Extreme Makeover

December 8, 2003

Three weeks in New York.

It sounds like a great vacation.

But not for the DGA in New York. In fact, the three weeks from mid-November to early December 2003 were a marathon of major accomplishments, starting with the Fourth Annual DGA New York Honors, and culminating with the move from the DGA's old headquarters to a sleek, new, state-of-the-art facility. In between, there were numerous screenings and seminars, as well as the DGA's continued presence on location at 11 feature films, 23 episodic projects, and almost 40 commercials — all being shot simultaneously.

"The Guild made the decision to increase its presence in New York City, both in terms of services provided to members and as a leader of the entertainment industry," explains DGA National Executive Director Jay D. Roth. "There have been substantial steps forward to our achieving this goal with our extensive renovation of the DGA building as well as our expanded focus on programs, events and peer-to-peer opportunities for East Coast members."

And now there's a clear view from the Guild's offices too, which have been criss-crossed by construction scaffolding since last summer. During the weekend of December 6 and 7, the DGA vacated its longtime headquarters on the second floor of the West 57th Street building it owns, and moved — up, not out — to the newly renovated sixth and seventh floors in the same building.

The rehab had been a concept under discussion for some time as the DGA debated remodeling versus selling the stately building.

After six months of demolition and reconstruction, the extreme makeover includes a sleekly-appointed conference room, highly functional meeting and negotiation spaces, a full commercial kitchen for catered events and receptions, a spacious new outdoor terrace (with industrial-strength heaters for weather-challenged visitors), and a completely refurbished theatre that seats close to 500 people.

"We're expecting that the building will become a hub for the entertainment community," DGA Eastern Executive Director Russell Hollander explains. The building is already attracting other members of the film community, including director Martin Scorsese, whose offices will take up the entire fifth floor.

"The newly renovated DGA facilities will provide new opportunities for The Film Foundation to continue its mission to raise funds and awareness for the issues of film preservation and artists' rights," Scorsese said.

Summing up the increased DGA presence, Hollander says, "There's been a lot of change in New York. And a lot of it is coming from the members themselves such as the DGA Honors, the Independent Directors Committee (IDC) and numerous other events."

Honors and Issues

Many of those members turned out for the November 16, 2003, New York Honors black-tie gala at the Waldorf-Astoria, feting directors Robert Altman, Curtis Hanson and Joe Pytka, as well as U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, for their contributions to film and television production.

The evening was also a celebration of camaraderie, New York style. "I'm exhilarated," said Ed Sherin, DGA National Vice President. "It takes a lot of work to put these events together. Then, when we come here and see a ballroom full of enthusiastic supporters and members of the DGA, it makes all the hard work worthwhile. And to honor people of such significance who are role models for our society is probably the most important thing I've ever done or been a part of."

"New York is the greatest city on Earth," declared Honoree director Joe Pytka. "It's a fantastic experience to be here." DGA National Board Member LeVar Burton concurred, and extended his New York stay from the previous day's Board meeting in order to attend the Honors.

While the event lauded individuals, it also highlighted significant issues facing the Guild. "The challenge is to keep our foot firmly in the door in the way that the creative world is moving," said DGA President Michael Apted, who was surrounded by well-wishers from the moment he stepped into the reception ballroom. "There's a much bigger gap between the people who make the decisions and us," he continued.

"In the '70s, the decisions were made by the people who ran the studios. Now the studio is just a small part of a multi-national corporation. The film business is just one tiny part of it. We have to really fight to protect our creative rights, and that's one of the big issues we face."

Another of the "big issues" continues to be runaway production. Senator Olympia Snowe, honored for her legislative efforts to halt the growing loss of film and television production jobs in the U.S., received her award from actor Matt Dillon, then urged the audience to consider Frank Capra's celebrated movie classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. "Does it matter that it was filmed in the Russell Senate Building where I work rather than an office in Ottawa?" the Senator asked. "To me that's like asking would it have mattered if Monet had used a different brush stroke."

Pointing out that the DGA Feature Directing Award-winning Chicago was filmed in Toronto, Senator Snowe drew rousing applause and a standing ovation for her insistence that, in addition to jobs, art matters, too. "If there are movies that form a sense of identity and purpose within a landscape of our collective American lives, do we really want other landscapes to stand in for America?" There is "something very wrong" she noted, when Maine and neighboring Nova Scotia each have government film offices, yet Nova Scotia is netting more than $100 million in movie productions courtesy of tax credits, tax grants, tax rebates and zero interest loans.

"The biggest problem with production is that we can't compete with foreign labor costs and government incentives," Russell Hollander says. "Our crews can't work for the same rates crews work for in Bulgaria or Romania."

Calling the DGA a standard bearer for creative, workplace and economic rights in the entertainment industry and America, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney added that, "Tonight we are celebrating not only the cultural achievements that bring so much to our nation's life, but also our common values, and the still-strong struggle to create a voice for all in our economy and our society."

Location, Location, Location

Making New York more user-friendly for independent directors is the number one priority of the DGA's Independent Directors Committee East.

"I think the biggest challenge facing the IDC in New York and on the East Coast is finding ways to make it easier for low-budget films to shoot in New York," says director and DGA First Vice President Steven Soderbergh, who helped launch the IDC East in 2002 and remains active in supporting its goals.

