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Reassessing Hollywood Job Data

March 03, 2003|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Meet Steve Michelson, caterer to the stars -- except in the eyes of the officials who tabulate such things.

For two generations, Michelson's family has fed the cast and crew on hungry productions: the classic "West Side Story"; this weekend's top film, "Cradle 2 the Grave"; and TV shows such as "Scrubs" and the new "Dragnet."

Adapting to Hollywood's idiosyncrasies, the Michelsons have learned to handle meals that start two hours behind schedule, lunches for crews that unexpectedly double in size through a morning, and the maddening business of following shoots that wander from place to place.

"The same people who hire us hire the grips, the electricians, the sound people and the wardrobe crew on a production," Michelson said. "We're as much a part of the film industry as the cameraman is."

Despite the state's latest attempt at statistical reform, however, Limelight Catering -- the 25-employee North Hollywood company that Michelson owns with partner Keykhosrow Radji -- is counted in the food service business, alongside the guy who catered your cousin's wedding.

Questions about how to identify entertainment workers and monitor industry employment trends are at center stage again with last week's publication of the most detailed job statistics yet on California industries, including the entertainment sector.

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Differing Systems

As required by the federal government, California and other states have long been working on converting a decades-old system of job groupings known as Standard Industrial Classification, or SIC, into the North American Industry Classification System. The NAICS is designed to provide a more accurate picture of how the "new economy" is doing.

The latest approach splices Hollywood into a number of categories -- such as motion picture and video production (97,400 jobs in California in January) sound recording (7,800 positions) and radio, television and cable (44,400). Yet economists, labor leaders and politicians agree that the lens viewing Hollywood's workforce remains as cloudy as ever.

"This method slices and dices more," Los Angeles economist Jack Kyser said. "But it still doesn't give you the full measure of the industry."

That's because Hollywood is unique in that tens of thousands of gypsy-like independent contractors move from production to production under the radar of job-market statistics that center on employers. On top of that, there are scores of support companies such as Limelight Catering that work exclusively in entertainment, even though they are officially counted in other categories.

The picture may get clearer in coming months. As of January, a new law requires state officials to collect better data as part of an effort to combat the loss of film and TV production to other states and countries.

In addition, Gov. Gray Davis has allocated $742,000 out of a special workforce fund for an 18-month data collection project. Coordinated by the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., which oversees film permits and promotes shooting in Los Angeles, the study will use a variety of sources to better estimate Hollywood's employment trends.

So far, however, statistically minded economists have been bedeviled by Hollywood's quirky ways.

A study of the entertainment industry last year by the California Research Bureau, a nonpartisan state agency that prepares data for lawmakers, said: "Although there is no doubt that motion picture production is of major economic importance in California, attempts to quantify that importance are troubled by remarkable variation and statistical softness."

The same study noted that estimates can vary by hundreds of thousands of people. In 1996, for example, estimates ranged from as few as 127,000 to as many as 480,000, the report noted.

"I likened it to a puzzle trying to figure out where the numbers came from and why they were different," the report's author, Martha Jones, recalled.

Economist Kyser has long argued that official job statistics significantly undercount Hollywood in Los Angeles County, often by tens of thousands of jobs. His current employment estimate: about 211,000.

The latest numbers from the state, issued Friday, showed a seemingly anomalous drop from a year earlier: Motion picture and video production for California was off nearly 8% in January. Economists and industry executives find it hard to explain that fall-off because production has clearly rebounded from dormant levels of a year ago, when studios were working off a stockpile of projects completed earlier in anticipation of industry strikes that never materialized.

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Better Statistics

Kyser said the drop could simply be a statistical quirk, or might signal a genuine trend attributable to the lower staffing requirements of "reality" TV programs or the loss of productions to other states and countries. Better data would make it easier to read, he said.

The dearth of good numbers also has frustrated lawmakers such as Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), who sponsored the new law requiring better statistics. He has tried to sell fellow lawmakers on the need for state tax breaks and other relief to encourage movie and television production to stay in California rather than shoot in foreign countries where costs are cheaper.

"They always say: 'Show me where the problem is,' " Frommer said. "We all know that it's a huge industry, but if you want to make tax policy and have fiscal incentives, you need to evaluate things more closely."

Kathleen A. Milnes, EIDC senior vice president for workforce and economic development, was even more blunt: "A lot of public policy decisions are being made, or not made, based on guessing."

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