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October 08, 2005

Joss Whedon- Union Hero

Okay, I admit it. I was a Buffy fan from season one and watched Firefly religiously, so it just warms my heart that Joss Whedon in creating the movie Serenity has made an explicit case for why union labor beats out non-union labor in many cases, as detailed in this Los Angeles Times article.

The key to the story is that Whedon has made a big budget sci-fi film for the comparatively low price of $50 million -- a requirement for him to revive his baby. How'd he do it? Not by running overseas to some low-wage location but by sticking at home in high-wage unionized Hollywood:

"Joss was adamant from the very start," says James Brubaker, president of physical production for Universal. "He was so eager to show that you could make a movie in L.A., we never thought of going anywhere else."...
The executive producer of the show, David Lester, gave the example of building the large set of the show, the spaceship Serenity, which was economic precisely because it was done union:
As a producer, Lester says he is tired of hearing that Los Angeles crafts people are "too expensive." They cost more than in other parts of the world, he says, because they know how to do things better and faster. He saw this firsthand, he says, when he realized that the big cost-saver he had counted on — the availability of sets from the television show "Firefly" — was not going to work out.

"Serenity, the ship, is a huge character," he says...This required squads of carpenters, welders and riggers working all over gigantic Stage 12 at Universal. Each crew had a gang boss, a supervisory construction position that pays a premium. "We had 23 of them," Lester says, "each a craftsman and a leader, running independent but coordinated crews. The studio was not happy."

But when the Serenity was created in just 14 weeks, the studio felt much better. "I defy anyone," Lester says, "to find that much talent anywhere else in the world."

The article is fascinating in outlining how a high-wage economy creates an ecology of high skill workers who can flexibly work on multiple projects. The worry is that runaway production outside Hollywood is undermining that ecology:
With 40 years in the business, [cinematographer Jack] Green is passionately outspoken about runaway production, which he thinks is leading not only to a lot of wasted time and money but to a long-term disintegration among the various crafts.

"So many crafts people are being hit so hard that they're going into other businesses or retiring early," he says. "There's been a lot of weakening in the knowledge base."

He cites standby painters. With dwindling set work in L.A., as pros retire, they are not replaced, to the industry's detriment. "This is an unrewarded craft, but it takes a good and true artist to make sunlight where there is no sunlight," he says. "Nowadays you can find someone to age down a set, but you want to put a sun strike on a wall? You might not have someone who knows how to do it."

Without steady work in their hometown, people who became artists in hair and makeup, wardrobe and set design, camera and lights, are taking second jobs and thereby weakening their learning curve. "I know guys in the business who are going into real estate or opening bed-and-breakfasts," Green says. This makes the apprenticeship that allowed so many careers to bloom impossible.

What the article makes clear is that it took generations of high-wage employment to attract and train the talent that made Hollywood the center of global craft skill in the industry. The question is how many years of cut-rate non-union runaway production will it take to destroy that creative patrimony?

Posted by Nathan at October 8, 2005 10:19 AM