By FRANK SWERTLOW
When more than 1,000 members of Hollywood's trade unions recently showed up at a Burbank park to protest the flight of U.S. film and TV production to Canada, it underscored the seething frustration among rank-and-file workers about the resulting loss of jobs.
"The exodus of film and television and commercial production has devastated thousands of U.S. citizens," said Jack DeGovia, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, Local 876, which covers art directors.
DeGovia and other union members say it is not uncommon for colleagues to lose homes or cars, or be forced to take other jobs. "People are talking about not knowing whether to make their mortgage payment or their car payment," he said.
Of course, top-line Hollywood workers producers, directors and actors still keep busy. But the further down on the production chain, the easier it is to find non-union replacements in Canada.
The Canadian government is luring producers north with tax breaks that can reduce a production's budget by as much as 20 percent, but those breaks only apply when producers use Canadian workers.
Cody Cluff, president of the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., estimates that more than $150 million worth of production activity that would normally be done in the United States will be lost to Canada this year.
Cluff said film and TV work in Los Angeles has declined by about 10 percent during the past 12 months from the previous 12-month period. Currently, there is only one film being shot in Los Angeles with a budget exceeding $85 million. Normally, there would be four such movies in production at this time of year, he said.
"That means people are not working and haven't for 12 months," Cluff said. "That makes house and car payments difficult to make. It's a serious problem."
A veteran TV director said first and second assistant directors have been hit hard by runaway production. These jobs are going to Canadians.
"These guys at the studios and networks don't care," he said. "It's all about money, not the quality of the production. There's a movie being shot with George Washington crossing the Delaware River. There was a lot of snow that winter (in 1775), but when they went to Canada, they couldn't find any snow. They shot the scene anyway. They don't care."
Erik Nelson, a property master and a member of IATSE, Local 44, said he recently lost two jobs for feature films when the producers decided to go to Canada.
"So many people in my business are at home," he said. "There are no jobs."
Runaway production has always been a problem for Hollywood-based craftsmen and artists, but the situation has been exacerbated by a reduction in the number of films being made by the movie studios.
In 1998, the number of wide-release films dropped to 139 from 151 a year earlier. This year, struggling Universal Pictures cut its production slate from 35 films to about 20. Twentieth Century Fox and Walt Disney Co. have also curtailed production.
Ironically, these cutbacks come at a time when Hollywood box-office revenues soared to a record $7 billion in 1998. They also come at a time when producers and studios are paying salaries in excess of $20 million per picture to a few of Hollywood's biggest stars.
The Directors Guild of America has hired a high-powered lobbyist in Washington to explore possible legislation or incentives to keep production in the United States. The DGA and the Screen Actors Guild have also hired a consultant to examine the issue.
Meanwhile, three members of the state Assembly have proposed separate bills to create tax credits for Hollywood labor costs.
Even so, DeGovia believes the marketplace will ultimately decide the fate of Hollywood unions. Canadian crews, he said, are inferior to local workers.
"There is going to be a big explosion this summer," he said. "There is so much work, they are tripping over each other. The quality of what is on the screen has to be suffering."
The TV director confirmed DeGovia's assertions. "There are three to five good crews in Canada," he said. "There is no bench strength. There is no depth. In Hollywood, we could put together 1,000 crews and with unbelievable quality."
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