View from Lodi, CA: Outsourcing Hollywood

For native Californians like me, the Golden State has always been synonymous with beaches, mountains and movies.

If you didn't have the pleasure of growing up in Southern California in the 1950s, you'll have a hard time believing that back then Los Angeles had a quaint, almost small-town ambiance.

And all Angelinos shared in the magic of Hollywood. Among my most enduring memories is going out to the old Gilmore Field to watch the Pacific Coast League Hollywood Stars play baseball. A syndicate that included Brown Derby restaurant owner Robert Cobb (as in the salad), Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, William Powell, George Raft, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, George Burns and the legendary Cecil B. DeMille owned the aptly named Stars.

A casual Saturday afternoon at Gilmore could easily have included standing next to Gary Cooper or Bing Crosby at the hot dog stand.

California will always have the Pacific Ocean and the mountains. Whether the movie industry will survive is not so certain.

Outsourcing—or "runaway" in the industry lexicon---has been eroding Hollywood jobs and wages for the last five years. According to the Film and Television Action Committee, nearly $10 billion will be lost in 2004 from the US economy because of "runaway" productions filmed in Canada, Australia and even Romania.

And a recent study by the Encino-based Center for Entertainment Industry Data and Research (http://ceidr.org/) found the film industry has lost about 22,000 jobs per year since Canada began offering generous tax subsidies in 1998.

"Tax subsidies" is a generous way to say that Hollywood producers get kickbacks from the Canadian government when they leave the US to film up north.

While Hollywood has been hit the hardest, other major cities have felt the runaway sting too. Since 1985, 57 feature films with Chicago backdrops—including the Oscar-winning musical Chicago and box office success My Big Fat Greek Wedding have been filmed in Canada. Those 57 pictures cost Chicago's economy $2 billion and 17,000 jobs.

A two-hour television movie about former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rudy, was filmed in Toronto in 2002. New York Rep.Anthony Weiner noted that since Canadian tax credits began total gross budgets for feature films in New York had dropped from $695 million in 1999 to $167 million in 2001.

And Weiner couldn't resist commenting on the irony of filming Rudy in Canada.

"Today, somewhere in Canada, a network called USA Network is making a movie about the mayor of the city of New York," Rep. Anthony Weiner said Wednesday. "I guess they're going to show him watching baseball games at the SkyDome or eating pommes frites rather than eating at Patsy's."

Canada is the biggest threat to the US film industry today, according to production designer and FTAC Executive Board member Ann Champion. But by tomorrow, Champion speculates, the chief villains may be Australia, Brazil or even India.

Champion, who worked steadily in Hollywood for over 20 years and is now "financially devastated," told me that Canada has been so successful luring US filmmakers that other countries are developing similar economic models.  "In Canada," said Champion, "the federal subsidies are 16% (of total labor costs) and subsidies from the Provinces can range up to another 30%. So we're talking total subsidies of up to 45%. Add in the lower cost of Canadian labor and you see what we are up against."

Continued Champion, "Now imagine if a country like Brazil with its Third World wage scale offered the same financial incentives."

FTAC Chairman Brent Swift and Champion both agree that Canada is violating the spirit of free trade and plans to file a 301(c) petition to end runaway production.

The Screen Actors Guild voted to unanimously support FTAC.

While the FTAC is waiting to raise the money to file, the backlash against runaway productions—along with outsourcing in general-- has suddenly intensified.

When Cold Mountain director Anthony Minghella and co-producer Sydney Pollack told Barbara Walters on the ABC's "20/20" that the film was shot in Romania because he could not find any rural areas which "had not been touched by the twentieth and twenty-first centuries," the rank and file became irate.

Champion, born and raised in Virginia, told me that the South has dozens of ideal locations. "What it comes down to is that labor is much cheaper in Romania."

Energized and fed up, Champion wrote an article for the FTAC website titled "What Americans Need to Know About 'Cold Mountain.'"  

Champion urged Americans not to support Cold Mountain. Her essay was e-mailed to the 5,000 strong FTAC mailing list.  From there, it was resent and FAXed all over the world.

Cold Mountain was shut out of Best Picture Oscar nomination. "We don't know if our e-mail campaign was instrumental in denying the Best Picture nomination but we like to think that it played a part," said Swift.

Now the FTAC has turned its attention to director Ron Howard's Universal Studio and Miramax project, Cinderella Man.

"Are you so far removed from your country and its workers?  Have you so much money and fame that you can turn your back on the people and the industry that gave you the opportunity to succeed?" asked the FTAC of Howard. 

The FTAC accuses Howard of "participating in the destruction of the great American film industry."

(Phone numbers for Howard, 310-858-2000, Harvey Weinstein/Miramax, 212-941-3800 and Jim Brubaker/Universal, 818-777-7452. My phone calls to Howard's office for comment on this column were not returned.)

Both Champion and Swift made it clear that they are not against filming movies overseas if there is a valid artistic reason to do so. They had no complaints that Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King was made in New Zealand or Lost in Translation, in Japan.

Two well-known and respected directors, Clint Eastwood and Robert Altman, are still supporting American workers by filming only in the US.

I confess that I saw Cold Mountain before knowing it was filmed in Romania. The movie was a dud: an hour too long with a preposterous plot and poor acting.

But that is the last movie I'll go to without confirming that it was filmed in the U.S. If it isn't, I'll boycott it.

I want my $10 to support American workers. 

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.