"The foundation of the IDC is to do two things," Soderbergh explains. "To reach out to independent filmmakers and let them know that the Guild is not a monolithic organization peopled by filmmakers who don't understand what they're trying to achieve. And the other is to monitor the independent filmmakers who are in the Guild and find out what difficulties they're having as Guild members — even though, in my opinion, the DGA is the most flexible of all the guilds. If you come to them early and say, 'I've got an unusual project and it's going to require some special attention and adjustments,' they'll figure it out."

Soderbergh says the DGA Low Budget Agreement is a good example of the Guild's flexibility, but that many directors don't know enough about it. "Some of them aren't familiar with the particulars of the Low Budget Agreements and the fact that they go beyond what's published. If you're talking about a certain budget, you can go in and kind of design an agreement with the Guild that will work for your film. There have been films made — and I've made some of them — from $100,000 to $7 million. I want to make sure that we're educating our own Guild members about what's possible."

Some of that education happens on an informal basis through IDC–sponsored events, such as the "Under the Influence" series, where the director of a landmark film screens his or her work in front of an audience, then discusses it with a (usually younger) director who has been influenced by it.

Soderbergh hosted the November 9, 2003, "Under the Influence" screening at the DGA New York where director Mike Nichols discussed his making of The Graduate. (See story on page 74.) At a cocktail reception beforehand, Soderbergh spent time talking to independent director Peter Sollet, whose first film, Raising Victor Vargas (2002), was shot on location on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Sollet, who said his budget was so low he could only afford "one Teamster," has since joined the DGA.

"Victor Vargas did well for the type of film it is," says Sollet. "Very well at the box office and well in video. But I was paid very little for the making of the film, and I'll never see any residuals. My life looks and feels like it did before the movie. I have very little relationship to the success of the movie other than the opportunity to continue working and the support of the Guild in helping to make my (next) deal, collect residuals, and go to the doctor to make sure I'm healthy to make another movie."

Since becoming a DGA member, Sollet says he's been thinking about the future. "I'm starting out — I made one movie and it was less than $1 million. My concern before I joined the DGA was how does this big organization relate to me? They seem to have addressed that in advance of me raising the issue. They have been very, very generous and supportive and helpful."

New York Miracle?

While federal legislation that would provide for substantial film production write-offs is pending in Congress, the New York City Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre, & Broadcasting (MOFTB) is working with the DGA and doing what it can to attract and keep production in the Big Apple.

MOFTB Commissioner Katherine Oliver is taking an aggressive approach to "luring" more film business to the city. Since her appointment to the office in August 2000, she has made numerous trips to the West Coast to convince filmmakers to work in New York. Oliver frequently brings members of the Teamsters Union, as well as representatives from the cinematographers and hair and makeup unions along to her Hollywood meetings.

"It makes a big difference," Oliver says. "And it sends a very strong signal that our unions are willing to work with them, that they can be flexible about rates and make a project work in New York."
Additionally, MOFTB is offering discounts on all kinds of services in New York City. "We now have discounts on travel, rental cars and hotels for production teams shooting in New York," says Oliver. "We also recognize that 'talent' is a big piece of the decision-making in film and television production. If we can offer an attractive place with great amenities that appeal to the talent, they're more inclined to shoot in New York."

In fact, according to MOFTB, the number of production shooting days in New York increased in all categories in 2003 from the same period (January-June) the previous year, with commercials up 25%, feature films up 31% and television up 52%.

While MOFTB attributes the increases to the new economic upturn, Hollander surmises that the financial health of New York's film and television business may also be linked to world health. "Production in New York picked up during the SARS scare," he notes. "A lot of commercial work had left the U.S. because of the cheap Canadian dollar. People got used to shooting outside the country. But when SARS came along, people began story-boarding their commercials for New York and Los Angeles. They started shooting at home again, and, once there, they began to realize they liked shooting at home."

And shooting in homes. In an unprecedented collaboration, MOFTB has partnered with real estate company Douglas Elliman to devise an online listing of interesting and undiscovered New York locations, including many private properties.

"Location managers and producers told us they wanted interior locations with flexibility," says Julianne Cho, MOFTB's Assistant Commissioner of Communication and Business Development. The resulting service gives location managers 24-hour access to searching properties online. MOFTB hopes the savings of time and money become additional incentives for shooting in New York.

MOFTB also organized the first-ever "Entertainment Summit" held at Gracie Mansion several months ago, attended by CBS Television President Les Moonves, former ABC News' Senior Vice President of Editorial Quality Dick Wald, and Sony Corporation's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Howard Stringer, among others. The purpose of the event was to gather ideas and assess feedback about shooting in New York. "We're working hard to get a handle on where the production business is right now," Commissioner Oliver says, "so we can better market New York City."

Up to the Future

With scores of packed boxes lining the DGA hallways two days before the big move upstairs, Russell Hollander is already eyeing challenges well beyond the relocation. "For the future, we're going to continue to work very hard to develop and build new programs within the DGA. We're going to pay more attention to the basic cable world, which is primarily entertainment programming. We need to get agreements and address the needs of the people who work in those areas. Reality TV is in flux. We're in there already with a sizeable presence, so the goal is to increase our presence."

Monday morning after the move, the computers have been reconnected, the phones are working, and not one appliance in the new high-tech kitchen is blinking the foreboding "12:00." On moving day, a record-setting storm dumped eight inches of snow on Manhattan. A second storm with near-blizzard conditions dropped another five inches on the city the following day, closing airports and emptying streets of pre-holiday traffic, while meteorologists warned of more sub-freezing temperatures in the days ahead.

But the forecast from the new DGA New York offices remains the same: Clear.