U.K. citizens enjoy Hollywood stronghold

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In Hollywood, British quirkiness translates into economic demand: Fox features Hugh Laurie on "House," while NBC cast Michelle Ryan as the lead in its new series "Bionic Woman." Then there's Helen Mirren, who dominated the past two years' awards seasons as HBO's "Elizabeth," the big screen's "The Queen" and Jane Tennison in the PBS series "Prime Suspect." Traditionally, the industry takes for granted that the classically trained, technically proficient English talent pool is bottomless, with actors having free-and-easy access to American shores.

But the recent immigration debate on Capitol Hill has produced legislation which, if passed in its present form, will replace the current temporary visa system with a merit-based system that would threaten much of the freedom British actors have enjoyed in America. The Senate bill was proposed in May and scrapped in June -- but almost certainly will be resurrected after the 2008 presidential elections.

All of which has put expat actors, wannabes and organizations like the Los Angeles branch of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) -- which will hold its annual Britannia Awards tonight -- on notice. BAFTA/LA has provided a strong foundation for British actors and filmmakers in the United States since 1987, offering support, services and community for both established and newly arrived U.K. nationals. But as executive director Don Haber notes, changes in immigration law don't really fall under the aegis of his organization. "Our role is not to advise Congress over who should be admitted to the United States," he says. "Our allegiance is to helping British nationals succeed in Los Angeles."

Currently, foreign actors who might otherwise be classified as "aliens of extraordinary ability or achievement" when they arrive in the U.S. to work on film or TV projects may qualify for an O-1 visa for nonimmigrant workers. A performer might want to stay in the U.S. more permanently -- say, if his pilot gets picked up -- and then would apply for a priority worker EB-1 green card. Both O-1 and EB-1 visas depend on evidence of "extraordinary ability." To obtain them, petitioners need to demonstrate, among other things, their prominence in their field, and provide evidence of any award nomination or conferral, such as an Academy Award, an Emmy -- or a Britannia Award.

"If a production sponsors an alien, the O-1 visa is only for the length of the production. If, however, sponsored by a manager or agent, the O-1 alien may receive a visa for up to three years," says Ron Rehling of Los Angeles-based Rehling Law.

From a practical standpoint, it is important for a performer to have previous experience, a bona fide job offer or letters of intent, as the immigration authorities will typically not approve O-1 visas for performers "to participate in the Hollywood cattle call," adds Rehling.

Actors need proper legal representation, too, which British actress Judi Shekoni -- who has carved out a place for herself in America with stints on shows like ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" -- discovered. "When I came out here I saw several lawyers in New York and L.A., and they all said different things. Every lawyer told me something different: one would tell me I needed an O-1 visa; one would tell me I needed a green card; one would tell me I couldn't get either. One would tell me I needed a job, another said I needed an agent, and it got very confusing."

It may be about to get more confusing. The immigration reform legislation proposed in the Senate includes language that would dispose of the EB-1 preferred status category -- making "aliens of extraordinary ability" subject to an elaborate merit-based evaluation system. Much like the five-tier points-based system set to roll out next year in the U.K., the U.S. legislation stipulates that points be awarded for job skills, narrowly defined education degrees (rather than certificates or other training programs), family connections, English proficiency and employment history.

The nonimmigrant- or temporary-visa categories such as O-1 would remain in place with significant alterations, while the employment-based immigration visas such as EB-1 would be replaced entirely by a 100-point system that contains no "extraordinary ability" provision.

The tendency to overlook ability and achievements is already evident in the U.K. as part of its revamped Highly Skilled Migrant Program, which is seen as the model of things to come under the points-based system. The potential impact of the new system on the entertainment sector has led to a lobbying campaign by a number of organizations and the U.K. government has responded by setting up the Arts and Entertainment Taskforce. Should a points-based system launch in the U.S., the opportunity for immigration lawyers to put the best case forward for their actor clients could be stripped away.

The timing is poor for such changes, with so many British actors finding places in Hollywood.

"Now is the best time for British actors ever," says Shekoni, who is also behind the four-year-old "Make It America" company, which helps ease the transition to America for British actors with workshops, seminars and practical advice.

Some attribute Hollywood's increased demand for British thespians to their distinctiveness. "We are different by nature. We are a lot more pragmatic, a lot more pessimistic. I am taken by that all the time," offers Sean Gascoine, an agent at Lou Coulson Agency, which handles Hugh Jackman and Alfred Molina.

"They tend to stick out like a sore thumb," adds Fred Vogelius, membership secretary at the Actors Center, a London-based venue for ongoing artistic development of professional actors.

The explosion of British actors in America led BAFTA/LA in May to launch its latest outreach effort, the Newcomers Program, which is geared toward U.K. citizens who are early on in their careers, have resided in Southern California for fewer than two years and are either full-time students or working in film or television on a full-time basis.

The program allows newcomers to attend screenings, seminars and events, and provides each with an individual mentor. "The mentor and the newcomer meet up at BAFTA/LA events or elsewhere to discuss problems that are not only related to the career pattern, but also to the struggles, difficulties, navigational problems of Los Angeles," says Haber.

Membership in the program is capped at 25 people at any one time, with a two-year time limit. Nine have been chosen since the initial round of applications closed in June, and six newcomers are expected to join them shortly.

While BAFTA/LA extends a helping hand to talent arriving in Los Angeles, U.K. organizations, including the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT) -- a trade association that represents independent film and TV companies -- and the U.K. Film Council, also are working to maintain creative talent flow between the countries. Most recently, the Film Council stepped in at the No Borders section of the IFP Market & Conference in New York to assist new independent British filmmakers in reaching an international audience and international film financiers.

"It may be too late to lobby the U.K. government against the introduction of the points-based system, but it's not too late to raise awareness in the U.S.," says Sarah Gogan, an immigration lawyer at London-based Fransman Solicitors.

Such awareness is certainly needed. Though the entertainment industry has not been the focal point of immigration reform, Capitol Hill's desire for a merit-based system will likely come to pass -- and in the process clash with Hollywood's demand for foreign talent.

Regardless of the legislative outcome, BAFTA/LA plans to stand by its members -- once they do make it into the U.S. and start looking for work. In any case, Haber says he doesn't expect that any immigration reform will have a major effect on the multibillion dollar entertainment industry: "The industry has globalized, and we're all going to agree that the best talent will be available in the U.S. Talent is talent, and if there is international talent, they'll find a way to get here."
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