Whether they eventuate is a different matter, but having your fingers in a lot of different pies seems to be working,” said Gray.

The move is not permanent – at least not yet: “The reality is that for the most part, Aussie audiences just don’t support Aussie cinema at the moment. At least for now LA is the right place for me, but that’s not to say it’s my home, and with a bit of luck we’ll be shooting a new Aussie feature early next year. There will always be Australian stories to tell; the problem is they will mostly be seen by a much, much smaller audience.

“There’s more opportunities here, more connections and more films being made, but the competition is far greater too,” admitted Gray. “And there are so many Aussies in LA! Kinda like a plague, but a good plague, not like locusts.”

Another Aussie living in LA is television/TVC director Ian Stevenson. He received the US green card in 2006 and, looking for new opportunities, he moved there with his wife, actress Katherine Hyne, and their children.

The first two years were “very good” for them, but after the GFC hit, things got difficult in 2008 and 2009.

“It’s had its ups and downs. It’s very competitive here, especially if you’re going for a director job, or any of the top roles,” said Stevenson.

He has directed shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race (VH1), Battle of the Bands (Fuse) and, for Discovery, Battleground Earth and Bone Detectives. This last project took him to 10 countries, filming in remote locations that are usually off limits.

“I would’ve never had the chance to direct a show like that in Sydney,” said Stevenson. “I just shot a show for Ashton Kutcher’s company and one for an American Idol producer, so in that sense, it has exceeded my expectations.”


A local body of work wasn’t’ so important for Felix Pomeranz, because the projects he worked on living in Australia were usually big budget Hollywood films such as Star Wars Episodes II and III and the two Matrix sequels.

“What was important for me – which I only realised later – was working with and learning from Australian crews. From my travels I’ve realised that Australian crews are some of the best in the world, and taking their work ethic and skills as a guide put me in a great position,’ he said.

For Richard Gray, an Australian body of work is more important on a confidence level: “You want to feel like you can run a set and work well wherever you are. Ninety percent of the time your US contact wont’ have seen your Aussie film, but it does help when they google you and see you’ve done some solid work prior to hopping on the boat.”

Ian Stevenson agrees that a good showreel will get you noticed: “It helped me get an agent, which is crucial. It’s an industry that thrives on trying to find the next hot thing. There are so many people knocking on doors and saying ‘Here I am’, but if you’ve got something good tho show, you can certainly be hot property”.

However, he also admits that while work done in Australia is a good calling card, helpful to get the conversations going, “in the end people just want to see American credits”.

Felix Pomeranz recommends to “just throw yourself out there and be ready for different challenges”. Richard Gray’s advice is to have projects ready to go: “We’ve come over with a slate and are shooting trailers and shorts for those films. We’ve always got something new to show, and shooting is the best way to meet people, network and find new friends, which in turn bring new opportunities.”

Stevenson’s recommendation is quite practical: have deep pockets, because it might take a while to get a job.

“You must have some capital, or be prepared to do some other job. You’d be lucky if you came here and got a job straight away,” he said. “For some it might happen overnight, but you must give yourself time. Even after five years I feel like I’m starting to break through only now. Some say you have to be here 10 years before you’re fully accepted.”


According to Rising Sun Pictures managing director Tony Clark, the brain drain in the animation and visual effects sector is a huge issue. The lack of consistency of workflow means companies are constantly hiring artists on short-term contracts, training them in their internal workflow and then losing them and their skills to other companies or countries when they move on.

“Projects like Legend of the Guardians and the Harry Potter series have allowed Australian companies to showcase world-class capability, but there’s not enough consistency of work to maintain staffing levels, so we’re all stuck in a boom-bust cycle,” he said. “This volatility makes it harder to maintain staffing, undertake artist development and remain competitive in the marketplace. The constant relocation and training involved in bringing new staff on a project-by-project basis creates an overhead which makes us less competitive against overseas providers. It’s normal for people to move, but those kinds of volumes are dangerous for our industry.”

His counterpart at Animal Logic, Zareh Nalbandian, agrees: “We need to offer people a sense of permanency, that they can make a long-term commitment, raise their family, buy a house and all those things that go with life.”

But the brain drain is not just about professionals moving overseas; others, technicians in particular, stay here but abandon the industry. Depending on their area of expertise, they may have a hard time redefining their career path.

Production manager Jennifer Cornwell (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Knowing, Superman Returns) told Encore that there are not enough jobs to keep all of our technicians employed. In fact, she has received many emails in the last couple of weeks, from crew that are chasing work outside the industry and need a reference.

“Some seriously drive taxis and wait in cafés. Some look to a similar field, which is difficult; it’s hard to transfer our skills from film to other industries,” she said. “Sometimes the crew find temporary work outside the industry in hope that the situation will improve, but in the current climate they know that may not happen. I’m currently looking at other areas for myself, as I have now been out of work for over eight months, but I am struggling with other industries recognising what my capabilities and qualifications are and how they relate to their industry.”


Everyone that Encore spoke with agrees: ex-pat screen practitioners still call Australia home… or at least they’d like the chance to do so again.

“If there’s a project that’s creatively satisfying and is funded in Oz, then you’re back in a flash,” said Richard Gray. There’s only one problem: “It’s easier said than done”, he added.

Felix Pomeranz suggests a tax incentive “for Australians that are forced away or chose to go, but will come back to share their knowledge… an incentive for those people to come home”.

But the best way to tackle the issue, he says, is to produce enough content to give people the option, “something to come home to and use their newfound skills”. His brother Josh makes an important point: if Australian taxpayers have financially invested in the productions that helped screen practitioners develop their skills, they’d probably like to see opportunities created for them to utilise said skills, here.

“You only have to look at the experience that Phillip Noyce brought back with him from his time in the US, which resulted in Rabbit Proof Fence,” said Josh.

Zareh Nalbandian believes that creating jobs is not good enough to retain or attract talent; they also need to be good projects: “What AL is doing to reverse the brain drain is to develop and produce projects that are global in nature, ambitious in terms of scale. They’re talent magnets that can advance people’s careers and reputations in the marketplace. It’s not just about offering a job, but being able to create opportunities here that are equal to those overseas; bigger projects with bigger salaries that can give them better credits.”

Tony Clark believes that while the Producer Offset has created opportunities to make projects like Guardians and Happy Feet 2, an increase in the Location and PDV rebates (from 15 to 30 percent) is critical to the survival of the industry: “We don’t have long to get this right,” he added.

Time is ticking away and Australia needs to address its brain drain before the results are permanent, understanding that it’s not about keeping talent from leaving, clipping their wings so they can’t fly away and shine at an international level. It’s about creating the right conditions here for their triumphal return.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.