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Union Roundup

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And so, we at Below the Line are able to breathe a little bit, coming off our busy awards season schedule, and enjoy the idylls of spring, awaiting summer’s digital platoon of superheroes in our screening rooms and cineplexes.But even this bucolic season is not without its trials and tribulations—the former quite literally for IA Local 44, where business agent Ronnie Cunningham is in fact on trial—an in-house affair conducted by Local 44 itself. While there’s no verdict to report as of this writing, it is interesting to note some of the meta-issues are already playing themselves out: Cunningham’s supporters feel the proceedings may stem from the fact that Brother C. has taken stances—most recently one against the recently approved IA contract—that “headquarters” (read: the administration of IA president Tom Short) finds to be an ongoing pain in the hindquarters. And so, validity of the charges aside, Mr. Cunningham has been left to twist in the wind.But then, at an early April meeting of 44’s executive board, came this news: “Local 44 member Greg Hamlin preferred charges against Propmaster Representative Craig Raiche and Local 44 member Dan Graham. Both parties are being charged with making false accusations in a previous affidavit involving Ronnie Cunningham…Representative Raiche was not suspended from his duties.”So now we have the countercharges, and it will be interesting to see to what extent Short’s office allows this bloodletting to continue at this particular local, before stepping in.And if you visited 44’s website for the official public updates on the proceedings, you’d also be greeted with this item in their news section:“The IATSE and the producers of the Samuel L. Jackson movie, Home of the Brave, have inked a deal for fair wages, pension and health benefits for the crew of the $12 million production. Filming began last week in Spokane but was shut down after a few days when an overwhelming majority of the crew which was not covered by union contract bravely signed union representation cards with the IATSE Local 488 Studio Mechanics of the Northwest and demanded a fair union contract.“‘Local production outfits have to accept the fact that paying far below film and TV industry standards for Washington State is no longer business as usual,’ said David Ray Robinson, business agent for IATSE Local 488. ‘People deserve healthcare and pensions. The days of exploitation in Washington State are over.’”Now, all that language is taken from an IA press release, which doesn’t mention that the production was on the cusp of decamping to Vancouver—which is to say, Canada. If you read a Canadian version of the story—in this case, one posted on the CTV news site—you see Brother Robinson quoted again, but they also add comments from one Andy Barden, “a nonunion set electrician from Spokane, (who) said many crew members opposed a strike. ‘The (union) used the crew as pawns to force the shoot to shut down and go union.’” Which is to say, CTV threw a spotlight on some of the old “right to work” arguments that have been raging for nearly a century.Their article also quotes Rich Cowan “of North by Northwest, a local company that provided production services for Hollywood director Irwin Winkler and a consortium of producers… Cowan said the union was demanding compensation at New York and Los Angeles rates, which ‘would have made a huge increase in our costs, so the financiers decided to move the production to Vancouver.’”As filmmaking technology gets more diffuse, more mobile, and more digital, the IA will find itself in places—like Spokane—where it never really had a presence before. One suspects that as national policies break down on all fronts, localities will need to step in to chart their own courses. This is already happening at state and local levels on two of the biggest issues the Federal government is either too incompetent, or too riddled by special interests, to tackle: the aforementioned health care, and the increasingly alarming specter of global warming. So too, with labor issues, even, in particular, those related to film and TV.The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed its film incentive act—never mind waiting for the State of California to get its act together—at one of its April meetings. Reporter Aldrich Tan, writing in the San Francisco Sentinel the day after the meeting, summed up the new legislation, noting that the City by the Bay becomes the first city in California to establish a film and television incentive program that aims to encourage more production companies to shoot in San Francisco and create jobs for local industry workers. “This incentive sends a message to Hollywood that San Francisco is ready for its close-up,” said Dan Kemp, location manager for Teamsters Local 85, which represents local actors and production crew members.“The incentive package provides a rebate for city fees and expenses for productions that shoot 65 percent or more of their principal photography in San Francisco, supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier explained. Low-budget and independent films of less than $3 million must shoot 55 percent of their principal photography in San Francisco to qualify for the rebate, added Alioto-Pier.”Note, too, Kemp’s line about “sending a message to Hollywood.” That sentiment was echoed in an earlier piece in support of the bill that appeared on the SF Indy Media website, which talked about losing productions to both Canada and LA. In the Bay Area, a production that “flees” down the I-5 to parts south of Bakersfield is just as lost as someone from Spokane waving goodbye to a crew headed for Vancouver.Now to see if San Francisco’s plan works—if the City (yes, the “C” is capitalized in this case) becomes a mini New Mexico or Louisiana. Production is beginning to pick up there.But there’s other writing on the wall, too. Since our last column, UR found itself in hoppin’ Austin, grabbing a few days of film-watching at SXSW. Editor Myron Kerstein was there, too, with his film American Dreamz, a can’t-happen-here fable about an America overly distracted by fame, celebrity, and reality shows.Austin’s very much a by-your-bootstraps filmmaking town, and one that’s not overly concerned about “going union,” at the expense of just picking up a camera and making a movie. What does Kerstein see down the road, in terms of filmmaking workflow?“In two years I believe that shooting, screening, and editing with hi-def material will be the standard in the industry,” he opined. “The workflow will start to become seamless between production and post.”What will not be seamless will be job descriptions in that environment—what will “sound operator” mean, for example?—and union jurisdictions. None of this dust is likely to settle soon. But it would seem that it will be in places outside of LA and New York—places like Spokane, Austin, and San Francisco—where the future of filmmaking-as-21st-century-livelihood will be decided.

Written by Mark London Williams

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