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Hollywood or bust

Union heads try to get studio chiefs to keep working in Massachusetts

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / February 12, 2011

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Boston union chiefs traveled to Hollywood this week to deliver a message to film studio honchos: We’re good guys. Really.

Not long ago, local trade unionists who worked on television and movie sets had a reputation for adding unnecessary costs and workers to a job. According to one union leader, “a few greedy people’’ even peddled movie scripts and rental properties to out-of-town producers or demanded film roles from directors on the set.

“We’ve had a sordid past in the motion-picture industry,’’ said Sean M. O’Brien, president of the Teamsters Local 25.

With a handful of Oscar nominations for Boston-based movies, the state is trying to persuade Hollywood to keep filming here. That prompted the visit by the somewhat unlikely delegation Tuesday and Wednesday. It included O’Brien; Chris O’Donnell, an official with IATSE Local 481 New England Studio Mechanics; Gregory Bialecki, the state’s top economic development official; and John Dukakis, a onetime actor and the son of the former governor, who chairs the advisory board of the Massachusetts Film Office.

They drove through Southern California, racing for 48 hours to meet with executives from 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., Walt Disney, Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, and a top talent broker, Creative Artist Agency.

At each stop, the delegation delivered two central messages. First, the state will keep its generous tax credit for the entertainment industry, despite criticism from government watchdogs and an unsuccessful effort last year by Governor Deval Patrick to cap the program. Second, its workers are ready and able to take jobs as key grips, gaffers, best boys, and other specialties.

O’Brien said enforcement of a code of conduct over the past five years has vastly improved the unions’ reputations, a point he stressed to Hollywood executives. The teamsters even have an on-set dress code now.

“The last 3 1/2 years, there hasn’t been one complaint about the Teamsters,’’ he said. “If you went on this trade mission maybe 10 years ago, there would have been a different atmosphere.’’

More importantly, Dukakis said, the group emphasized the state’s intention to maintain the film subsidy despite tough budget times.

“There was kind of an established image of some of the craft unions in Massachusetts, which were a problem for a long time,’’ Dukakis said. “And some of it was reality, and some of it wasn’t. But the myth persisted.’’

One studio executive who met with the group called it a shrewd move, because the film community is small and news about what happens on a set travels fast. Delegations from states come to curry favor in Hollywood, and about half bring union leaders. But Massachusetts had a particular burden in trying to repair its union image problem, the executive said.

“The labor problems in Massachusetts stopped Massachusetts from having productions for quite a while,’’ said the executive, who requested anonymity because he did not want to risk alienating Massachusetts officials who reward studios with tax credits.

The studio executive said the two union leaders brought up the issue, unprompted, explaining that the attitude in organized labor has changed.

“To have the guy in the room that’s in charge of it say that to your face, that’s a good thing,’’ the executive said.

Massachusetts is one of about 40 states that offer an entertainment industry subsidy. Producers and studios that work in the Bay State are eligible to receive a tax credit worth 25 percent of their production and payroll costs accrued while in the state. It also exempts most other purchases from the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax.

In 2009, film productions were given $82 million in credits. Last month, the Associated Press reported that a quarter of all the expenses listed as eligible production costs went to millionaire movie stars who live out of state. The program has handed out $260 million since it was established in 2004.

Defenders of the program say it has spawned an industry that would otherwise not exist here and promotes the state to an international audience. A state report says it generated 1,683 jobs and $36 million in state revenue over the past four years.

The Hollywood trip cost taxpayers an estimated $3,600, which covered expenses for Bialecki and Dukakis. O’Brien’s and O’Donnell’s bills were not covered by the state.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.