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D.C. Lawmakers Staying Out of Hollywood Fray

Company Town

March 16, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Threatened strikes by Hollywood writers and actors--although big news in Southern California--remain low on the list of concerns for most lawmakers here.

"People in Washington look at it like a baseball or basketball strike--they think of big-money stars like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). "They don't really understand the nuances."

In fact, the strikes would have little noticeable impact on Hollywood's superstars. But they could change the lives of the vast majority of those who work for the movie and television industries, from extras to grips.

Industry lobbyists--who on both sides of the labor dispute argue a strike would have a devastating effect--have not yet tried to put the matter before Congress. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said he thought government had little role to play in the unresolved matters between the studios and the guilds.

"I'm not talking to the Hill at all," Valenti said. "This has got to be done at the bargaining table between the contending parties. I don't think government ought to be involved in any kind of collective bargaining."

Pay issues are separating the studios from both the writers and actors guilds. Economists have estimated that a full-scale film and TV shutdown could cost the Los Angeles economy as much as $250 million a week directly, with an additional $270 million indirectly.

Union negotiators say it is too soon to get Washington involved in the negotiations. The writers' contract expires May 1, and the actors could go on strike July 1.

"It's entirely premature to raise these issues," said Margaret Cone, a Washington representative for the Writers Guild of America. "Anything people might say would be mere speculation. Who knows what's going to happen yet?"

One topic where there has been speculation about fallout from a Hollywood strike is legislation to stem "runaway" film production--billions of dollars a year lost when film producers take their operations to foreign countries where production costs are cheaper. After years of crafting legislation that could gain widespread support and aggressively educating colleagues about the problem, sponsors of the tax-incentive proposal believe their efforts could finally pay off.

In their favor: a Californian, Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and a pro-tax-cut president.

But a strike may change the odds. Even some longtime backers say it would make little sense to push such legislation if the people it would benefit have walked off the job.

"The guilds have some very important and fundamental issues they have concerns about," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills). "And I believe in the right of labor to strike. But as an objective political observation, it'll be tough to promote a tax-incentive program when an entire industry is shut down."

Screen Actors Guild officials say they believe the labor dispute and runaway film legislation should be seen as unrelated.

"The runaway production issue is a strong enough and viable enough issue to stand on its own, regardless of the strike," said Lance Simmens, the Screen Actors Guild's government relations liaison.

Representatives from the Directors Guild of America, which like the Screen Actors Guild has taken a lead in the effort to keep film production in the U.S., said runaway film production legislation remains an important part of their agenda this year.

"We feel strongly that we should defer to the judgment of elected officials who have been our friends and supporters when it comes to its timing," said Kathy Garmezy, the Directors Guild's government relations director. In Washington, where hostility toward Hollywood is the norm, separating the strike from the runaway film legislation in the minds of legislators might not be easy.

"If the public perception is that this is a matter of some big, hot actor sitting on the beach for a couple of months, it's hard to convey the effect on everyone who is employed or affected by the industry," said Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs).

Bono, who has been active in entertainment industry matters since filling her late husband Sonny Bono's seat, said public opinion--regardless of the bill's merits--could make it difficult to go forward.

Boosters of the industry in Washington say their challenge is to draw a fuller picture of the business. The industry's image of glitz and star power, which often opens doors for celebrities and their pet causes--also can obscure the more mundane economics of one of the nation's most profitable exports.

"The great uniter is jobs, jobs, jobs," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), a mayoral candidate who said he is optimistic about the chances of runaway film legislation even if a strike occurs.

"It's a no-brainer," he said. "Do we want to see jobs lost permanently from this country that will have a dramatic ripple effect? I think, if it comes to it, you could argue that a strike would just point out how serious the impacts of film production leaving the country can be."

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