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From “Below The Line” November 2005

Union Roundup Column

By Mark London Williams

October was a good month for FTAC, the scrappy group pushing for "action"— as part of their acronym goes— on the question of whether Canada needs to be slapped with a WTO penalty for engaging in unfair trade practices in their methods for enticing film and TV production to the northlands. Mostly, those methods are "subsidies," but American producers have spoken off-the-record about strong-arm tactics from the normally -mild-mannered maple leafers, demanding Canadian crew be hired even where and when not strictly required, in order to keep the subsidies "in play."

So after having gotten the Burbank City Council to lend its support, FTAC also recently added the city of West Hollywood. Perhaps more significantly, as October ebbed, the board of directors at SAG decided to enter the fray, and publicly support FTAC as well, making this an "official" SAG stance.

New SAG president Alan Rosenberg, elected on a "get tough with the studios" slate, likewise cemented relations with FTAC by appointing national board member Gretchen Koerner— also chair of SAG's National Legislative Committee— as the board's liaison to the group.

All that is splendid for FTAC's cause, of course, but as we have seen in America, it's not who votes— or who they vote for— that really matters, but rather, who counts the votes. In other words, FTAC can line up all the worker-friendly city councils in the world, but it will come to naught unless they really can get so-called "fair trade" practices examined. As for a repeal, well, that may require more of a seed change in the overall political structure (which kinda gets us back to legitimate vote-counting again, but that's another column).

Meanwhile, council and union resolutions aside, there are still things individuals can do. Especially if those individuals happen to be film directors: Joss Whedon,of Buffy and now Serenityfame scored a write-up in the Los Angeles Times for the simple act of insisting his film actually be shot in Los Angeles.

Of course, he also had to agree to trim the budget, but he did, and it became one of the rare Hollywood films actually made in Hollywood.

His stance speaks to the main wedge all employers use against employees: the simple fear in workers that "someone else" will take your job, pronto, if you act up just a wee bit too much.

That's why strikes by professional athletes are generally successful (allowing for the occasional miscalculation, like hockey, which assumed more people actually cared about hockey than turned out to be the case)— there's not an equally trained group of skilled pros ready to take their place.

Hollywood strikes have often worked the same way; putting aside the fact that the bulk of members in a union like SAG are routinely unemployed anyway, the fact is a handful of those actors are "name brands" that, ultimately, the studio can't afford to lose. Not, at least, until new stars are groomed.

So if more directors were like Joss Whedon and Clint Eastwood, simply insisting productions stay Stateside, that would change the studios' calculus Of course, some of those "above-the-line budgets"— a SAG issue again for the aforementioned name-brand handful, in particular— might have to be revisited. But it could be a quiet kind of activism, requiring no government hearings or intercessions, and it could yield much.

And speaking of government intercessions, here in California, AB 777, the assembly bill championed by speaker Fabian Nunez and our own SAGgy Governor Schwarzenegger, has died the death of a thousand cuts in the California legislature.

It was a bill that would've provided some modest incentives for film production to stay here in the Golden State, but like previous attempts under recalled Gov. Gray Davis, the bill runs into not much political resistance from one party or another but geographic resistance instead:

As was the case with Davis, legislators outside the LA area felt no particular up side to having to face voters after supporting something than could be termed a "subsidy"— that word again!— or worse, "welfare," for those rich, Armani-wearing Hollywood types. No one in the California legislature sees it as a "jobs" issue... yet.

Of course, the bill's miring in quicksand is also a sign that der Gov's own political star is no longer burning as brightly as it once did.

A true test will come in his so-called –special election, where he put a slew of ballot proposals— including some patented GOP union-bashing— up for voters, hoping for a lower, and thus more conservative, turnout, knowing these were laws he could never get through the legislature. No ballot proposition on film subsidies, though.

Those results will be in by the time you hold this paper in your hands, and we'll discuss them next column.

 

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