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Unions Rock the Vote in U.S. Presidential Election

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AFM took place against the backdrop of the U.S. presidential elections.
So we’ve just watched President Obama’s acceptance speech here at Below the Line central, and unions, as such, can breath a little easier, at least, for the moment.

The union-backed candidate beat the boardroom-backed one, (a slightly simplistic division, we know, since Obama is much friendlier to corporate interests than his various bitter Republican foes give him credit for), helped in part by heavy union support in places like Ohio, where some industry jobs have been brought haltingly back, thanks to the bail out of the auto industry.

Here in California, unions are doing well as of this writing. Proposition 32 is losing – a Citizens United-spawned aberration that allowed a lot of out-of-state special interest to come in and mount a campaign for a ballot initiative they said… would stop things like out-of-state special interests. Of course, what it really did was shut down union spending in California elections, while leaving most corporate spending untouched.

Groups like IATSE, the California Teachers’ Union, and others, managed to flex their own electoral muscle, (while they still had it), and as of midnight, with about half of California’s vote counted, the initiative is getting walloped by about 10 points.

What this means in the next two-four years for unions, remains intriguing. Union identification is still low among American workers, and a GOP house will still be a roadblock to any kind of tax, wage or employment reforms that union workers might want out of a government.

But the President – re-elected with over 300 electoral votes – has the hot hand now, and “labor,” such as it is here in America, probably hasn’t been in such a good position at the Federal level since sometime before the Reagan ascendancy in 1980. And we haven’t even talked about the Senate pickups, and what Obama’s coming Supreme Court appointments may augur in terms of future workplace-related rulings on collective bargaining, workers’ rights, et al.

Meanwhile, in this hurly-burly of election season, (morphing inexorably to “Award Season” here in L.A.), there was also the hustle and bustle of the American Film Market, which wraps up some 48 hours after election day, in its beachside digs in Santa Monica’s Loews hotel, and environs.

It seemed as good a place as any to gauge the state of the global economy as it affected filmed entertainment. As ever, there were hotel suites filled with sellers of indie-financed fare ranging from Nazi zombies to adaptations of Pulitzer-winning plays, and everything in between.

But were sales being made with so much tentativeness in the global economy? (After all, despite the election now being over, America still waits to see whether Washington will throw itself over the proverbial “fiscal cliff” in the new year).

Jonathan Wolf
Jonathan Wolf, executive VP and managing director of AFM, told us that after a few years of dipping sales at AFM, caused by a glut of product, (movies became easier to finance when there was excess capital looking for someplace to get a return), running smack dab into a suddenly softening market, things were starting to balance out.

There might have been 30 percent more product at earlier markets, but the consumer, he observed, “wasn’t willing to spend 30 percent more time at the theater.”  So prices went soft, and at the same time, delivery platforms changed. There are fewer screens in America, as not every exhibition house is going to make the transition to digital, and DVDs are inexorably giving way to streaming models of home exhibition.

As for most of these streaming models, Wolf says that while Video on Demand, or VOD, is increasingly a new player at AFM, as aggregators search for content for sites, the “VOD promise is a long way away.” By which he means, no one can really rely on VOD money for presales – another staple of doing business at AFM – in terms of putting together movie budgets.

He also thinks that some of the alarms about the reduction in screens, in particular, may be one of those first-world problems, as younger filmgoers, particularly in Asia and South America, still flock to theaters. All of which is fine, but when American studios switch to all-digital delivery, it brings up an interesting question about who will be investing in film prints for foreign territories where digits have not been mandated.

We also caught one of AFM’s “Industry Conversations” on “Working with U.S. Guilds,” which was a panel discussion featuring the DGA’s Jon Larson, WGAW’s Kay Wolf and Darrien Michele Gibson from SAGIndie. Each of them helps his or her above-the-line guilds construct low-budget contracts so that indie films can still avail themselves of union talent.

At least in terms of acting and writing, Larson made a good pitch for the importance of ADs and UPMs who really know what they’re doing, when schedules and budgets are tight.

One of the most telling comments came from Larson, who also addressed the directors and thespians in the audience, saying the residuals that he and his colleagues had been talking about, (there was some lively talk on how you get your eventual distributor to make the “assumption agreement,” and pay out those residuals down the line), were something “we could never achieve in the economic climate now.”

No agent now, he continued, could get those financial and creative agreements that are standard template language in a DGA contract (or to differing degrees, the SAG and WGA contracts too).

All of which speaks to the changing economies and demographics everywhere – among America’s voters, and its filmgoers, and those who work and make “entertainment” – whatever that means in an era of instantly streaming digits.

What that might mean for domestic unions trying to defend the best interests of their workers is anybody’s guess. But just for the moment, those unions have helped re-elect a President, and roll back an odious initiative in California.

Whether this is a harbinger of new times, or simply a brief sojourn in continually tough times – or likeliest, a combination of both – for tonight at least, the union voices we write about in this space can take some considerable satisfaction at being heard on election night in America.

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