By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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|Photos by Anne Fishbein|
WHEN PRODUCTION DESIGNER BRENT SWIFT WAS breaking into Hollywood, mentored by the designer who created the Bantha in The Empire Strikes Back, he never guessed that 25 years later he'd be leading his own political struggle against forces he feels are as formidable as the Evil Empire. Yet, here he is on a recent Hollywood evening -- an almost prototypical, paunchy, 50-something behind-the-scenes technician now feverishly directing what at times seems like almost a one-man war against the rest of the industry.
Eighteen of his followers, also all "below-the-line" technicians, many of them wearing silk crew jackets of whatever show they once worked on, have joined Swift for one of their regular huddles at Raleigh Studios on Melrose. Together they are the core of a small but feisty industry group known as FTAC, the Film & Television Action Committee, of which Swift is the president. Their goal: to save their own jobs by changing, no less, the entire way Hollywood does business.
As the local show-business industry hemorrhages jobs to cheaper overseas locations, "runaway production" has cast a chilly shadow over the futures of tens of thousands of workers just like Swift and his cohorts. Now they are desperately trying to fight back, and in doing so are bumping up not only against the industry bureaucracy but against the global economy itself. "It's David and Goliath," insists Swift, who hasn't worked in more than two years. "We're fighting the studios; we're even fighting our own unions."
The statistics that drive Swift and his allies could be lifted right from the script of a Roger Corman horror flick: While film box-office receipts hit an all-time high of $14 billion last year, industry employment in Southern California was at a four-year low. Some 30,000 jobs evaporated just between 1999 and 2000. Add to that the impact on local businesses that serve the industry and its workers, and the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that the domestic economy is taking a $10 billion annual hit from runaway production.
Just ask Swift or any of his FTAC compadres, and they can reel out hair-raising stories of defaulted mortgages, unpaid college tuition and repo'd cars. "I've seen people suffering, losing their houses and families because of this," he says. Swift's wife, a graphics designer, has provided the regular paycheck as his work has flagged.
Most of that runaway production has been fleeing north across the Canadian border. American producers are lured not only by a favorable exchange rate, but also by a government-provided subsidy. Canada kicks back 30 percent of production costs to American producers who camp across the border. It's been a stampede that has crushed the local work force.
That, Swift will tell you, is what brings him to meetings at Raleigh Studios two Thursday nights each month and puts him daily behind a mildly cluttered desk in his Studio City home pursuing FTAC's plan to bring jobs back to Hollywood.
What FTAC lacks in numbers, it tries to make up for in militancy. And its dogged approach has gathered some celebrity support. Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler has lined up with them. So has actor Elliott Gould, himself an official of the Screen Actors Guild(SAG).
But those folks aside, Swift has mostly pissed off the rest of official Hollywood as FTAC lobbies for a controversial solution to Hollywood's woes. The low-intensity labor war is being fought on obscure policy terrain over the best way to hold on to Hollywood jobs: trade sanctions or employer subsidies.
FTAC advocates trade-based remedies aimed at forcing the Canadian government to stop subsidizing runaway American production. After two previous delays, FTAC expects to file a petition on Labor Day with the U.S. Department of Commerce requesting that a trade representative be dispatched to Canada to argue that subsidies are illegal under several agreements, including NAFTA. If the U.S. does send a rep, and if the Canadians aren't persuaded, the next stop, according to FTAC, is arbitration before the World Trade Organization. If that fails, FTAC plans to escalate to a petition for a countervailing tariff against film shot in Canada and re-imported into the U.S.
FTAC's strategy conflicts directly with the plans of the rival Industry Alliance, a mainstream coalition of Hollywood labor guilds led by the Directors Guild Association of America (DGA), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) -- Swift's own union. The Alliance, headed by guild leadership, is instead lobbying legislatures at federal and state levels for wage-based tax credits for productions with budgets of $10 million or less -- rebates of 15 percent on a state level, 25 percent federally.
On the one hand, the Industry Alliance argues that FTAC is dangerously flirting with a trade war that could boomerang against Hollywood, with foreign countries blocking the import of U.S. films, causing the loss of even more jobs. FTAC fires back, saying the union leadership is in bed with its employers and that the call for U.S. subsidies is not only ineffective but amounts to what Swift calls "corporate welfare."
"Some of these movie companies are among the richest in the world," Swift says. "Why should taxpayers be giving them handouts?"