Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Los Angeles, California

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Union Roundup


Desert light brings clarity. Even outside Las Vegas, where your humble correspondent finds himself—though bereft of the usual journalistic necessities for such a trip like easily violable expense accounts, Samoan lawyers, or rental car trunks stuffed full of controlled substances.The light—the real light, not the stuff oozing through the all-hours casino/lobby of the hotel—illuminates the stark bare rock, and reminds you that someday, when there are no more rivers to siphon off, this whole area will have to reconcile itself at last to some realistic accommodation with the sand and sharp outcroppings.But not today, not yet. Today, Clark and Henderson counties are still rife with contradictions: What can you say, after all, about an entertainment metropolis offering up equal portions of the Wayne Newton Holiday Show, and Henry Rollins’ spoken word tour, at the same time of year?What you can say is that the people are desperate, hungry for entertainment, and it doesn’t really matter where they get it, or how. All of which portend interesting changes for Hollywood—in both the geographic-specific, and larger metaphorical sense.Being on the road this week, I read the out of town papers from my perch in Nevada. Of course, that perch is no longer a newsstand but a laptop, and as far as the pixels on my screen are concerned, I could still be sitting at Below the Line world headquarters in Woodland Hills, California.But the story told in the showbiz articles is the same, no matter where you’re reading it: Folks are hungry to be entertained, all right—lots of people in LA have financed BMWs and excessive square footage mining that premise—but more and more, it doesn’t matter where the entertainment comes from (i.e. where it’s made), or how they get it (i.e. whether it’s movies or something else).We’ll lay our markers down in order and tackle the first premise up front: One of the most widespread stories about Hollywood, making all the wires, is the just-released report from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. on the current state of the Hollywood economy. Production-related employment rates, by their reckoning, were up about 7 percent in 2004, and projected to settle in the 3-to-4-percent category over the next couple of years, mostly owing to an uptick in TV work.This generally pays less than gigs in feature film—but less is a relative thing (the desert, as LA and Vegas confirm, provides not just clarity, but mirages, too): The report notes that average salaries have dropped, for showbiz workers, from nearly $90,000 bucks per annum (hey, why am I on the journalism side of this biz?) in 2001 to around $80,000 today.So yes, a dip, but those numbers explain why it is often so hard to drum up sympathy for Hollywood workers anywhere outside of Hollywood. How many workers ’round the country and ’round the world wouldn’t mind “getting by” on 80 grand a year? (“But our houses cost 10 times more than yours!” Angelenos might exclaim. Still.)And as we’ve noted before in this space, this also explains why the California legislature can’t pass even modest production subsidy bills—the intrastate cultural wars between the Northern and Southern ends of the state usually trump any sense of the “needs” of Hollywood workers.The LA EDC report might seem like good news on the whole: some of those out of town papers pitched the news as indicating a resurgence in LA production work. However, some of the wires picked up the writings of Richard Verrier in the Los Angeles Times, and Gregory Wilcox in the LA Daily News, and both of those well-observed hometown articles also noted the study is, in fact, sounding numerous alarms: Sagging box office and DVD revenues, and what the report terms “union militancy” with stances demanding increased shares in somewhat decreasing pies.Interesting that the phrase “corporate militancy” never comes up in these reports. Do CEO salaries ever strike economists as equally unreasonable? Nonetheless, the EDC warns that the potential for strikes, especially from SAG and/or the WGA, could shut things down in a hurry.Even the idea of a strike might do that, as management could once again race to bank a slew of productions in anticipation of a production shutdown. Something that could become self-fulfilling if nothing is greenlit for the imagined strike period.Some film folk are already threatening a walkout, though—up in Canada. And the folk in question are producers. The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) is reporting that yet another economic study—this one commissioned by the province of British Columbia—is suggesting the local government may have “overreacted” by boosting tax hikes given to producers and production companies, in order to match those recently offered by Ontario.But producers found themselves matched on the “walk out” question by film workers themselves. As reported by Verrier in another wire story: “In Ontario, labor and industry groups marched on the provincial Legislature, helping prompt an increase in its tax credit on labor expenses to 18 percent from 11 percent. Toronto went even further, guaranteeing producers would be charged just 78 cents for every Canadian dollar spent on city services.”If that sounds like some of a certain country’s 50 states trying to outduel each other with tax breaks—you’re right. Part of Canada’s upsurge in tax generosity comes after a period of “dollar flux”—where the Yankee buck wasn’t buying as much, north of the border, and the old tax breaks weren’t looking quite as lucrative.But Canada feels it has little choice in the matter. According to the CBC report: “The industry response from decision centers in Los Angeles and New York and elsewhere may be to drastically cut production in BC in order to punish the province. This action would serve as a warning to other jurisdictions about the implications of removing film/TV production credits.”The veritable offer that no one can refuse: everyone wants an industry in town where a “reduction” in wages means you’re averaging $80,000 US.But the money’s only there because of the insatiable appetite of the world’s billions—those who don’t pocket 80 grand before taxes—to be distracted, have their boredom relieved, or find occasional transcendence in “entertainment.”And up until now, that’s mostly meant movies and music. Which brings us, Vegas-style, to that second marker. More and more, as entertainment becomes absolutely portable, consumers are caring less and less how, precisely, said entertainment is delivered. Which is why box office—i.e. going to theaters—is down, and so are revenues from (now “traditional”) DVDs.And it is perhaps no coincidence that in such an environment Microsoft Xbox 360s are selling out from holiday store shelves right and left—the first of three new consoles (the other two are coming next year, from Sony and Nintendo) that will deliver film-level graphics, as well as make the “game box” the hub of home entertainment, playing films, and hooking up to the great wide web.Soon enough, “games” and “movies” may become, for the most part, indistinguishable, with “old fashioned” linear films occupying a niche alongside live theater.The latter profession’s not dead, either. But it doesn’t pay as well as it used to. People moved on to other forms of amusement, and as Henry Rollins and Wayne Newton can tell you, sometimes you find yourself scrambling for eyeballs with people you never expected to compete with.We’ll say more about the implications of holiday shopping season and current economic news in our upcoming columns. Any hot tips for the bookmaker or the columnist, send ’em in: mar
[email protected]

Written by Mark London Williams

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