By Jack Egan
The equivalent of the “Big One” shook up Local 600 as camera assistant Gary Dunham, tapping into member distress over runaway production, was elected in April to be the next president of the International Cinematographers Guild in a huge upset. He succeeds long-time ICG president George Spiro Dibie, ASC, who had endorsed Dunham’s opponent, cinematographer Stephen Lighthill, ASC.
In the wake of Dunham’s close 52-to-48 percent victory, in which only 30 percent of the ICG’s 5,700 eligible members bothered to vote, there are still aftershocks. And the jolts extend beyond the repudiated ICG establishment to the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, whose public policy positions, especially on reining in runaway production, seem to be at loggerheads with the new leadership of what is the largest and most prominent local under the IATSE umbrella.
Not only did Dunham win, but many of the candidates running with him on the Coalition for a Democratic Union slate also swept to victory, giving the CDU a majority of the national executive board seats for the first time. Dunham confederates won other key posts. Haskell Wexler, ASC , the Oscar-winning cinematographer, was reelected second national vice president; Tom Weston won national vice president; and Paul Ferrazzi was elected national secretary-treasurer.
“This was a historic victory, because we upset a whole regime,” declared Dunham in an exclusive interview with Below the Line. Though he’s claiming a mandate to change the way the ICG is governed, others in Local 600 feel he was able to win by doing a better job of turning out his backers in what was a low turnout vote that reflected complacency on the part of many ICG members and was far from a mandate
“We didn’t get all of our constituency to take this election seriously enough,” said losing candidate Lighthill. “Gary tapped into a lot of rage about runaway production, which is seen as a reason why many members aren’t working. But though runaway production may be a problem, it’s not the only problem we face.”
Lighthill also believed he lost perhaps because he was “too closely identified” with the current administration, “especially with executive director Bruce Doering, who some may feel has been dismissive of Gary’s concerns.”
After the victory, now comes the hard part for Dunham, 53, whose sole elective office until now has been as an alternate to the ICG board. He has to bridge some broad differences in the divided ICG’s ranks and also demonstrate that he can successfully represent the interests of Local 600’s diverse membership within IATSE in future labor negotiations with the studios.
Front and center, there’s the matter of another ballot to select ICG delegates for next summer’s IATSE convention. In a snafu, the tally, which was supposed to be conducted at the same time as Local 600 members voted on officers, was voided due to complaints about inconsistent instructions. A new vote was set and results are due May 25.
The unusual second vote has been viewed by some ICG members as an opportunity to mitigate the impact of Dunham’s surprise election, and there has been an intense campaign to elect a more mainstream group. These delegates will represent Local 600 at the quadrennial IATSE convention, which takes place next July in Honolulu and will begin to set the bargaining agenda for the next round of labor negotiations with the studios in the first part of 2006.
“Although we received a mandate from the membership to change the governance of local 600, some members are now trying to block us from influencing the IA at its convention,” Dunham asserts. He’s been waging a vigorous effort to get his CDU backers to vote for convention delegates that back his presidency in what he says has become “a pitched battle.”
At the same time, Dunham has started reaching out in order to reassure other members that he’s not going to pursue a narrow agenda: “Our first order of business is to calm everyone down—we’re not about to upset any apple carts.”
Despite acknowledged differences with ICG executive director Doering, Dunham denied rumors he’s trying to replace him and said he “looked forward” to working with Doering and praised him effusively. “Bruce is very energetic, he’s incredibly dedicated, he’s been a tremendous asset to Local 600. I’ve certainly had issues with Bruce, but there’s no baggage from the past that I’ll be carrying forward.”
Doering for his part would only say “Local 600 staff is looking forward to working with Gary and all members of the new executive board.”
Dunham also said he wants to meet with Thomas Short, the powerful executive director of IATSE “for a heart-to-heart discussion and in order to establish a relationship.” Initial efforts to schedule a meeting had to be put off, says Dunham, because Short had to undergo back surgery, and was still recuperating.
