Filed in: Featured, Union Roundup
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Union Roundup – A Tale of Two Lunches

October 27, 2010 | By

2010 VES Production Summit

Hello again. It’s been awhile since I’ve written one of these for Below the Line, and if you’re reading this – on a screen somewhere, not in newsprint – I thank you for making the transition with us.

This is, as they say in the film trade, a “reboot” – another start to the column that in BTL’s regular print run was to, originally, “round up” the news coming from, and made by, Hollywood’s various unions in their recurring tussles with management and ownership, often made a muddle since this one of those businesses where you can be a “worker” and “manager” all at once.

The column’s charter expanded – after all, there wasn’t always a strike or contract negotiation at deadline time – to cover really anything in the world of economics (and thus politics) that was affecting the “biz” part of “show biz,” and so really we’ve talked of the whole madhouse of 21st century events – from Hurricane Katrina to the Noveau Depression, from conglomeration and consolidation to the elections of candidates for office who brought us no honor, no strength, little courage, nor, alas, much change, in spite of whatever adjective or adverb-du-jour was being used in a particular campaign.

And now, after a bit of a hibernation, here we are, again, in re-emergent, or “survivor” mode.

How you been these past months?

Me?, I’ve been writing, and not writing, and getting my car hit and enjoying other such perks of life in L.A. I’ve also, recently, been going to lunches.

One such, earlier this month, was the COLA media luncheon, “COLA,” of course, standing for the California On Location Awards, which were to unfurl later this same month. The luncheon was co-sponsored by the West Hollywood Marketing & Visitors Bureau, and held at the BOA Steakhouse on Sunset. We were encouraged to think kindly of BOA in for our future restaurant location needs (or wrap party!) – as indeed, we were encouraged to think of WeHo, right there in everyone’s backyard, as a potential let’s-keep-the-money-here-in town filming locale, too.

This was the expected topic of discussion that particular rainy afternoon – after all, this wasn’t for the MOLA Awards or LOLA Awards (though the Kinks’-derived gender ambiguity of such a potential Louisiana-based awards show could suit the themes of Mardi Gras well) – how can we keep money here (defining California as “here”) in times of, well, little money everywhere? (Unless you’re a bailed out bank sitting on your taxpayer-funded largesse).

Amy Lemisch, the executive director of the California Film Commission was there at the same long table, and she’s not only compiling a list of “lost productions” to take to budget-wavering legislators. At a certain point in the fiscal year, the Film Commission’s budget ran out, (then there was the matter of forced furlough days), and the next round of incentives had to wait, in spite of figures showing that of the 30 projects approved for one year’s worth said incentives (clocking in at around $100 million total – the film commission’s budget for such things), the projects themselves spent upwards of $2 billion in the state, hired on 18,000 crew folk, 4,000 cast members, and even around 100,000 extras.

As we wrote in the old print days of the column, though, getting the political will, statewide, to allocate more money to keep productions here will be tough – as the state continues to spiral downwards, and school budgets are slashed, clinics closed, and poor kids told they’ve been on welfare too damn long and their parents should finally get jobs (hey, maybe in banking?), it becomes harder to convince otherwise sympathetic legislators – especially those not representing WeHo, L.A. or environs – to throw more public monies at those Hollywood producer types.

And let’s face it, driving around in a Mercedes SLS – even the new hybrid version – doesn’t exactly immunize you against populist rage when things start falling apart.

Things falling apart is always one of the themes of the VES Production Summit, that autumn seminar put on by the Visual Effects Society which tries to figure what kind of workflows everyone in “the picture business” will have to deal with as everything becomes digits, and flows everywhere.

The format of the summit has always been very frontal – speakers and panels addressing an audience (with a nice lunch out by the hotel pool, and cocktails at the end of the day) – though people at my table were a bit agitated that there weren’t any breakout sessions where participants could talk amongst themselves about strategies for surviving the Present Moment.

In other words, when VES chair Jeff Okun introduced the first speaker, NASA/JPL “Evolutionary Computation Designer” Dr. Richard Terrile, by asking “in 10 years, where are you going to be?” My seatmates didn’t really have a clue, given the present climate (then again, do any of us?), and they were thirsting for capital-A Answers.

Terrile didn’t have any, but noted the questions keep getting more interesting, noting, for example, that current Playstation III’s have the computing power of what would have been the most powerful computer in the world circa 1993 – just a couple years before you got your first email address.

And while his talk was vivid and interesting in terms of the exponential way “computation” is increasing (so that sometime this century, there will at last be a machine computing faster than a human brain – but toward what end?) what did it mean for everyone in room? Well, no one knows, but the “holodeck,” it would seem, is closer than you think.

Remakes of films based on television shows will now be immersive and entirely “virtual!”

The morning proceeded with a couple of more practical panels, covering changing on-set gear (and how, by definition, the idea of “on set” – or being “in production,” as distinct from “pre” or “post” is constantly changing, too) and “Aha!” moments for new business opportunities (in software and pipeline tools), and then, after lunch, came Bill Mechanic.

Mechanic famously ran Fox’s movie division, and now produces under his own “shingle.”  “Nobody gives a shit about stories,” he averred, in his one-on-one interview with Variety’s Steve Gaydos, calling up a PowerPoint slide that showed the highest grossing movies of 1939 (Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, etc.) vs. 1975 (Shampoo, Nashville, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Jaws, among others) vs 2010 (so far – including the latest Twilight, the Karate Kid remake, the Iron Man sequel and Toy Story finale).

The studios, he notes, are only going for tentpoles – indeed, have painted themselves in a corner where they can only make tentpoles, due to inflated marketing budgets (to get the word out in an era of such factionalized media, American Idol night notwithstanding). Old models continue to fray, as DVD sell-through continues to drop, (people realize they don’t want to own copies of big, hollow movies forever, necessarily – that, or they can stream them).

“I was kind of hoping for a cataclysm,” Mechanic said, echoing much of the feeling of the political moment as well, since – at least in Hollywood, unlike Washington – a Phoenix can rise out of the ashes, much as the collapse of studio bloat in the mid-60s eventually gave way to that still unequaled 70s-era of American filmmaking.

But where does it go now? Again, my table mates were already feeling the cataclysm – business was down in their FX shops and film production companies – and they didn’t know how long the could hold out for a Phoenix.

And where does the Phoenix come from first? As with California and filming incentives, everyone is waiting for someone else to  blink: Give us more tax revenue, and we’ll give you incentives! No, give us incentives, which will keep us here and give you more taxes.

If there’s an incentive, what about the people who do post, or what used to be thought of as “post?”  Do you require that money to be spent at a VFX shop that’s “here” – even though they render some of their files in offices in Vancouver or Sydney?

Heck, if the mortgage fraud fiasco continues to unravel, and we find that all this extrapolated wealth from the “derivative” era was fake – none of it was backed by anything tangible, anyway, other than some theoretical “ability to pay” somehow, somewhere down the line – and therefore none of it exists at all anymore, what will happen to very notions of “revenue” or even “money” that keep an once industrialized, still nominally “democratic” power humming along?

Cataclysms and Phoenixes indeed. Where will you be in ten years? Where will you be in one?

In any case, we’ll at least see you back here for the next column.