Unions piqued over pol’s letter to U Pix

Valenti, Watson face off over runaway prod'n

A correction was made to this article on Apr. 19, 2004.

WASHINGTON — Motion Picture Assn. of America topper Jack Valenti last week stepped in to try to moderate a bitter spat between a California lawmaker and several Hollywood union execs over the best way to stop studios from filming overseas.

In early April, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) sent a letter to Valenti urging Universal to cancel plans to shoot the upcoming Russell Crowe film “Cinderella Man” in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens hockey arena. But the missive broke several showbiz trade org and union lobbying taboos — especially a long-running policy of avoiding attacks on studios for making business decisions to film in Canada and other foreign countries.

Even before the letter was sent, Watson earned several sharp rebukes from union execs for singling out U and “Cinderella Man” in her effort to protect California showbiz jobs.

In early April, George Spiro Dibie, prexy of the Intl. Cinematographers Guild, took issue with a draft Watson circulated of her letter, which was originally addressed to Universal Studios. In a reply, Dibie complained that Watson had not consulted the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the Directors Guild of America or the Screen Actors Guild “prior to presenting it as a fait accompli.”

“For your information, for the past three years these organizations have been part of an industrywide coalition that has worked day and night at all levels of government to level the playing field with foreign governments and to increase motion picture and television jobs through the United States,” Dibie said. “[We] hoped that you would have at least given us a call or requested a meeting with the coalition to discuss the wisdom of drafting a letter to one studio about one of its many films.”

In the intervening weeks, several of the 39 members of Congress that signed that letter have distanced themselves from it even as Watson, who chairs the bipartisan Congressional Entertainment Caucus, defended her actions.

Watson maintains that she made a “good-faith effort” to consult with showbiz unions such as three IATSE locals and their partners the DGA and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. She also has received 100 letters from various union members expressing their “overwhelming support” for her strong stance.

“The letter was open to consultation and change until we mailed it on April 2,” Watson said in a statement prepared late last week.

Valenti’s approach

In trademark style, Valenti offered a softer approach than Dibie in his own four-page response letter to Watson, complete with a graph of the growth of this country’s production jobs sector since 1972.

“May I offer you a bit of history about the global filmmaking world that Hollywood has lived in for a long time?” he wrote, noting that the number of people employed in U.S. motion picture production has risen from 66,200 in 1972 to 259,200 in 2002.

“There has been no ‘outsourcing’ of U.S. motion picture jobs,” Valenti contended. He also noted that studios choose to film in foreign locales for a variety of reasons: an effort to strike a balance between financial, creative and space availability; security; and other logistical factors. Universal decided to film “Cinderella Man” in Toronto, he said, mainly because a large part of the story takes place in Madison Square Garden circa 1935, a structure that no longer exists; the Maple Leaf Garden is a similar structure built during the same time period.

Lobbying efforts

While the MPAA is not actively involved in lobbying against studio decisions to film overseas, commonly known as runaway production, the DGA, SAG and ICG are particularly upset as the orgs have spent the last year on their latest attempt to convince Congress to give studios tax incentives to make movies in this country and are crossing their fingers that years of lobbying on the issue will pay off this time. A must-pass corporate tax bill, which contains a runaway production provision, is making its way through the Senate. A vote is likely sometime in the next two weeks.

Several union reps said they wished Watson had used her position to support that legislation and urged her to do so.

“Over the past five years, since the DGA along with SAG issued the Monitor Report, the guild has not wavered from our efforts to stem runaway film and television production,” the DGA said in a statement. “As part of a national alliance, we have made our top priority the passage of federal and state legislation that will level the playing field and make the U.S. competitive with incentives offered by other countries.”

(Dave McNary in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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