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Union Roundup

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So we come both to the Dog Days of August, and 50 Below the Line issues since this august (!) journal was launched. And speaking of anniversaries, we’re coming up on a year since Hurricane Katrina changed everything – and yet (per Spike Lee’s new HBO doc, When the Levees Broke), nothing at all. Below the Line is doing fine after 50 issues. How is New Orleans some 50 or so weeks after the big blow?Production is picking up—an E-ticket size production of the F. Scott Fitzgerald “aging in reverse” short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is filming there, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in tow, this fall—but the level is still way way off from the pre-storm days.Indeed, Mike McHugh, the business rep for IA’s all-purpose New Orleans local, 478, found himself responding on various Crescent City public forums and listservs to comments made by an unnamed Los Angeles producer who wanted to bring productions to New Orleans, but had several worries, among them: housing, food, and gas weren’t available; the National Guard had been brought in to put down a resurgence in looting; and “hotels are hurting,” which, you’d think, might mean a good deal on rooms.On the plus side, the producer opined, finding an abandoned hospital—needed for a set—might be easier, but he’d heard that most of the city’s seasoned crew base had fled.Mr. McHugh, an Orleans native, didn’t take to such assumptions lightly. In an open email, he said “I and 400,000 other folks gassed up our cars in the last 48 hours and ‘made our groceries, dawlin!’ I also ate at three restaurants in the last four days that would blow the sox off anything this guy ate at in LA in the last four years.… If he can’t find a great meal in New Orleans right now then he has the weirdest tastes of any human on the planet!“Crew base… now there’s something I think I’m qualified to speak to… Last night Local 478 voted in another 30 new members. We are now closing in on 500 members total. I am contacted on a daily basis by individuals seeking membership. Granted, four or five of the new members are Shreveport folks, but Shreveport still has no local crew base to speak of.“We took in two new Baton Rouge members… In Baton Rouge you could make a movie with all local crew, and some damn good workers at that! I would peg our New Orleans membership at about 300.”As for the crime issue, McHugh said “New Orleans gangs look like the cub scouts. But they still shoot movies everyday there, don’t they?,” though in fairness, the city is considering a curfew for all those under 18, after a rash of recent killings, including the awful mass murder of five teenagers.And even New Orleans singer Dr. John finds himself royally pissed “about shrinking wetlands, imported seafood,” and what he sees as Louisiana’s return to poor and inefficient government.“I feel like I’m living under another corrupt dynasty,” the singer said in recent comments. But in the person of Mr. McHugh, the movie folk certainly are keeping the doors boisterously open for business. The next few months will be key—in the combination of meteorological fortune and production commitment—in terms of whether ground zero for Mardi Gras can truly bounce back as a tax-incentivized production capital.Which may not be such great news for Los Angeles. Richard Verrier wrote recently in the LA Times about a discernible downtick in permitted production days in LA—yes, including commercials and television, which previously had made up for a loss in film production (about which more in a nanosec).Verrier notes the figures include a 23-percent drop in the number of TV pilots shot here, “‘provid(ing) further evidence that Los Angeles is losing ground to such states as New Mexico and New York that have become increasingly successful in luring film and television jobs with lucrative tax incentives,’ FilmL.A. President Steve MacDonald said.“We’ve always talked about how lucky we are to have television production here,” he said. “Now we’re starting to see a crack in the veneer of television.”And while the article attributes these latest woes solely to the caginess of other states in luring away productions, a Verrier earlier article in the Times (co-written by Claudia Eller) talked about downsizing at places like Disney and Sony as studios move to not only terminate certain production shingles, but also close down camera departments and such, turning more and more people into the 21st century’s dominant employee template: a freelancer.From that article, the most widely excerpted comments were from producer Brian Grazer:“‘It’s as if the managerial elite has made a secret pact to adhere to certain business principals that they want to enforce on agents and artists,’ said Grazer, who sees studios as more rigid today about how far they’ll stretch to compensate even the biggest stars, directors, producers and writers. ‘That’s never happened in the 25 years I’ve been producing.’”Well, 25 years ago stars didn’t make nearly as much money for films like a third Mission Impossible, say, and indeed, if you follow that timeline backward, Grazer is talking about the end of the ’70s—the last indisputably great decade for American filmmaking.The period that gave us Godfathers, Chinatown, and a slew of other giant achievements, came about precisely because the studios found themselves bloated and out of touch at the end of the ’60s, and decided to risk movies with actual content in a “what do we have to lose?” gambit.We’re becoming a world of sweat-drenched freelancers with few benefits, but at least, when we sneak into the air-conditioned cineplexes of tomorrow, we might have something interesting to see.Write Union Roundup: [email protected]

Written by Mark London Williams

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