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5th Anniv-Unions

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When Below the Line started out, the original charter for Union Roundup was to report, in bullet point fashion, what was happening with each local and/or guild’s specific contract negotiations, which ones were expiring, who looked likely to go on strike, etc.
Of course, it quickly occurred to us that contracts in Hollywood don’t, thankfully, expire on a monthly basis – or biweekly during Academy season! – so the column would have room to address other topics and concerns, as well.
And things have grown – or fallen apart, depending on your vantage point – from there.
But what has been most remarkable these past, quickly-moving years, is how none of those contract issues spun into a town-shutting, work-stopping strike.
Not, that is, until now.
The IA, to be sure, has hewed to Tom Short’s general formula of settling, more or less congenially, with producers, well in advance of contract expiration. And for Below the Liners, this has kept them as steadily employed as possible in an economy that has never quite thrived in these parlous 21st century years, but managed – here in Hollywood, anyway – to keep chugging along despite the ongoing shakiness of the dollar, and the constant backdrop of violence and mayhem – masquerading as national “policy” – which has kept the economy on the edge of a precipice. A precipice it may now be teetering – or perhaps jumping – straight into, with the subprime fallout.
Indeed, economic macro issues – many of which, Hollywood seemed impervious to, in previous downturns – have been the stuff of many a UR, and one of those, generating a lot of ink and pixels, has been outsourcing.
Of course, it’s not called outsourcing here, but foreign or runaway production. And it was Valley-based Film and Television Action Committee that forced a discussion of this outsourcing, particularly in terms of how much source was flowing in a Canadian direction, among Hollywood’s unions.
And by so doing, FTAC has exposed several of the contradictions that come with globalization – can the IA as a whole, for example, be against production jobs in Canada if it means IA locals are working?
And more recently, FTAC has made good on its long threatened/promised filing with the World Trade Organization, generating a mammoth document detailing Canada’s “unfair trade practices” in the form of tax subsidies for foreign productions. FTAC has enlisted the support of SAG in this effort, and – back in the contradiction department again – this has put the American thesps at loggerheads with their Canadian brethren (and sisters!), for the north-of-the-border actors’ union, ACTRA, has denounced the filing.
After all, they want to protect the jobs of their workers. The additional irony is that ACTRA recently concluded its own strike, against many of the same corporate entities, ultimately, that control (i.e. own) production down here.
One of the recurring issues in these imbroglios is of course, how to pay for new media residuals, which brings us up to the present juncture. Unlike BTL’s early days, when all we had to deal with were the effects of a de facto strike, every indicator now points to our getting a real one.
It may not happen until next summer, but coming against a backdrop of an even weaker dollar (FTAC may not have to worry about productions going anywhere else if they can’t afford to), people being punted out of their houses and an unemployment rate once again creeping northward (and we don’t just mean toward Canada), what the ultimate effects of a protracted strike will be, after all this relative labor calm, is anybody’s guess.
One issue that has completely fallen of the radar of the collective guilds is pushing for “Brent’s Rule,” an attempt to get what the eponymous website – named for the assistant cameraman who was killed after an exhausted single-car accident on the way home from set to family — calls “a sensible and humane work day” instilled in Hollywood.
No such luck. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler tried to juice up that particular dialog last year with the release of his documentary Who Needs Sleep?, but apparently, not too many folks miss it since the issue du jour remains residuals from markets a-borning or yet to be invented.
Then again, with a protracted strike in the works, perhaps everyone is figuring they can catch up on their sleep then.
What the world of film production – both above and below the line – might look like after such a strike is hard to say. It would depend not only on it actually happening, but how much brinkmanship both the writers/actors and the media conglomerates are willing to play with each other.
The fallout from a two-week actual strike versus a six-month strike, say, will be very very different.
And one thing likely to get tested by all that: Just how recession-proof the Tinseltown economy really is.
We’ll have the thrilling conclusion to all this for you – in our next anniversary issue. (Or should we call it a “sequel?”) Either way, we’ll see you then.

Written by Mark London Williams

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