Outside-the-Border Filmmaking Pulls Away Billions from US Economy, Report Verifies
A study recently made public by Monitor Company, an independent consulting firm in Santa Monica, California, confirms the enduring contentions of rank-and-file industry workers: that they are being systematically shut out of the production process in favor of cheaper labor elsewhere. The Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild are foremost among several organizations representing film workers that have complained about projects going out of the country. Since 1990, Monitor claims, there has been a 185% increase in the number of US productions being made elsewhere. The situation mirrors the experience of auto assemblers, steel workers, and other people in industrial occupations in the 1970s and '80s, when domestic factories were shuttered at an accelerating pace.
The threat now is to actors, extras, electricians, set designers, carpenters, painters, costume designers, cinematographers, and sound engineers---all of whom complain of difficulty finding work in and around L.A. and elsewhere in the States. Currently, 45% of American made-for-TV movies are produced outside the US. Canada's weak currency and abundance of talent makes it a common destination for US studios; Toronto, with its large creative community, is especially appealing. Canadian productions are typically 20% cheaper than those done on this side of the border.
Films are no longer shot offshore because the script requires it, but because executives demand it---a situation that has inflamed film workers and has drawn the attention of California lawmakers. In the last legislative session,the controversy boiled over from the L.A. basin into the capitol of Sacramento, where the State Assembly passed two bills giving studios and production companies tax credits for wages paid to union workers on low-budget films made entirely within the state. Employment loss in the entertainment industry---as many as 123,000 full-time jobs since 1990, according to the Monitor report---could ultimately affect the entire state, according to Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-L.A.). "We have the best infrastructure and the most highly qualified personnel right here," he says. Ryan Tate of the Wall Street Journal comments that foreign liaisons---whose job it is to lure domestic productions out of the country---counter such sentiments with the argument that they actually benefit the economy by "making room for more big-ticket productions."
The heart of the issue may not be the total cost of productions, but the fairness of pay at various levels of the production pyramid. Since the early 1980s, compensation for upper-level executives, top-rung directors, and a handful of superstar actors has skyrocketed, while real wages for those further down the food chain have remained stagnant or decreased. One former film editor, who now works as a teacher in the L.A. city schools, claims there is a tacit industry-wide conspiracy to squeeze the maximum from lower-level workers "until the last drop is gone." He left when he saw where the trend was headed. "Eventually, the studio bosses will have us all on our knees," he says.
Perhaps not, if Hollywood's labor guilds can prevent it. They plan to lobby for federal tax and other incentives to keep film and TV production in America. A Studio City-based coalition of entertainment-industry labor unions, the Film and TV Action Committee, is working hard for favorable legislation. Screen Actors Guild President Richard Masur said, "This isn't just about Hollywood. This is a nationwide industry."