Dunham and Short differ significantly on many issues, but none more so than the thorny question of runaway production, and how best to deal with it. Dunham has backed remedies that IATSE finds anathema. In particular he’s aligned himself with efforts by some groups in Hollywood like the Film & Television Action Committee to bring trade cases against countries like Canada that have enacted subsidies to lure shoots.
With IATSE representing many below-the-line professionals in Canada, executive director Short has in the past scoffed at the idea of setting off trade disputes to curtail runaway production. “Short of declaring war on Canada, there’s nothing I can do about it,” he declared.
Dunham was meanwhile dismissive of the course that has been pursued by the ICG and other Hollywood guilds to seek subsidies from Washington and Sacramento to keep productions in this country that might otherwise go abroad. He noted that this approach hasn’t yielded results to date. He also pointed out that an omnibus bill now before Congress that has tucked into it billions of dollars of tax breaks for Hollywood entertainment conglomerates as well as some incentives for domestic film production, has become mired in election-year politics.
Dunham rejects such efforts to seek legislative subsidies for Hollywood on principle. “When you start a subsidy war you begin a race to the bottom. The next thing you know you start spending taxpayer money. It’s a globalization issue. You’re forcing Hollywood professionals to compete in labor markets where they’re earning a fraction of what you’re supposed to get paid. There’s no way you can do that and survive.”
Many rank and file ICG members, he added, “are very bitter, they are upset, they see their careers being taken away from them, they see their health care being taken away from them, and the union up to now has said, ‘We’ll deal with that, don’t worry about it.’ And then we watch as their legislation gets knocked down year after year.”
As an alternative, Dunham proposed “putting the heat directly on the studios,” which he blamed for moving productions abroad and reducing jobs for ICG members. He noted as one example a widely circulated email which complained that last year’s Civil War epic, Cold Mountain, a Miramax production, was shot in Romania instead of the United States. Miramax chief “Harvey Weinstein credited that one letter with the lack of a best picture nod for Cold Mountain at this year’s Academy Awards,” said Dunham. “That is power, that is very powerful stuff for those who are making financial decisions. They should start asking themselves, ‘Am I going to get a lot of flak for saving $3 or $4 million by shooting abroad when it’s going to cost me at the box office?’”
The controversial nature of this spotlighting approach to deter runaway production and the degree to which it has split Local 600 became evident during the recent ICG election when Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Entertainment Caucus, tried to enlist Motion Picture Association of America chief Jack Valenti in a campaign to get Ron Howard to reconsider his decision to make his latest film, Cinderella Man, in Toronto. ICG president Dibie chastised Watson for not conferring with Hollywood unions first. Dunham in turn came to Watson’s defense and lashed out at Dibie. (Cinderella Man, by the way, began shooting in Toronto in early May.)
Dunham didn’t pull his punches when he discussed what’s pushing production abroad. “I’ve been on the set for 25 years, and it’s all about greed and ego. If you boil everything down in Hollywood, it comes down to increasing the bottom line, about trickle-down economics that never trickles down to us. I hate to get into a dialogue where it’s the producers against labor, because there are a lot of great producers who really want to do the right thing. But they can’t because of the people that control the money. It’s the financiers.”
Dunham even broached possibly launching consumer boycotts as one way to pressure studios. “From my perspective the two most powerful forces in the world are your pocketbook and your vote. When a Cold Mountain or a Cinderella Man, comes out, which is shot abroad though it’s an American story, if enough moviegoers say ‘They’re hurting our economy and they’re hurting our workers so we are not going to go see that movie,’ then you’ve said a lot. If studios don’t get box office in the first couple of weeks on a big movie like that, they have a bomb on their hands. That’s the power of the pocketbook. And it’s the most powerful tool that we all have.”
The new ICG president doesn’t claim to have a single solution to the complex issue of runaway production. “What I am promising is we will discuss everything involved and not just one element of it. We will discuss public awareness campaigns, we will discuss trade remedies and we will discuss doing away with Canadian subsidies and all other subsidies.”
By Jack Egan