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Union Roundup – November 2009

November 18, 2009 07:08 | By

The Writers Guilds of America, West and East mark the passing of Nick Counter, longtime president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and convey their deepest sympathy to his family,” came the mid-November statement. That was it, pretty much in its entirety, from the WGA. Brevity can be its own statement, one supposes—though IATSE’s statement went a bit further:

“In his nearly three decades of leading the AMPTP,” they said, of Counter, he was “a force in the entertainment industry—a worthy adversary, a tough negotiator, and a fair-minded professional. He brought a great intellect to often tough situations.”

Those “tough situations” were of course, Hollywood’s recent labor battles—especially, for Counter, the “one hundred days” of the Writers’ walkout. Richard Verrier’s LA Times obit noted, of the high school boxer renowned for his “pugnacious” negotiating style, that “some senior studio executives were unhappy with how Counter handled the negotiations, believing he had underestimated the union’s resolve. They made it clear that they wanted him to retire once contract talks with the Screen Actors Guild concluded,” according to “people close to the executives.”

He passed at 69, after collapsing in his home. His family left the causes undisclosed, but one can only imagine his was scarcely a relaxed or stress-free work life. Still, some thrive on that tension, and his passing will leave a hole in the latticework of Hollywood decision-making, whether he would ever run a negotiation or not, since, as Verrier also adds, “Counter served as a trustee on 14 of the guild and union health and pension funds and also as a trustee for the Motion Picture & Television Fund.”

There may be some irony in serving as a union trustee—but then, everyone in Hollywood knows everyone else anyway. And to be sure, Union Roundup also extends condolences to his family; having had a grandfather who passed along around that age, the writer of this column can confirm it’s still too early a time to go.

And what his passing may mean for the shape, tenor or tone of future Hollywood talks—for which, one imagines, he might’ve at least served as an AMPTP consigliere—also remains unknown, though really “uknown” is the order of the day in Hollywood and everywhere else where people engaged in “commerce” try to read tea leaves about out future.

That was certainly the sense in a recent Production Summit held by the Visual Effects Society, over at the Ritz Carlton in Marina Del Rey. The day-long session had many giving up a fall Saturday to get the lowdown—from interdisciplinary panels comprised not only of VES supes, but directors, DPs, producers and even the occasional showbiz journalist—on where things were headed in a world both increasingly digital, and increasingly outsourced.

“Things” in this case being movies and visual entertainment. VES co-founder Jeff Okun referred to himself as a “migrant film worker” in the present climate (or really, the “new climate”), and the subtext to that appellation is the worry that wages will keep spiraling down to those “enjoyed” by other types of migrant workers, (like the ones who doubtless picked the vegetables for that salad you’ll be having tonight).

Most of this came to a head in the last panel of the day, which bore the Thomas Friedman-riffing title “Hot, Flat and (getting) Crowded: The Business of Production and the New Global Economy.”

Moderated by Variety’s David S. Cohen, the group looked to sum up the day’s ideas and themes, and prognosticate however they could. But that current paradigm—the one that Counter was negotiating in, on behalf of the studios—is a tough one.

British Film Commissioner Colin Brown said a producer once remarked to him that “it would be fiscally irresponsible for me to make a movie in a jurisdiction where there’s no tax break,” and certainly, in terms of budget containment and the fastest return to profitability, that’s true.

Those left out of work will have their own definitions of “fiscal responsibility,” one supposes. Along which lines, Jeff Barnes, CEO and co-founder of CafeFX, asked, almost rhetorically, what the VES is doing about outsourcing to those various non-unionized tax havens, and then answered his own question, realizing that this group—who would have an upcoming event in New Zealand, shortly after this one—is “a global community.”

And yet, Barnes also recounted ratcheting down a bid for digital work on a sequence to $700,000, which he considered bare bones, from the original close-to-seven-figure cost. The producer of the film informed him that while he liked CafeFX, he’d just had a bid to do the sequence for $250,000, from a Canadian group, and had to follow the money there.

The experience left Barnes wondering what an effective counter-strategy might be. Where else do you build CafeFX outlets? New Mexico? Louisiana? Bangalore?

The problem, of course, is that capital is much more fluid that buildings and equipment, and it can move a lot faster than any “bricks and mortar” company. So what happens when people in Bangalore suddenly want better wages, and another government, somewhere else, can “contain labor costs” and provide better tax breaks?

Okun’s line about migrant film workers becomes less funny in a world where the formerly middle class are all like characters out of Brecht’s Mother Courage, following along in encampments with their wagons and retainers, hoping to pause somewhere long enough for their next meal.

“Where does it end?” Cohen asked his panel. There was no ready answer for that. Even the late Mr. Counter wouldn’t have had one that everyone could agree with.

We find ourselves back to the future—and up in the air (and generally tightening our belts)—all at once.
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