It feels like Hollywood's version of Groundhog Day -- giving our fair city three more weeks of Samuel L. Jackson.
This story, though, remains pertinent, as NxNW had no hand in the negotiations that brought the film back to Spokane. The company's unwillingness to talk with union officials (based on a misreading of labor laws) was among the reasons the production left town in the first place. (LB)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ast Friday at noon, production was halted on the $12 million Gulf War flick Home of the Brave because of an organized union action staged by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). After brief negotiations between the union and certain unnamed L.A.-based producers -- negotiations that Spokane-based North By Northwest Productions (NxNW) declined to attend -- the production packed up and left for Vancouver, B.C., by Sunday morning.
Left in the dust, some worry, is Spokane's small but growing film industry.
When we started talking to people on Monday, the situation was shrouded in rumor and hyperbole, each side advancing their case and offering no concessions. NxNW said they needed to stay non-union to maintain an edge in the world of filmmaking, which has become very competitive, as Canada and Eastern European nations have become part of the mix. IATSE claimed that Spokane's competitive advantage was taken directly from the pockets of workers. NxNW then retorted that IATSE wanted Spokane workers to get Hollywood wages. IATSE regional spokesman David Robinson steadfastly denied this.
The union wanted to flex its muscles and send a message; NxNW wanted business as usual; and the producer, who is paying the bills on the project, didn't want any part of the fight, and left for Canada, where even after paying union wages, it's still cheaper than making a film in the U.S.
By the end of it all -- though it was far too late -- we had gotten NxNW CEO Rich Cowan to state that he would be open to IATSE negotiations. Why would he say this now and not then? Because neither Cowan nor Robinson really knew what the other was willing to offer. In the end, some 100 local freelance jobs and, locals estimate, millions of dollars of economic impact were lost in this communication breakdown.
The Imbroglio & r & The whole matter hinges on an obscure federal labor law. According to Richard Ahearn, the Seattle-based regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, the law states "that a business cannot engage in collective bargaining with a union or its representatives unless the business recognizes that the union represents a majority of its workers." Cowan took that to mean that by discussing anything with IATSE, NxNW would be recognizing that the union represented a majority of NxNW employees. That's not true, says Ahearn, but he concedes that the law is incredibly complex. "Unions and employers engage in a wide variety of communications even when the employer does not recognize the union as having a majority," says Ahearn. And that's fine, as long as they don't engage in formal collective bargaining.
That misconception led Cowan to avoid all contact with Robinson and perpetuated certain false impressions. Cowan says he thought IATSE would want wage increases and benefits packages that would amount, according to NxNW's own numbers, to 30 percent of NxNW's operating budget. A local electrician, for example, was set to earn $6,000 for five weeks of work on the film.
Robinson says he was seeking wages and benefits for the short-term employees that would amount to less than 13 percent of that operating budget. A large part of that discrepancy is predicated on NxNW's belief that IATSE would demand a pay scale based on what it costs to live and do business in places like Los Angeles and New York. Robinson steadfastly denies this, saying they have a pay scale that is tailored to Washington and is, he says, "significantly lower."
When The Inlander told Cowan about this, he said, "If that's the case, I'd certainly be interested in talking with them."
Robinson had argued that Cowan wouldn't talk because, he said, "he doesn't want to offer benefits." At one point, however, Cowan expressed a desire, unsolicited by us, to offer his short-term contract employees (or "freelance" employees, as NxNW calls them) both health and retirement benefits. At present, those benefits are only available to the company's full-time employees. IATSE insisted that they be offered to freelancers as well.
It's unfortunate that both sides would be kept apart by what may amount to a misreading of a complex law. So what kind of communication would have constituted formal wage negotiation? "Well, that's a really gray area," says Richard Ahearn, laughing, but said that, it didn't sound as though that type of talk -- the kind of basic "we're not out to screw you" talk that both sides actively avoided -- is almost never considered collective bargaining.
It would have most likely been OK, then, for Cowan to ask Robinson if he was looking to get L.A. wages for his Spokane workers, and Robinson could have then explained that he wasn't. But of course, none of that happened and so "millions of dollars" and "100 high-wage jobs" (according to NxNW's figures) were lost because of poor communication.
As a result, Cowan says NxNW is rethinking its business strategy -- maybe it can't fill the niche as a lower-cost alternative to traditional Hollywood filmmaking after all.
"We have four other divisions," he says. "We may just want to focus on those, I'm not sure. We'll have to re-evaluate."
Robinson, for his part, said he had no desire to see the production leave Spokane, but it must be noted that the companies at work in Vancouver have an IATSE contract in place. The union obviously has no obligation to help non-union workers, but neither, it seems, do they feel any obligation to help those craftspeople who currently reside under the IATSE umbrella and lost their jobs when the production left town.
When asked if IATSE had attempted to get its local members who had been working the shoot into the production in Vancouver, Robinson said he had not and that such things were outside his purview. "That's why we always warn people that there's a chance, in any labor action, that you'll lose your job," he says.
The Rub & r & "I kind of saw this coming," says Rich Cowan. Karen Mobley, arts director for the city of Spokane, also says she's "kind of seen this coming," but in a different way. Last year, she says she completed the "frankly tedious bureaucratic task" of updating the city's policy manual for film projects.
Part of that project involved comparing Spokane to 26 other cities in the nation in terms of maximizing a film producer's dollar. Mobley says the grid her office came up with shows Spokane to be among the most economical. That's partly because Spokane's permits, as compared to those in New York and L.A., are cheaper. The application process, moreover, is less tortuous. Further, the city has appointed Mobley to help guide production companies through the permit process, saving even more time and money.
Though Cowan denies that any of his workers were unhappy with their wages, Mobley says she's heard some rumblings. "This episode seems symbolic of Spokane growing up. More people are trying to [make films] here," she says, "and there's an awareness of what people [doing the same work] are worth in larger markets."
Cowan believes that Spokane is still a small-market film town that can only survive because, as he puts it, it's "14 percent cheaper [here than in Seattle]."
But that doesn't just mean Spokane offers cheaper wages. Mobley believes her research suggests that production companies can succeed here while paying higher wages because everything else is cheap, too. "I think even with an increase in labor costs, we can be competitive with other American cities. We made a grid and looked at all the fee structures -- what does it cost to rent a signal truck, a cop, a picnic shelter?" she asks. In short, Mobley's findings suggest that it's not only wages that are keeping NxNW's costs down, it's that all film-related costs are low in Spokane.
But that will depend on whether producers try to make a film in Spokane again, and if North by Northwest even stays in that business.