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Union Roundup: Occupy Column Space

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Much as happened since we last took to this space to opine on the intersection of film, politics, and constantly fraying economies here, notably, of course, some unforeseen blowback from general populaces everywhere against predatory banking and investing policies, (which dictate the “inevitablities” of off-shoring, downsizing, layoffs, union-smashing, pension and benefit rollbacks, et al), in the from of the “Occupy” movement, which initially took as its geographic symbol Wall Street itself.

Or “right alongside Wall Street” – since the actual hallowed financial turf is, of course, protected by police – in the form of Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

The movement sparked something dormant in folks around the world, and now different cities, towns and financial centers find themselves with “occupy” encampments, though how all this will ultimately play out – and what might truly change as a result of it – remains to be seen.

Oddly, while there is an “Occupy Los Angeles” wing – it gathers near City Hall, and their website is replete with workshops on alternative transportation, harnessing solar power, direct democracy, and much much more – there hasn’t been an “Occupy Hollywood,” which conceptually at least, (Hollywood being more metaphoric than literal, at this point) might be worthwhile if we take Marshall McLuhan at his word that “the medium is the message.”

Hollywood, however, is making use of things Occupy-ing, though, with the recent announcement – as reported by the LA TimesSteven Zeitchek on their blog – that Christopher Nolan’s concluding Batman installment, The Dark Knight Rises, may be making use of actual Wall Street occupying when the production shoots there starting in late October.

But, according to the unnamed spokesperson cited in the article, “while the person who’d been told of the plans said the protests could figure into the production, they said that doesn’t mean they will be included in the storyline.” Batman may be facing enough corrosive corruption on his own, all without pausing to do any community organizing.

But Hollywood’s community has noticed, as a long statement recently issued by the Writers Guild of America, West attests. WGAW president Christopher Keyser said, “The economic statistics don’t lie. The rich are getting much, much richer in America. At the same time, the middle class, which was once the vibrant economic backbone of this country, is disappearing, and our poor and our unemployed are in free fall.

“The corporations and the people who gambled with our future, who made a killing on that bet and then got bailed out by us, are back with robust profits and unconscionable salaries. No one has paid a price for that but the American worker. And neither political party seems to have the guts or the independence to hold anyone accountable or to demand meaningful safeguards to protect us from all of this happening again…

“People from all walks of life are rising up and demanding accountability and change. The Writers Guild of America, West supports this national protest against the greed permeating the workings of our economy.”

Of course, ironically, there were already very few routinely “middle class” writers – the ones who who were working were making bank, the rest were – as per tradition – effectively broke. So perhaps some empathy with a vanished middle class undergirds the statement.

But Hollywood must also be aware that a vanishing middle class means the era of $10-plus movie tickets might be ratcheting down, especially when “3-D” fees are thrown into the mix. And while, arguably, folks might stay in and watch more TV during a big long new depression, there may be some questioning of that cable bill when it becomes a routine choice between watching Hung, or buying groceries.

But the belt-tightening isn’t – or won’t – be felt just at the box-office end, (though yes, I’m aware that during the previous Depression, when the WGA was formed, people actually escaped their woes by flocking to movies, in that “Angry Birds”-less world. Of course, movies only cost a nickel then).

At a luncheon to honor the recent COLA nominees – the California On Location Awards, themselves recently presented at the Biltmore in downtown L.A. not that far from the Occupiers – I talked with Alasdair Boyd, the location manager for Horrible Bosses (a runner up in the Location Team of the Year category, which eventually went to Moneyball).

Much of Horrible Bosses was shot in the valley, doubling for an unnamed city, but I asked Boyd if the economy was driving more cities to throw tax incentives at productions in an attempt to lure productions their way, or if budget woes were forcing bankrupt states and localities to withdraw such perks.

There hadn’t been a pronounced shift either way that he could recognize, but one thing that had changed, he opined, is that small business owners were much warier about losing access to customers during location shoots – i.e., “regulars” who couldn’t park, go in and out of stores, etc.

They were much more frenetic about not being cut off from paying clientele, and Boyd noted he was doing his best – as were many of his colleagues – to minimize disruptions to regular business, such as it still is, during filming.

And if the glamor of film crews has worn off among regular working folk and the “hoi polloi,” some tried and true aspects of Hollywood’s earlier glitter years are still with us: namely, the attempts at union organizing.

Currently, the Art Directors’ Guild is making a push to organize previs artists – a job title, and even a spelling, that didn’t exist anywhere in that first Depression, (probably not even in the imagination of contemporaneous sci-fi pioneer John W. Campbell; what’s this “previs? movies on giant computer machines?”).

Now, however, we have a website started by ADG – “Artists for Direct Action” (which frankly seems like more of an “Occupy”-style appellation, and even features an IWW-like black cat on the front page) – which says they wish to “provide previs artists with the tools and information necessary to organize their workplaces and earn the wages and benefits to which they’re entitled, and to gain membership in and representation by a strong Hollywood union.”

All of which is splendid, when considering the current 99% vs. 1% prism though which the world – and its discourse – is riven. But speaking of being riven, don’t VFX folks actually claim previs artists to be among their own?

Scott Roth, the executive director of ADG says “we don’t think we’re stepping on their toes,” “their,” perhaps referring to the VFX community in general, or perhaps even the Visual Effects Society specifically. And while the latter isn’t a union (ADG is IATSE’s local 800), there was director Eric Roth’s “open letter” in late spring declaring that the time had come to organize. In a fashion. Since the VES isn’t a union.

But ADG asserts, on its direct action-advocating website, that ADG “has jurisdiction over previs, since the work previs artists do mirrors the work of other crafts represented by ADG – notably illustrators – already perform.”

Well, there’s certainly an aspect of production design, but then does any keyboard rendering done in pre-production – from lighting set-ups to costume mock-ups – fall under the same jurisdiction? As we’ve noted before in this space, the more that formerly separate crafts become similarly performed on the same keyboards, the more these questions of jurisdiction will arise.

Though Roth doesn’t view it as a competition, saying of VES, that “we think what they’re asking for is great.” It’s just that, he emphasized, “this is what we do.”

So have they signed up a bunch of formerly unrepresented previs artists? “We think it’s going very well,” he says, noting a surge in “hits on the website.”

How does management feel about the organizing attempts? The ADG was “unaware of pushback at this point.”

So it remains to be seen how the bulk of previs artists themselves feel about where and how they should be classified – simply as pre-production workers, or specifically part of the visual effects pipeline – and whether the ADG will become the union for most of them.

But if the Occupy movement at large is any indication, the 1920s’-era quote from pedagogical writer William Burnham, which adorns ADG’s direct action webpage – that “the most drastic, and usually the most effective remedy for fear, is direct action” – is a clarion call not just to previs artists, but perhaps to everyone who finds themselves unrepresented at the present juncture.

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