Gotham Film Office Under Siege

Union reps, business owners and other leaders of New York’s film and television production industry will meet with state economic development officials Jan. 31, the latest in a marshaling of forces that began within a week of Republican George Pataki’s whomping of Democrat Mario Cuomo in New York’s governor’s race.

The biggest issue weighing on the industry’s collective mind could eventually pit the city’s tough labor leaders against the new pro-business Republican governor: Will Pataki replace Bruce Feinberg, Manhattan-based deputy commissioner of the Governor’s Office for Motion Picture & Television Development? And, perhaps more important, with whom?

While the industry insiders are doing their best to cast a friendly, non-adversarial sheen on the economic pow-wow, the rumble of concern over rumored changes in the state’s power structure is loud and getting louder. The meeting, between an ad hoc industry group and Charles Gargano, the state’s new economic development chief, is being described as an informal get-together to chart the course of business under the new regime.

The quickest way to raise the blood pressure of a New York union rep last week was to inquire about potential Feinberg replacements.

So far, only one name had surfaced, one that clearly didn’t sit well with labor or the pro-Feinberg business community: Patti Kaufman, wife of Troma Films president (and Pataki friend) Lloyd Kaufman. The Manhattan-based Troma is a mostly non-union shop specializing in low-budget pix such as the “Toxic Avenger” series.

Since the rumors surfaced, union leaders and the pro- Feinberg forces campaigned heavily, off the record, against her appointment and charges of political patronage were leveled at the governor.

As one industry source put it, “We’re a $3 billion industry, and Pataki’s paying back an old friend?”

The lobbying might have paid off. Pataki is expected to give Patti Kaufman a government job – in the governor’s office division for women. (The governor’s press secretary would not comment on the possible appointment.)

But the pro-union, pro-Feinberg forces can’t breathe easy yet, as they closely monitor a governor who they fear flirted with such an anti-union appointment.

Meanwhile, support for Feinberg is consolidating. A Cuomo appointee, Feinberg is extremely popular among the city’s production service community and unions. The group intends to boost Feinberg’s cause at the economic “summit.”

“We feel he’s one of the best state coordinators in the country,” says Morty Dubin, president of Iris Films, a Manhattan-based television commercial production company. Dubin, the organizer of the ad hoc committee meeting with Gargano, joins the others in noting Feinberg’s experience in the job. The deputy commissioner is said to have built his apparent popularity in part on a perceived even-handedness in working with labor and management. And it doesn’t hurt Feinberg’s reputation that his five-year tenure as deputy commissioner (he’s served in the state office in some capacity for a decade) has seen the New York production industry climb its way out of a devastating business crash that followed Hollywood’s 1990 lensing boycott of the city. The bitter war between West Coast studios and East Coast unions resulted in, by some estimates, losses of $100 million to New York’s economy, with film-related unions and production service businesses particularly hard-hit.

But with union employment figures up over pre-strike levels, and New York filming reaching its highest point in years, the industry clearly is leery of changing course. According to New York State Film Commission figures, the number of film and television projects receiving production assistance from that office under Feinberg’s tenure has risen from 382 in 1992 to 782 in 1994. Shooting days for film, television and commercials have grown steadily.

Now government sources say Feinberg might not be the only one in the state office about to be axed, and the possible shakeup already is causing tremors.

“We spent the last four or five years recovering from the boycott and restructuring how we do business,” says Lou D’Agostino, exec director of IATSE camera operators Local 644. Through “long dialogues” with Feinberg and city film commissioner Pat Scott, the unions have developed a “coherent strategy” to boost biz in New York, D’Agostino says.

“Now that the fruits of our labors are coming home,” he says, “it’s very important for the governor to understand that this is not a political spot.”

Gargano did not return calls.

Feinberg concedes that he has received no confirmation, or any contact at all, from the Pataki administration. Asked if he had contingency employment plans, he’d say only, “Well, who wouldn’t?”

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