Runaway Shops

By Cooper, Marc | The Nation, April 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

Runaway Shops


Cooper, Marc, The Nation


Remember those great scenes in Blues Brothers 2000 that evoked the urban grit and soul of southside Chicago and Joliet? Well, sorry. Those scenes were actually filmed in a city that doesn't know an el station from Wrigley Field. Blues Brothers 2000 was shot across the Canadian border, in Toronto.

The same goes for a rapidly increasing number of TV movies and feature films. Production is migrating, principally to Canada, to take advantage of labor costs that are on average 20 percent lower than in the United States. This runaway globalization of production has thrown Hollywood- and its unions-into a full-scale alert. "This issue is at the very top of our legislative and organizational agenda," says Catherine York, director of government relations for the Screen Actors Guild.

Last summer SAG and the Directors Guild issued a joint report measuring the extent of runaway production. The report revealed that between 1990 and 1998 the percentage of US film and TV production occurring overseas doubled, to more than 27 percent of the total. A full 45 percent of generally lower-budget TV movies of the week were being shot overseas by 1998. Canada not only offers lower wages; a clause in the NAFTA treaty allows the government to give film producers a hefty tax credit subsidy for films shot on Canadian soil.

The result: a mini-recession among Hollywood craft and technical workers in the midst of the celebrated economic expansion, with an estimated 60,000 full-time-equivalent jobs lost in three years, and a cumulative economic loss of more than $10 billion.

"I started feeling the squeeze about two years ago," says Mike Everett, an activist in IATSE Local 728, which represents lighting workers and electricians. "It's a sort of crash. All those middle-ground movies of the week and commercials, all the bread-and-butter work, has taken off to Canada and some to Australia." One recent press report described a monthly meeting of a set decorators' local. Of the thirty people who showed up, only three claimed full-time employment. All were fully employed three years ago.

So the unions and other entertainment-industry groups are fighting back. At the national level, SAG, the motion picture academy, the Association of Imaging Technology and Sound, the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, some IATSE locals and an association of state film commissions have formed the FILM US Alliance.

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