By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The antagonism between the guild alliance and FTAC is palpable and peppered with plenty of off-the-record sniping. Several long-standing subplots further broaden the rift. Many of the FTAC leadership, including Swift and his first lieutenant, Michael Everett, have a long history of battling their own union leadership around issues of democratization.
So while FTAC claims to be the authentic voice of Hollywood's labor rank and file, it's not obvious how much actual clout the committee wields. Its core is only a few dozen, and while FTAC claims the backing of 15,000 other union members who have signed one of its petitions against Canadian subsidies, there's no way to measure the actual depth of commitment to the trade-sanction strategy.
Still, FTAC has gotten some support from the 80,000-member SAG (which is simultaneously part of the rival Industry Alliance). And the Teamsters have kicked in nearly $100,000 to FTAC's coffers.
FTAC certainly needs the money. It has retained the Washington, D.C., law firm Stewart & Stewart; its lead counsel is partner Alan Dunn, George Bush Senior's assistant secretary of the Department of Commerce and the top negotiator on subsidies during NAFTA negotiations. The tariffs petition will likely cost $300,000 over and above ongoing legal costs.
The 800-pound gorilla in this political scenario is the Motion Picture Association of America. MPAA, which represents seven media giants -- Disney, Sony, Paramount, Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers and MGM -- is also a member of the guild alliance. MPAA political powerhouse Jack Valenti has blasted the tariffs concept, thus fueling FTAC insinuations that the guild leadership allied with MPAA are corporate lackeys.
But one source close to the maelstrom suspects that if the trade-barrier efforts advance, the MPAA would withdraw from the field entirely, leaving subsidies to twist in the political ä wind. "We are not gonna win this battle if we pit rank and file against producers," he worries.
John Connolly, president of AFTRA, an Industry Alliance member, refuses to mean-mouth FTAC but says opposition to tariffs makes economic sense. "If the U.S. is successful in erecting tariff barriers, other countries would begin to demand their own defined percentage of local programming," and the wildly lucrative export market for American production -- a source of 40 percent of industry revenues -- would dry up, killing even more jobs, he says.
In defense of tax breaks, Connolly argues that the producers who do smaller-budget movies have said that they would stay home if a 20 percent differential between shooting here and in Canada were closed.
And yet, against all odds, FTAC could be making some headway among the rank and file. Hollywood unions have eschewed organizing on the runaway issue, lobbying behind the scenes instead, providing Swift and his insurgents with an opening to seize the debate.
That opportunity was glaringly visible at a recent annual membership meeting of Sound Local 695 of IATSE held at the Studio City union hall. Some 200 people filled the hall in a rumble of male voices, a collection of virtually all white faces not that different from the other guild rank and file. The local members, plus other invitees, were convened by 695 president Jim Osburn, who seemed intent on ruffling the feathers of his IATSE International president, Tom Short. Short has been shellacked by much of the rank and file for what seems his tardy recognition of the runaway crisis.
As the IATSE local members settled down to listen, Brent Swift took the floor on behalf of trade remedies: "I think that our most important job right now is what I'm doing. Of course, my wife doesn't agree," he said to chuckles from the audience. Osburn presented him with a $1,000 personal check for FTAC.
Throughout, the meeting was punctuated by Osburn's dramatic calls -- up to four of them -- asking for any of the proponents of the rival tax-break strategy to come forward on behalf of the plan. There was only one taker.
The discussion among union members that morning suggested that few were married to any specific strategy but that they would favor just about any remedy that would bring back the jobs, from a boycott of companies that run to Canada to using the poor man's tactic of banners on freeway overpasses.
The local eventually voted to endorse FTAC -- a sweet victory for Swift. But the last word may actually have been at the beginning of the meeting, with a presentation by Steve Katz of the Center for Entertainment Industry and Data Research. "Once the picture budgets start hitting $7 million," he reported glumly, "producers start looking elsewhere." Translation: The race to the bottom is accelerating in the global film industry. Even if Hollywood manages to plug the Canadian hole, local jobs are likely to continue to flow overseas. Australia is now offering to rebate up to 12.5 percent of film-production costs, including plane tickets. ("Put another American on the barbie," Katz darkly wisecracked.) And production is spiking in the Czech Republic, where labor costs are less than half of American rates.
"Canada is going to become a smaller blip on the radar screen," Katz predicted. "There are much bigger ones coming along."