Filed in: Union Roundup

Union Roundup – February 2009

February 8, 2009 06:17 | By

And so we write during the week where “economic stimulus” dominates the news, as well as Republican plans to attempt to torpedo— to the best of their ability—any efficacy the plan might actually have in righting an economy that is finding—as Nietzsche warned—that the abyss is staring back. The biggest below-the-line news in the headlines this same week is the now widely-and-virtually disseminated recording of Christian Bale having an infantile, abusive fit (do big stars have any other kind?) directed at DP Shane Hurlbut, who may or may not have walked into a shot. Or perhaps disturbed one of Mr. Bale’s run-throughs—since deeply Stanislavskian methods are clearly required in fourth Terminator installments.

As ever though, it was what lurked just off to the side of the big headlines that told the week’s larger story. Or “stories,” really, most of them eventually intersecting like that really interesting spider web on the back patio.

As far as the stimulus, among the many predictable GOP attacks on the measure was the one on arts funding, and a tax break for Hollywood studios. Let Union Roundup be the first to acknowledge that the notions of “art” and “film studio” only occasionally intersect, but for demagogic purposes, they get rolled into the same ball of publicly-funded wax if you’re a right-wing politico angling for your favorable mention by Limbaugh. And not that the studio divisions of Sony or General Electric should be viewed with the same alarm as the fellow who froze to death in his apartment because he couldn’t afford heat, or the statistics about the spike in applications to food banks, and so on.

No, the studios are still solvent, but the instant animosity shown toward giving a break to those “Hollywood people” and their generally Godless pursuits out there on that earthquake-riven coast, show just how intractable cultural issues are—and will be—when attempting to deal with fiduciary ones.

Though Hollywood is good at cooking up intractable problems of its own. Indeed, the Screen Actors Guild is becoming expert in that, after the firing of negotiator Doug Allen by the newly-arrived moderates on the SAG board. In response, SAG prez Alan Rosenberg and his confreres went to court to try and block any negotiating the actors’ union might do with those now tax–break-deprived studios, saying the firing—which involved some workarounds in the SAG rule book—was itself illegal.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant didn’t agree, and declined to “injunct,” but also said that, according to the Reuters article “parties seeking the halt, including the president of the Screen Actors Guild, could amend their request and refile it later,” which may happen as this very column is going to press.

Which means that Doug Allen is trying to hang on like Minnesota’s Norm Coleman—already beat, out of a job, but not accepting a graceful exit (or allowing Rosenberg to clutter that exit for him). This goes beyond the issue of which SAG faction—“SAGtion?”—may have a more accurate view of what the studios are up to with their contract offers, or how to best come to a settlement. For at this point, to shove a clearly crippled negotiator down SAG’s throats will mean that it’s not just geographic fault lines that will be riven here in L.A. Nor will the studios, knowing D. Allen was “forced” by court fiat back into the negotiator’s chair, deal seriously in their talks, preferring then to wait the several months until the next SAG elections.

And the town will continue its two-fold slowdown: due to the over-arching economic depression, and the inability of anyone in Hollywood to settle a labor dispute in a timely or mutually beneficial fashion.

Even the settled talks seem prone to that, as reports of umbrage ’n’ outrage among IATSE rank ’n’ filers, over the contract “agreement” handed to them, are starting to surface. The main issue is over the “raise”—no, not in wages, but in minimum hours needed to qualify for union health benefits, from 300 hours worked, to 400. Websites are springing up, like 400Hours.com, taking issue with the provision. The group’s website has various testimonials on the backlash, typified by this comment from Local 600’s Sol Negrin: “I am voting NO on this contract on the basis that it’s unrealistic. Camera crews don’t get the kind of pre-production and postproduction hours that other members from the other locals get (many won’t be able to reach 400 hours if this contract is passed).”

Whether there’ll be enough votes for the clearly unthinkable—IA rejection of a studio contract—remains an open question. But then, in abyss-y times, interesting things happen.

Oh, and they get more and more interesting. Also on the edges of the big headline was a report by Merrill Lynch analyst David Rosenberg, detailing the parameters of our current economic implosion, including, specifically, the collapse in consumer spending: “Even so-called recession-proof items like food are being cut back on,” he writes, “as households shift from veal marsala to pot roast, and from brand name to private label (in real or unit terms, food consumption has declined for six months in a row, so this is not just about lower prices, but also about shifting spending patterns).”

And guess what? Movies used to be considered “recession- proof,” too, but, according to Rosenberg, spending on tickets is down by a pretty whopping 36 percent—just behind the collapse in car sales.

What was that about no tax breaks for the film biz?

Ah well. There was an uptick in cable TV spending— of about 7 percent (along with a handful of other rises, in things like cell phone use and educational services). It all means people will be hunkering down, and perhaps those ancillary revenues will become more critical than initial revenues, if this fiscal “downtime” drags on and on.

Which suddenly explains the tenaciousness of Hollywood’s labor woes: It’s a shrinking pie, and many of the few remaining pieces are clearly labeled “digital.”

And how do you end a fight between desperate people fighting over scraps?

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