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Voice Of The Crew - Since 2002

Los Angeles, California

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I Walk the Line

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Credit or blame where it’s due. The person responsible for the tremendous ill feeling about vacating television and film production from the greater Los Angeles area is some fellow named Thomas Alva Edison. However, a quick check of the New Jersey telephone directory suggests he’s left the scene of the crime, too.Seems this Tom guy established something called the patent trust and made it darn difficult for people making pictures in the movie capital of the world—Fort Lee, New Jersey—to do business without paying him a royalty. So folk like Tom Ince and Cece DeMille dug up the Farmers’ Almanac to find a place to make their flickers far from Edi’s reach and where the sun shined all day long. That turned out to be Flagstaff, Arizona. ’Cept when they got there, they didn’t like it and decided to go all the way to the coast where they found these mighty nice orange groves in California.The area that became known as Hollywood was, in fact, the American film industry’s first runaway venue. And for the past half-century (and especially the last decade) people have been mapping out terrain in Canada, New Zealand, Eastern Europe, South Africa and China to make movies cheaper but not necessarily cheap looking.According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the average budget for a film produced by a Hollywood major is around $65 million. The cost is actually higher because the amount represents their investment and increasingly they have financial partners. Only one of this year’s best picture nominees—Sideways—was fully financed by a studio and its $20 million negative was the lowest among the five contenders.At this very moment I have a friend preparing to shoot a film in Prague that’s pegged at $12 million. His story is actually set in the Czech city so it’s a bit dicey to call it a runaway. Nonetheless, it likely wouldn’t be made if it were set Stateside because the budget would be nearly double.Twenty years ago on the set of Police Academy in Toronto, producer Paul Maslansky told me the biggest benefit of shooting in Canada was that the money he saved allowed him four or five additional shooting days, and on a $6 million budget that was significant. A decade later, the producer of a studio picture said he opted for Vancouver because between currency exchange and government tax incentives he could make a $100 million production for $65 million. A few days later I ran into a disgruntled art director that had been working on big films for a decade and now had to take a pay cut because he could only find work in television. He seemed quite earnest about raising money to finance the Quebec separatist movement.But the problem isn’t chiefly a less expensive labor force, a favorable rate of exchange or the lure of tax rebates. Movies cost too much. In the past 20 years, salaries and profit participation for actors and filmmakers have ballooned well beyond the annual rate of inflation and to keep things in check it’s been the crew that have experienced the worst of the belt tightening. When you adjust today’s dollar for its 1995 value, production designers generally have less money to work their wonders and the situation applies across the board to every craft department.People are being told to work longer hours with the carrot of overtime wages and to accept whatever damage ensues to their health, personal lives or professional abilities. It’s a steep price to pay to keep bread on the table and the veiled blackmail involved in the pact is, of course, neither legal nor morally acceptable.The people running the studios do not want to know the nitty-gritty involved in keeping budgets down. In fact, one recently informed me he makes it a rule to be kept out of that loop. He probably also was looking the other away when agents secured rich deals for marquee talent that puffed up costs and led to the arbitrary stipulation of either slashing $10 million or not making the picture.In an ideal world we’d simply turn back the clock and correct the imbalance. And it’s crucial that redress be made because otherwise it will only progress and deepen, and the prospect of sacrificing the quality of life for a few scraps is a deal made with the devil.

Written by Len Klady

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