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Gov. Schwarzenegger Won’t Run Away

Nov 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Only a week after Arnold Schwarzenegger took the oath of office as governor of California, it is already clear that he is not following the usual party line. His initial appointments have included Democrats and independents as well as his fellow Republicans.
That fulfills one of his campaign promises. Now many in the television and film business are asking whether he will also follow up on his pledge to keep series and movie production in California and in the United States. For decades, politicians from Sacramento to Washington have paid lip service to the issue, but very little was actually done.
Gov. Schwarzenegger’s first step, to appoint Democratic activist and environmentalist Bonnie Reiss as his senior adviser with oversight of the runaway production issue, certainly is a positive sign that this is not business as usual.
Only days into her new job, Ms. Reiss was bursting with enthusiasm when we spoke last week. She said her appointment is not such a big surprise when you realize she has been friends with the governor and his wife, Maria Shriver, for about 25 years and that she played a key role in his work with children.
“The governor has said [runaway production] is a major priority for his administration,” said Ms. Reiss, “and he is following through on his pledge.”
Despite the good intentions and Ms. Reiss’ energetic approach, significant obstacles are ahead-especially for a Republican. A rally two weeks ago in Century City, Calif., for instance, drew more than 500 people, including at least half a dozen elected officials- all Democrats.
Ms. Reiss is confident that Republicans will get involved when there are programs that make sense. She said some of those will be specific to runaway production and others may be part of a larger effort to improve the overall business climate for all industries.
There is no time to waste, according to Stephen Katz of the Center for Industry Data and Research in L.A. He said in 2002 and 2003 employment has fallen by about 25 percent. “This is an alarming situation that needs the governor’s attention, and soon,” said Mr. Katz. “If there are no funds that can be used to help stem the tide of production leaving California, then other creative solutions need to be explored.”
What is the governor’s plan? He doesn’t have one yet, said Ms. Reiss. The first thing she is doing is to meet with dozens of individuals and groups to get a broad range of input. Ms. Reiss said she will meet not only with studio heads, the Directors Guild and unions but also with producers, many of whom are friends of the governor. Among those she will meet with: Brian Grazer, Andy Vajna and Mike Medavoy. “We want to hear what it will take from the people who really make these decisions,” Ms. Reiss explained.
State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, has been working on the runaway production issue for a number of years. A former actress (she was Zelda on the classic sitcom “Dobie Gillis”) Sen. Kuehl applauded the appointment of Ms. Reiss but is instantly concerned when she hears the first thing they plan to do is fact finding.
“It’s not like the facts haven’t been found,” said Sen. Kuehl. “There have been extensive studies about what each production that stays in California brings to the economy.”
There are bigger problems, even when there are apparent solutions. For instance, the Teamsters Union and a number of activist groups have been pushing hard to get the U.S. trade representative to charge that Canadians are acting unfairly by giving large subsidies to attract production.
“What is going on now is not in line with other U.S. trade policies,” charged Brent Swift, one of the leaders of the Film and Television Action Committee.
Efforts to get support for a filing to confront Canada have been shot down. That is because the major studios, the MPAA, the Directors Guild and the biggest show business union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, are all opposed. They want the flexibility to be able to move production to Canada, or in the case of the IATSE, also have members north of the border.
“You know how it works,” said Mr. Swift. “If you go against them, you have to worry about being blacklisted. Everybody is afraid to speak up.”
The problem isn’t only in TV. In fact, many network series do shoot in the United States because talent involved prefers being close to home and executives want to keep a close eye on production. The big losses have been in the declining business of TV movies and in the growing business of series and movies for cable TV as well as in theatrical movies.
Sen. Kuehl said she knows what Ms. Reiss will hear from the producers: “They will say, `Do for me what Canada does and give me 40 percent of my labor costs.’ And of course that is impossible.”
She said there are things that can be done, however. Two that come to mind for her are restoring funding for California First, a bill passed under Gov. Gray Davis that subsidizes production on state property and makes use of state buildings free. The other, she said, is to restore the budget of the state Film Commission, which was cut by about three-quarters last year at the height of the budget crisis.
“I think we will see how serious he is,” said Sen. Kuehl, “when he presents his budget.”
Gov. Schwarzenegger was elected to help all the people of California, said Ms. Reiss, “and he is not beholden to any special interests. His only interest is helping the people of California, and unlike other governors before him, when it comes to this industry, he knows who the people are that need to be helped.”