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Keeping politics local

Stemming runaway prod'n just one of DGA's activist efforts

Take one look at the Federal Election Commission’s partial list of politicians that the Directors Guild of America’s political action committee gave money to in the past two years and you’ll see why policy-making can be such a delicate balancing act.

Is that really Hollywood-hating Dick Armey of Texas getting a thousand bucks of DGA PAC money for his re-election committee in 2000? And can that be conservative David Dreier of California getting $5,000 of the DGA’s largesse in 2001? And why exactly is democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas, hardly a bastion of filmmaking, getting a similar contribution of five large? Answer: They’re all supporting the DGA’s efforts to stem the tide of production fleeing to Canada with federal tax credits.

A law that would rebate 25% of some below-the-line salaries to production companies shooting in the U.S. was termed “a nonstarter” in 1999 by then-Sen. William Roth (R-Del.). To date the bill has 17 co-sponsors including conservatives Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Sen. John Breaux (D-La.).

Until recently, proposals in California for state tax rebates were met with similar disinterest by Gov. Gray Davis. “I won’t sign such a bill,” the governor said in late 1999.

Now, thanks to stepped-up efforts by the DGA and other entertainment lobbying groups, tax rebates for the entertainment biz are on the front burner in D.C. and Sacramento.

“They’ve been very effective on this issue,” says Myrl Schreibman, professor of producing and directing at UCLA’s department of film, television and new media. “Few people outside the industry cared about runaway production five years ago. Now the interest is much wider and deeper.”

Adds the head of another entertainment industry trade group: “They’re a smart bunch. They could have said that this was more an issue for the talent unions, but they didn’t.”

Since the DGA formed its PAC in 1996, high-profile directors such as Taylor Hackford have been in the vanguard, pushing an ever-higher guild visibility in Washington.

“Jack Valenti and the (Motion Picture Assn. of America) do a terrific job on the business side of things,” Hackford says from his home base in London, “but our agenda is different. We feel that we can be a voice of creative leadership and not just for our members.”

The DGA’s strength is not so much in its numbers as in its influence. The guild may be the smallest among its Hollywood counterparts: 12,000 strong as compared with the Screen Actors Guild’s 98,000 members and the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees’ 102,000. But when such high-profile members as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman speak, people, legislators and the media tend to listen.

“The larger unions are so much more unruly that I don’t think even the DGA leadership could have as much focus with them as they do in their own guild,” says another trade group head.

At least part of the DGA’s success lies in its page-taking from the play book of the late Massachusetts Congressman Tip O’Neill, known for the aphorism that all politics is local.

“We have to make runaway production a local issue or (the current bills in Congress) are going to die,” says Hackford. Among other things, Hackford (who has a home in Louisiana) called Breaux and pointed out that six recent films set in Louisiana were actually shot in Canada. “It wasn’t hard to explain to him what kind of economic impact that has.”

In many ways the DGA has been politically savvy from the beginning. In 1938, the DGA’s precursor, the Screen Directors Guild, took on much more powerful studio heads and won. Autocrats Louis B. Mayer, William Fox and the brothers Warner refused to recognize the SDG as a legitimate body of workers.

“They have their own swimming pools. They have their houses in Beverly Hills,” studio lawyer Neil McCarthy reportedly said to a hearing in front of the National Labor Relations Board. “What do they want? Two swimming pools?”

But the directors successfully argued that they were laborers and, as such, were covered by the Wagner Act of 1935. The statute required employers to bargain in good faith with unions. By March 1939, the SDG had its contract with the studios that, among other things, established the creative right of a director to be consulted on editing and the casting of principal actors.

“(Directors are) a small group of people like nuclear scientists are a small group,” jokes Larry Turman, a vet producer (“The Graduate,” “Tribute”) and chairman of USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program. “In Hollywood it’s all about who has the most muscle. And in a lot of situations directors have made the most of that.”

In for long haul

For his part, Congressman Dreier says no one should expect a quick resolution to the problem of runaway production. “We had a good start on the issue but it’s going to take a while.”

It was Dreier who introduced the tax bill (HR 3131) to the House last year. With 30 co-sponsors, supporters of the legislation are a long way from getting the 218 votes needed to pass a bill into law.

Dreier expects the measure eventually to become part of a larger tax reform effort. Asked how difficult it was to overcome the perception that any tax break for Hollywood was a tax break for pampered showbiz types, he replies: “The message is getting through that this bill is not for Michael Eisner or Steven Spielberg. It’s for the bread-and-butter workers who are losing their jobs to a heavily subsidized industry in Canada.”

DGA execs say they’re in it for the long haul.

“We knew the legislation was a long shot,” says Bryan Unger, western exec director, who is stunned by the level of support the bill already has. In large measure that has happened because of the entertainment industry’s efforts to recast the popular image of Hollywood.

“I think we’re changing the People magazine image of Hollywood as just stars and Oscars,” says Kathy Garmezy, the guild’s director of government affairs.

In the world of Sacramento politics, meanwhile, you don’t have to be lucky or good but you do have to be there. “The rule here,” says one lobbyist, “is that the person who isn’t at the table gets screwed.” You still may get the shaft even if you are there, he adds. But a group without a full-time lobbyist is guaranteed bupkes.

As focussed as the DGA has become in its political efforts, it’s not a big-time player by any stretch of the imagination. According to figures supplied by California, the DGA spent just $80,175 on lobbying activities from January 1999 to December 2000. In the same period, by comparison, the Coalition of Talent Managers spent $281,301 and the Walt Disney Co. spent more than $470,000. In the current election cycle, things are getting even harder for small spenders.

Bolstering guild’s PAC

In the first state election governed by the contribution limits of Proposition 34, special interest groups are doing an end run around the law by forming so-called independent committees. For the March statewide elections, many of them were funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into Assembly and Senate races.

Hackford says that while the DGA can’t compete with the big-money contributors, it can do more. To that end, Hackford and fellow helmer Paris Barclay formed a leadership council in February to increase membership contributions to the PAC. Already, more than 50 helmers have promised to contribute. The amounts involved will soon be a part of the public record at the FEC.

Despite the successes of the DGA, political relations between the Hollywood guilds have some ongoing strains. When SAG filed an unfair tariff complaint with the federal government in December, the DGA and others were not pleased. Among other things, DGA reps pointed out, if the petition against Canada was successful it would make the tax breaks the DGA is pursuing illegal.

On the issue of creative rights between the Writers Guild of America and the DGA, things remain frosty. Since an organizational meeting in late 2001, there have been no meetings on the issue of creative credits.

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