UPDATED: In selecting Ken Ziffren as Los Angeles’ next film czar, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has picked one of the entertainment industry’s most prominent attorneys who has emerged as a kind of elder statesman for the business.
Ziffren, 73, appeared with Garcetti at a Monday press conference where he said that Los Angeles “must remain the entertainment capital of the world.”
“We must vigorously compete with other states and countries,” Ziffren said. He also paid tribute to his predecessor, Tom Sherak, saying his work will build on the “foundation” he set.
“It is a daunting task following in the footsteps of someone so remarkable and as loved as Tom Sherak,” Ziffren said.
“I am enthused and I really look forward to this,” he told Variety after the press conference. “I really think it is meaningful for the city and the state to (address the problem of runaway production). Again, this is about being competitive and keeping the business where it belongs.”
Ziffren will work with two people whom Sherak brought in to assist him: Rajiv Dalal, who serves as director of the Mayor’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Production, and Bob Pisano, former president of the MPAA, who serves as an outside adviser.
Ziffren’s first order of business will be the Sacramento lobbying push to expand the state’s $100 million-per-year incentive program. Before he died, Sherak laid out a strategy for winning support of politicians outside the Los Angeles region, among other things. The challenge, however, will be to get an increase in the pool of money available for incentives that can make a meaningful impact. Although Garcetti declined to identify a specific figure that the city will lobby for in Sacramento, often cited is the need to compete with New York. The Empire State has a $420 million-per-year program.
In the next week or so, California Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, chairman of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, plans to introduce legislation to expand the tax credit. Initially, it will not include an annual dollar figure, a strategic decision to try to put the benefits of the program front and center at the start, avoiding the risk of making the sum of the annual outlay a target right off the bat. That number will be added later, with hopes that the end result will still be a pool of tax credit money that’s competitive with other states.
Another challenge will be to convince Gov. Jerry Brown to support the legislation. Garcetti has previously said that Brown “still needs to be convinced” of the need to expand the tax incentive, although at Monday’s press conference, the mayor said that they “continue to have good and fertile conversations with the governor.” Garcetti noted that Ziffren is friends with Brown. Asked whether the governor has been swayed, Ziffren said, a bit wryly, “Everyone needs convincing.”
Ziffren said that he would continue to represent the same roster of clients at Ziffren Brittenham and that he could not foresee that any of his legal work would pose a conflict of interest with his position at City Hall. He also teaches at the UCLA School of Law, where he is chairman of the entertainment and media law program.
The new job will be a much more public role for Ziffren, who has often worked behind the scenes on behalf of clients or to offer advice on a major industry issue. He acknowledged that he had some reluctance but decided to take the job because “on the merits I thought that I could contribute, and the mayor was nice enough to say that he trusted my ability to do that. And so that is the way it ended up.”
Ziffren’s role as an industry mediator was largely forged in 1988, when he led an effort to resolve the writers strike that had bitterly divided management and labor. Since then, his wisdom has been sought after on a host of entertainment industry issues, although runaway production has been among the most vexing of problems, as studio chiefs are caught in the position of advocating for more incentives yet are also the ones who ultimately decide to take their projects away from the Los Angeles region.
Ziffren also grew up surrounded by politics. His father, Paul Ziffren, also a highly successful attorney, was a significant figure in Democratic party politics in the western states, and helped lure the 1960 Democratic National Convention to Los Angeles. Ken Ziffren himself has been a prolific donor to Democratic Party candidates, and publicly endorsed Garcetti when he was engaged in a highly competitive battle with Wendy Greuel for entertainment industry support during the mayoral campaign last year.
Although success in Sacramento remains to be seen, Garcetti cited progress in raising the visibility of the issue as well as in coordinating a legislative push. The deadline for passage is May 30 in the Assembly and Aug. 31 in the Senate.
Supporters are expected to point to the noticeable loss of middle-class jobs and production, particularly the big-budget blockbusters that now often shoot in other states and countries. According to Garcetti’s office, of the 45 big-budget features of 2012 and 2013, only one was shot exclusively in California.
Bocanegra’s legislation is expected to address the need to capture more of those tentpoles, which are currently prevented from participating in the California tax credit program because it is capped at $75 million. Similar to a proposal introduced last month by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, chairman of the appropriations committee, it would make big-budget blockbusters eligible, but only the first $100 million of qualified expenditures could be eligible for the 20% credit.
Also appearing at the press conference were three councilmen representing districts with concentrations of industry workers: Tom LaBonge, Mitch O’Farrell and Paul Krekorian.