Florida Holiday Over For Low-Cost Shoots?

A two-year honeymoon at central Florida’s new studios may be ending, with union locals pushing for contracts just as production outfits are looking for ways to tighten their belts.

The focus is on negotiations between several Florida Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees locals and two series being produced for Viacom Intl. at Universal Studios/Florida. But the tension is not strictly labor related, according to both union officials and the producer of Viacom’s successful first-year syndicated series “Super Force.”

Pressures include increased competition for low-budget production from other right-to-work states and from Canada, which offers financial aid, tax rebates and co-production bonuses.

Viacom, which has pioneered efforts to mount modestly priced series outside of Hollywood, recently chose to move an upcoming series, “Lightning Force,” to Canada, and investigated the possibility of moving “Super Force” as well.

Viacom spokesmen say the move of “Lightning Force” was a locations decision, not an economic one. The show requires a variety of terrain, including mountains, which can’t be reached without an expensive drive from Orlando.

“It sort of looks like we’re vacating, but we’re not,” said Julia Pistor, Viacom’s vice-prexy for firstrun syndication and development. “We have good relationships down there and I’d go back in a heartbeat.”

But producer James McNamara, whose Florida-based Premiere Ltd. Prods. makes “Super Force” for Viacom, is less sanguine.

“Viacom made a $50 million to $70 million commitment on production over the last two years, much of it in Florida, but that is clearly beginning to waver,” McNamara said. “We’ve hit a major glitch here.”

Union negotiations with Premiere over “Super Force” have recently broken off, although McNamara signed a letter of intent to recognize the union as exclusive bargaining agent for the % show. Pistor acknowledges that Viacom is nervous about the bargaining agreement. “The unions are making a move right now, and it’s no secret that a factor for us is that Florida is a right-to-work state,” says Pistor. “But they’ve been polite. We still think there’s enough room for all of us.”

An election will be held in the coming weeks to determine whether union members on the set of “The Adventures Of Super Boy” want representation. The “Super Boy” vote may largely prove moot – the show will have completed its 100th episode when the series shuts down in mid-July; additional firstruns are doubtful. But it may be a prelude to more important deals in the near future.

Universal/Florida’s first major projects are likely to be Ilya and Alexander Salkind’s “Christopher Columbus,” due for a start in early fall, and “Superman V,” which could follow in early ’92. Both have budgets of about $35 million, per Ilya Salkind.

The bargaining agents for Salkind are the same as those for “Super Force” and “Super Boy.” Thus, any IATSE deal involving the Viacom shows could become a platform for the next round of agreements.

Local 477’s business representative George Cherchiai said a year ago that 477 was willing at that time to keep a low profile, allowing members to cut their own deals, while low-budget productions predominated. But he said that the locals would want what they consider a fair shake once bigger-budget projects move in.

“Anybody can work a nonunion picture down here, but if I get enough people on it, I’m going to try to organize it,” said Keith Klemmt, bargaining agent of local 477.

Klemmt said he is nonplused at recent turns in the negotiations for the second season of “Super Force,” due to go into production in late May.

Union leaders charge that McNamara’s position stiffened shortly after signing a letter of intent to authorize the union as bargaining agent, and talks broke off a few weeks ago.

“We’ve never said a word about dollar figures,” said Klemmt. “We’re not attacking salary levels. We’re attacking the benefit issues, because there aren’t any,” he said.

McNamara counters that pay includes allowances for pension and welfare.

“I don’t think Premiere is reneging on anything,” Viacom’s Pistor avers. “The union is trying to protect itself. Sure – although Viacom is basically a distribution company – we get a little nervous over something like Premiere’s letter of intent. We hope the production companies will continue to be as efficient as possible.

“We do have some projects that we still want to bring to Florida,” she continued. “One big pilot is about to be done there because of our recommendation. If it sells, it could mean series of five weekly half-hour shows.”

In addition to handling “Super Force” and “The Adventures Of Super Boy,” Viacom owns the Nickelodeon cable network, which has a major production base at the studio. Production for the network and the two action shows occupied four of Universal’s nine soundstages for much of the past year. Also during that time, at least two other pilot/features were lensed in Florida for Viacom.

IATSE agent Klemmt said the union hopes bargaining will continue on “Super Force.” “We will do anything – within reason. You can’t do anything cheaper than in Florida, and central Florida is our softest area.”

Cherchiai worries over what he said is a recent offer from Premiere that is less than the union’s agreement with the nearby Disney studios.

Unlike Universal, which four-walls its soundstages, Disney does considerable production of its own, and the deal raised industry eyebrows when it was struck early last year. Union sources say that contract evolved, with some chagrin, from contracts designed for theme park employees and related inhouse production. No industry sources were willing to disclose the Disney terms.

Unlike South Florida, which has had a long feature production history with a consistent commercial production base to rely on, central and north-central Florida has mushroomed with the arrival of the Universal and Disney studios; there is no history of give-and-take.

The stakes in resolving the issue are raised by the competition from other states and Canada. The Canadian lure, Pistor explained, is funding generated by co-production. “The beauty of it – and this includes Mexico and France – is that if you spend money in those countries they’ll give you a higher licensing fee. Canada, specifically, has a tax rebate program, and Vancouver itself even has its own film fund.”

Florida has a sales tax rebate program of its own, but some producers have complained that the state bureaucracy is too slow to process claims and that unexpected exclusions result in rebates that are much lower than expected.

Florida offers few financing opportunities, McNamara said. And competition from other states includes packages involving breaks on accommodations, air and ground travel, car rentals, food services and the whole gamut of services, he said – including promotional tie-ins and other perks that central Florida hasn’t offered.

Governors Bob Martinez (’88-’90) and now Lawton Chiles, he said, haven’t followed through on the welcome extended to the film industry by Bob Graham during the early ’80s. State and local budget cuts have led to the closing of some film offices, and others have been folded into various departments. Some say budget cutting has hurt relationships with regional businesses and merchants, who resent being asked to do more for less.

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