Normally, when a contract is touted as a triumph of savvy negotiating, rank-and-file union members aren’t supposed to use words like “horrified” when responding to it.Yet, that’s just what IA Local 600 member Mitch Dubin did, in an open letter, responding to the contract Tom Short and his crew negotiated with the AMPTP just before the holiday onslaught in December.“When I think about the possibility of this contract being ratified, and the position of camera operator being put in jeopardy, I am horrified,” said Dubin, in the second-paragraph of his rounds-making missive.Of course, Dubin himself is a camera operator, and nobody likes to see their jobs vanish into thin air. If columnists suddenly vanished from the pages of Below the Line, I’d be a little ticked, too.Dubin was responding to the last-minute proviso, inserted by the producers, that would reduce the number of operators and require DPs to “get behind the lens.” And we don’t just mean camera-wielding director hybrid guys like Steven Soderbergh or Robert Rodriguez, either.Dubin continued: “To those of you in Local 600, I’m sure you understand how the lack of camera operators will have a disastrous effect on the entire camera department. I want, however, to address this letter to the other crafts in our Hollywood Basic Guild Alliance. Without a camera operator behind the lens, who will take the time to give the boom operator the top frame line? Who will tell the grips and electricians the edges of the frame? Who will tell the scenic painters where are the kicks that need to be dulled down? Who will explain the intricacies of the shot to the dolly grip? Who will communicate to all the other on-set departments what exactly is in the frame and needs to be attended to? The list can go on and on.”Indeed it can, though it also seems doubtful that the usual ASC stars will be doubling as camera operators on feature films anytime soon.But there are larger “systemic” questions, as they say, about what this portends down the line: On a recent overly warm winter Saturday, the SOC—Society of Camera Operators—met to discuss their fate viz. the new contract. Several telling points are available in their minutes. Chief among these: If so many other positions are affected, per Dubin’s open letter, are other locals getting ready to jettison the contract, too?Well, no. Local 44, the craftsfolk, have talked the loudest about having reservations, and they might still turn it down, but that wouldn’t be enough to derail the contract.SOC president David Frederick laid out the math, and—hold on to your seat belts—it has to do with electoral votes. IA electoral votes! Every IA local of a certain size, he explained, gets a proportional number of electoral votes. In the terse language of the minutes, “34,900 total members = 367 votes. Local 600 has 57 electoral votes. (One vote per 100 members.) We need 184 votes for ratification failure to occur.”“Ratification failure” would be “no,” though as of this writing that doesn’t seem likely.There were other significant items buried in the SOC minutes, including an observation by Mike Frediani that Tom Short, the story goes, couldn’t support 600 since the local was itself lax about “letting” DPs operate, on occasion, and “didn’t prosecute the offending DPs.” Which frankly makes no sense to anyone outside of Hollywood: How is it possible that “the head cameraman” (as the DP role is thought of pretty much anywhere east of Victorville and north of Bakersfield) can’t actually operate the camera?”But that also may a handy official story to let Short off the hook, since the producers may have been savvy enough to understand the internecine warfare between Short’s office and the FTAC-supporting “upstart leadership” elected to oversee 600.So, let’s say “ratification failure” itself fails. Then what?Well, as FTAC and 600 member Tony Magaletta asked at the meeting, “whose job is next?”It’s a question that will lie fallow and untended for awhile, as long as enough other locals have work. But the next time the IA contract comes up, who will start to worry that their position is next on the chopping block? And in a scramble for every local to preserve work for its own employees, how might cohesion of the entire IA slowly—but surely—start to fray?Every time a 600 member steps onto a set after this contract goes, will they look around their union “brothers” and “sisters” and feel… sold out?There will be other pressures besides the usual financial ones—a falling domestic box office for increasingly uninteresting large-budget films, the ongoing outsourcing of work, and the 800 pound gorilla, or elephant (except then we’re talking about a lot more weight) in the room: How all below-the-line/behind-the-scenes filmmaking job categories will change—and some be obviated—in the digital era.Eventually, when more and more of a film is made with mouseclicks, the IA may have to dispense with the idea of “locals” altogether.Until then, though, all the various disciplines and crafts may be left wondering who will be viewed as doing the “dispensable” work the next time a contract rolls around.
Written by Mark London Williams