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Los Angeles, California

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I Walk the Line

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This story begins close to five years ago. At a party celebrating American independence I was introduced to an art director with a resume that included a number of high-profile movies. He hadn’t done a feature film for close to two years but continued to be regularly employed in television on both series and movies.
At this point it should be noted that he was agitated and, shall we say, somewhat irrational. He held the opinion that the Canadian government and film agencies were using unfair incentives to lure American productions to our neighbor to the North. The man added that he was part of a group of disgruntled technicians that had decided to raise money for the Quebec separatist movement. He felt that if it were possible to create political chaos in Canada, the country would become financially unstable, leading to a complete breakdown of the system.
Though I doubted his ability to affect the ruination of Canada, I decided instead to simply tell him that I felt he was fighting the wrong enemy. He appeared genuinely dumbfounded and wanted to know what I meant. I told him that there was no question that Canada provided a number of incentives—tax rebates, favorable monetary exchange, good labs, top-caliber crews and an environment that didn’t require serious adjustments personally, professionally or linguistically. However, all this was occurring with the full support and complicity of the studios and networks. The Motion Picture Association of America’s representative in Canada had worked long and hard lobbying with government reps to insure that tax incentives would be passed and maintained on more than a temporary basis.
While the art director listened, it was clear that he didn’t want to believe that senior American entertainment executives might not have his best interests in mind. I doubt to this day that he views U.S.-financed productions filming in Australia, South Africa or Romania as anything more than a fiendish temptation by foreign governments envious of Hollywood’s craft and quality.
A number of changes have occurred in the past five years other than the range of shooting locations where additional financial incentives are in play. It’s difficult to begrudge Kiwi Peter Jackson for wanting to film his The Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand even if he is being bankrolled with American money. And who’s going to quibble about filming Lost in Translation in Tokyo, where its story is set. But generally speaking the decision to make such films as Chicago and Cold Mountain outside the U.S. are coming at the behest of the studios, not the filmmakers.
During the recent Oscar season much was made of Clint Eastwood’s insistence on filming Mystic River in actual Boston locations rather than in Toronto, while Anthony Minghella took it on the chin for employing Romania as a stand-in for North Carolina in Cold Mountain. The filmmaker had intended to shoot in the U.S. but was told to scrap domestic locations and find a cheaper international alternative.
We’re all aware that making and marketing movies is a very expensive proposition and on the production side cost-cutting has put the squeeze on below-the-line budgets that have actually shrunk when adjusted for inflation. But there’s something innately wrong when unions and guilds are turning a blind eye or allowing members to cut fees and work longer hours to keep the situation in check.
The level of desperation among the rank and file is alarming and no one should be so naive to believe those who control the purse strings aren’t aware of it and using it as a negotiating tool. In recent years every time a union has sat down to forge a new contract and presented caps on daily working schedules it’s been met with fierce resistance from the motion picture companies. The current euphemism is that they will not have their production initiatives tampered with. The import is decidedly Dickensian.
And don’t think there isn’t complicity on the part of the members whose mantra has been: we want our overtime. It’s here that the macho strain inherent in the process is decidedly short-sighted, favoring the quick-buck gain and downplaying the potential lethal cost to health and family. Of course it’s something that can be rationalized away and everyone assumes they’re bulletproof until it’s too late.
It is a struggle, but one worth fighting. There will always be tax incentives and cheaper labor forces competing for production dollars and the answer isn’t found in working for less or agreeing to a soul-crushing schedule. Inevitably that path reflects badly on one’s work, psyche and the overall quality of a movie.
American movies are the envy of the world because of the craft involved both in front of and behind the camera. It’s something that cannot be replicated anywhere else and it should fill us with pride and dignity. It’s the asset that must be underlined and defended for the sanity and edification of the industry.

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