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Voice Of The Crew - Since 2002

Los Angeles, California

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I Walk the Line

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I was reminded recently of an encounter with Paul Schrader during pre-production of his film Auto-Focus. The film was being financed by Sony Classics on the coat tails of its financial windfall from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was the first time the company had fully underwritten a movie, but despite its sudden war chest of cash, a budget cap of $7.5 million had been placed on the tragic saga of actor Bob Crane.
Schrader told me that he’d had bitter fights with the Classics’ team in hopes of increasing the budget to $8.3 million. He could not get them to budge because once costs exceeded $8 million they would lose concessions from various technical and artistic unions and guilds. So, according to the filmmaker, once that line was crossed, the fee structure would rapidly escalate and the film would go from $8 million to $11 million.
I understood Schrader’s frustration, but what registered far more significantly was the tremendous largesse of creative and craft associations in assisting lower budget movies with access to their professional talent pool. Largesse is perhaps too grand a word to apply to the circumstances. As the situation began to percolate, memories of recent non-union shoots in which members worked surreptitiously also crossed my mind.
It was an unstated rule that in these tight times craft organizations turned a blind eye to job opportunities that fell outside their jurisdiction as long as the production was truly low-budget and had the good sense not to draw attention to itself. I also recall the non-union shoot of Wired in Los Angeles that foolishly orchestrated a production piece in the Los Angeles Times during filming and was promptly shut down. The producers caved to union demands and signed accords that added $3 or $4 million in production costs.
It was probably situations like Wired that prompted the unions to address the whole independent arena. After all, the traditional studio system that necessitated labor organizations had long ago been dismantled and membership rosters now had significantly more freelance than contract players. In theory, at least, it was wise to build a bridge between the mainstream and the alternative American movie industries.
The reality, or at least the choice of building materials, remains problematic. Offering incentives on the basis of production costs really doesn’t distinguish between the two realms. According to the Motion Picture Association of America the average budget of a studio movie was more than $50 million in 2003. However, all of these companies’ specialty labels were involved in films that cost less than $10 million and in principle the labor initiatives weren’t intended to chiefly benefit those films. Conversely, nascent talent is lucky to cobble together perhaps as much as $2 million for truly independent fare. Even the most generous concessions would preclude hiring professional talent through these programs. So, if members were to participate it would be done sub rosa.
Still, there has to be a better, more effective way of spanning these two universes. There’s no arguing that technicians and craftspeople are hungry to participate in innovative projects regardless of budget, and the cold truth is that most films that meet that definition are made outside the studio gates.
There might be the possibility of finding some common ground via an apprenticeship program or a special category that would allow a member to serve as a consultant on a true maverick production. However, any solution presupposes that union assistance would be welcome if it was an option and my suspicion is it would be viewed with skepticism. Though the various labor organizations have a considerable laundry list of grievances against the Hollywood majors, to someone with a fiercely independent streak at the beginning of a career, they appear to be in cahoots with the moguls and devoid of anything other than self-interest.
Faced with that scenario it would be understandable for most to throw up their hands and say, “why bother?” And one can’t argue that the commercial gain is negligible. There’s also no debating when it comes to approaching anyone that’s committed to working in the margins.
However, certain facts speak for themselves. Most filmmakers in America see their first movies as calling cards to the mainstream. The number of true mavericks working outside the system can be counted on the fingers of one hand. These budding auteurs want control but they also want to work with the best, and once you scratch the surface the differences begin to peel away. They are tomorrow’s Coppolas, Spielbergs and Scorseses, and well worth the time and effort involved in creating a dialogue.

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